Apple reaches top of the world – but will it stay there?

 
Steve Dinneen
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LAST week Apple achieved what even a year ago seemed all-but impossible – it became the biggest company in the world. In shuffling, albeit briefly, past oil giant Exxon Mobil, it joined an ultra-exclusive club of just 10 companies to have held the top spot in the history of the S&P 500.

And unlike most of its peers, its success can be attributed almost in its entirety to one man: its talismanic, inscrutable, often belligerent leader Steve Jobs. Apple's and Jobs' fortunes are inextricably intertwined; from its near collapse after he was forced off the board in 1984 to its meteoric rise upon his return in 1997.

It's now worth $358bn. It has a higher operating cash balance, at $76.4bn, than the US government, which has just $73.7bn. To put that into perspective, Apple could have provided well over half of last year's €85bn bailout of Ireland without even having to take a trip to the bank.

But Jobs isn't only Apple's greatest asset – he's also its greatest liability. Since battling pancreatic cancer in 2004 and undergoing a liver transplant five years later, his health is as big an issue to investors as the latest version of the iPad. If he is careless enough to sneeze in public, Apple sees billions knocked from its value – hardly the most ringing endorsement for his heir-apparent and stand-in chief executive Tim Cook. Couple this with persistent rumours of chief designer Jony Ive's hankering for a return to the UK, and you have the beginnings of a serious problem.

Lessons from other former S&P 500 toppers suggest investors are right to worry. Around the time Bill Gates stepped down as Microsoft chief executive just over a decade ago, it was worth up to $560bn. Six years later its stock was worth less than half that. IBM and Cisco suffered similar fates, riding high, only to lose their direction and become marginalised by smaller, nimbler rivals.

Jobs' rare genius has dragged Apple on a roller-coaster ride. When he took it public in 1980, it raised more capital than any other float in history, creating a then-record number of millionaires in the process, a feat only bested this year with the flotation of commodities giant Glencore.

The company's fate after his departure four years later is now infamous – by the early 1990s it was almost broke, its value consisting almost exclusively of cash and property. Without Jobs, Apple had become a sprawling mess, licensing its software to third parties and releasing a string of unimpressive machines – a far cry from Jobs' narrowly-focussed, vertically integrated company.

Jobs, on the other hand, used the time to co-found animation firm Pixar, snapped up years later by Disney in a deal that earned him $4bn worth of stock. He also started software company NeXT, which built what became the first version of Apple's OS X operating system and was deemed so indispensable that Apple eventually bought the firm, heralding Jobs' return.

The Cupertino-based company’s biggest challenge now, if it is to avoid the fate of Microsoft, IBM and Cisco, is to map a succession path to without destroying its value. Jobs says the Apple spirit is infused in every employee. The question is: will that be enough?