Steve Jobs is Apple’s greatest asset

Apple said it had 21,600 full-time employees at the end of its 2007 fiscal year. But as far as some people who follow the company’s every move are concerned, there’s only one employee at Apple who matters.

“Apple is Steve Jobs,” Needham & Company analyst Charles R. Wolf told the New York Times last month, “and Steve Jobs is Apple.”

That point of view is not exactly out of step with the mainstream perception of Apple. For a company that sells an assortment of instantly recognizable, highly iconic products–from the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone–Apple’s most recognizable asset may be its CEO.

After all, while many chief executives enjoy a measure of stature in the business world, few can match Jobs’ pop culture cachet.

Parodied on TV shows and comic strips, Jobs enjoys a profile so high that, in many ways, he’s become synonymous with the company he runs. Product announcements aren’t framed in the context of what Apple plans to unveil but rather what Jobs himself has up his sleeve.

“The perception of Jobs that he designs products in the middle of the night and builds them during the day has served [Apple] well.” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch.

Indeed, Jobs’ notoriety gives Apple the kind of attention and press coverage that even companies larger than Apple would envy. Lots of corporations make product announcements, for example, but few can count on the blanket coverage that a Steve Jobs’ keynote will generate.

But the attention has its downsides, too. Consider this summer’s speculation about the Apple CEO’s health, which boiled over in the wake of Jobs’ gaunt appearance at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference. Even Apple’s quarterly conference call with financial analysts–normally a setting for dry questions about Apple’s supply chain and profit margins–included questions about the CEO’s health. The reason? In some people’s minds, the health of Apple and its CEO are not separate issues.

Setting aside the debate about the responsibilities of public companies to disclose the health status of their executives, it’s worth exploring the massive shadow that Apple’s most prominent employee casts over everything the company does.

Even asking the question “Can Apple survive without Steve Jobs?” is a testament to the strength of the perception that Apple’s fate rises and falls with Steve Jobs–and raises the question of whether Apple should begin debunking that idea.

“It’s more effort than it’s worth,” said Pacific Crest Securities analyst Andy Hargreaves. “People look at Steve Jobs in a lot of different ways‚ being a good CEO, being a good innovator, being the messiah. Most of those perceptions are hard to shake.”

In addition to being a labor-intensive task, busting the Steve Jobs myth might not work in Apple’s favor. “This is about one person giving a focused message and he delivers it very well,” Gartenberg said. “There are very few people that can deliver a message like Steve. Other CEOs only wish they had a fraction of the charisma that Steve has.”

Even if Apple wanted to alter the public perception about its CEO, the company would be bucking a practice that’s common throughout the tech industry. Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, notes that Silicon Valley tends to be “driven by a cult of personality.

“Apple gets appointed as some kind of a poster child for that,” Bajarin said, “but it’s not that far off from the normal culture.” He points to Scott McNealy’s tenure at Sun Microsystems or Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google as examples of other firms where the CEO has been seen as the galvanizing force behind the company. Even Bill Gates remained associated with Microsoft in the public’s mind as he began scaling back his role at the company he founded in advance of this summer’s retirement.

So the idea that the CEO of a tech company would enjoy a larger-than-life-profile is not unusual–particularly at Apple, where the CEO has always been synonymous with the company.

“It’s a cultural style issue that’s been in Apple’s DNA almost from [the company’s] beginning,” Bajarin said. “In almost every case–even with [John] Sculley, [Michael] Spindler, [Gil] Amelio, Apple CEOs emerge as the company face and the public image.”

The public image is one thing; how the company runs its day-to-day affairs is quite another. And Apple watchers agree that while there’s no doubt as to who’s in charge–“Everything has to go through Jobs,” Hargreaves said–Apple is anything but a one-man operation.

“Apple’s an [US]$18 billion company. It didn’t get there because of one man,” Bajarin said.

Included in those 21,600 employees working at Apple are a number of talented senior executives and product managers who share a common vision for what the company is about. (See Six Apple executives you need to know about.) And one of Jobs’ talents, according to Bajarin is hiring and grooming talented people who are committed to executing that vision.

“Whoever leads the company is going to have to be part of the Apple culture. You can’t come in and learn it,” Bajarin said. “To that degree, Steve’s doing a great job of building that [cultural acclimation] into his leadership staff. If Wall Street truly understood that the company is driven by both vision and execution, any impact [from a future Jobs’ departure] will be minimized.”

Jim Dalrymple contributed to this report.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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