SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The thought of Apple Inc AAPL.O without Chief Executive Steve Jobs spooks many investors, but his absence might not spell long-term disaster for the innovation machine behind the iPod and iPhone.
The issue came into focus early last week after Jobs’s gaunt appearance at a conference raised questions about the health of the man who revitalized Apple and is widely thought to be irreplaceable.
Blogs and industry watchers wondered if Jobs, 53, was suffering complications from, or a reappearance of, the pancreatic cancer cured by surgery nearly four years ago. Apple said last week that Jobs was fighting a “common bug” and was taking antibiotics.
Apple spokespersons were not immediately available on Friday to comment when asked for an update on Jobs’ health.
As valuable as Jobs is, respect for the executive team he has assembled runs high, and Apple could quickly bounce back if Jobs were to leave for whatever reason.
“Jobs has so effectively turned his charisma and personality traits into business processes of Apple that he could easily step away and the company would continue to function quite well without him,” said Leander Kahney, editor of Wired.com and author of “Inside Steve’s Brain”, a book about the Apple leader.
Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, whose laconic Southern style distinguishes him from the intense Jobs, has won praise from analysts for his firm grasp of day-to-day operations, and is thought to be a likely successor.
Jobs may be the public face of products like the iPod, but it is Apple’s top-flight design team led by Jonathan Ives that is responsible for the iconic shapes of the company’s computers and gadgets.
“Steve clearly is the voice of the company, but it would be a big mistake to state that he’s the only one driving the vision of Apple,” said Tim Bajarin, head of Creative Strategies, a consultancy.
“While Steve is still by far the most important person in the company, he has created a team of people who understand his vision for today and tomorrow and are fully capable of executing on that for three to five years,” Bajarin said.
Jobs himself has sought to downplay concerns.
“Some people say, ‘Oh God, if (Jobs) got run over by a bus, Apple would be in trouble.’ And you know, I think it wouldn’t be a party, but there are really capable people at Apple,” Jobs told Fortune magazine earlier this year.
Still, few executives are as closely linked to their companies as Jobs is to Apple, with the possible exception of Bill Gates and Microsoft Corp MSFT.O.
Last year, investment weekly Barron’s estimated that Jobs accounted for $16 billion, or 20 percent, of Apple’s market capitalization at the time, more than any other CEO.
The stock has nearly doubled over the past year, though it fell 3.1 percent on Friday to close at $175.27 amid a broad market decline sparked by worries over the financial sector and oil prices.
With that much at stake, any hint of health problems will lead to calls from investors for full disclosure. That may clash with Apple’s culture of intense secrecy: after Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the company kept quiet for nine months.
“There are specific disclosures that need to be made and this (executive health) isn’t one of them, but as a general rule a material fact can’t be misstated or withheld with the purpose of deceiving,” said Mark Klausner, a corporate governance professor at Stanford University.
“You cannot intentionally or recklessly withhold information with the intent to deceive.” Would a health issue of a company executive “fall under that”?, he asked.
Reporting by Scott Hillis; editing by Carol Bishopric
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