The fact that Apple has boosted its market value by nearly $300 billion in Jobs' absence is really a testament to a management team that has learned to "stay the course." In fact, much of Apple's success in 2012 is attributable to plans and goals laid down by Jobs several years ago.
Analysts expect Apple to boost sales another 24% in the fiscal year that just began this week, to an eye-popping $194 billion. Projected sales gains are solely attributable to new levels of success for the iPhone and the iPad, along with the rumored launch of an Apple-based television set -- another Jobs concept.
Of course, new CEO Tim Cook has a large staff of engineers to help keep Apple on the cutting edge, but the company's product development labs aren't quite as large as you might think. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), for example, with more than $5 billion in annual Research & Development spending, has twice the engineering budget as Apple. Instead, Apple tends to focus its resources on marketing and brand building.
That's a path followed -- with great success -- by firms like Coca-Cola (KO) and McDonald's (MCD). Notably, these firms continued to simply execute the visions of Asa Candler and Ray Kroc, who created great buzz for Coke and Mickey D's when those businesses were launched.
Yet it's also important to heed the lessons of other companies and see how they fared after the baton was passed from a charismatic leader to a team of department heads. Often times, the transition from an entrepreneurial operating environment into a mature steady-as-she-goes enterprise can prove quite bumpy.
Just ask the Ford family.
When Henry Ford passed away in 1947, his heirs got off to a terrific start. World War II had only recently ended and returning GI's made a beeline for car dealerships. That helped Ford (NYSE:F) and GM (NYSE:GM) to repeatedly set sales records throughout the 1950s and they pushed their brands into dozens of new markets around the globe.
Yet the strong sales growth at Ford masked an underlying problem: The automaker no longer sought to sharply innovate and grow content to peddle mass-market vehicles that became undifferentiated in the market place. That set the stage for a long decline, not necessarily in terms of sales, but surely in terms of profits. The Ford family grew content to simply reap big dividends from their stock ownership and lost sight of an increasingly bloated operation.
Fast-forward to 2005 and Ford would be on the cusp of four straight years of operating losses. How bad did it get? By 2006, when the auto industry was seemingly booming on the back of an economic bubble (that eventually crushed the housing and auto markets), Ford generated just $3.4 billion in gross profits on $160 billion in global sales. And as Henry Ford would have noted were he alive today, 2% gross margins are miserable -- in any industry.
A $16 billion operating loss that year eventually led to a deep management shake-up, and new management led by CEO Alan Mulally has Ford back on top of the industry. Though sales fell to $136 billion by 2011, Ford squeezed out $19.3 billion in gross profits and an impressive $7.6 billion in operating profits. When the economy re-strengthens, Ford is likely to post record levels of profitability. But the company has to undergo a traumatic change before that can happen.
Even in the consumer electronics biz, Apple investors have reason for concern. This is an industry known for once-hot brands that eventually grew cold. Sony (NYSE:SNE) failed to ride the success of its Walkman to leadership in the iPod era; Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) once dominant role in the cellphone industry has been eclipsed by Apple and Google; and Nintendo's Wii was a must-have product just a few years ago. But not anymore.
Action to Take --> This doesn't mean Apple will soon be in trouble. It means only that the stunning rise in its stock -- after Jobs' passing -- shouldn't necessarily be seen as a harbinger of even better days to come. Indeed, Apple's new management team has little margin for error and will need to keep delivering home-run products if the always-hungry competitors are to remain at bay.