Why Jeff Williams is Apple’s unsung hero

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The man described by Fortune as
The man described by Fortune as "Tim Cook's Tim Cook" Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac
Photo: Apple/Cult of Mac

Coming off a record-breaking financial quarter — largely thanks to the astonishing success of the iPhone 6 — it’s worth asking who Apple owes its present success to.

While everyone is quick to mention the usual suspects (Tim Cook and Jony Ive being two of the most prominent), a name you don’t hear bandied about so much is Jeff Williams. He’s Apple’s operations whiz, the VP whose job it is to make sure products get manufactured, shipped and delivered on time, and with the highest possible standards.

Ever wonder how Apple was able to go from shipping 10 million iPhones in the whole of 2008 to 74 million in the past quarter alone, without missing a beat? That would be Jeff Williams, the guy Fortune once called “Tim Cook’s Tim Cook.”

Here’s why he deserves your respect — and the $24.5 million he took home last year.

Like Cook, Williams joined Apple in 1998, having previously worked at IBM and scored an MBA from Duke. Initially his job at Apple was head of worldwide procurement, although six years later he was named the company’s new vice president of operations, a job similar to the VP of worldwide sales and operations role Cook held before being shunted up the chain of command.

Like Cook, Williams is a fitness fanatic who keeps his personal life quiet, avoids the public spotlight much of the time, and is deeply admired by colleagues. As with Cook, he doesn’t flaunt his success: He reportedly drove a beat-up Toyota for years after being promoted to a high-paying management position. While this isn’t by any means a measure of an Apple exec’s visibility, he wasn’t mentioned once in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.

Not only was Williams deeply involved in Apple’s move into the mobile world with the iPhone, he’s also in charge of making sure the Mac and iPad get made and shipped, while currently leading the charge for the Apple Watch.

Here’s John Gruber writing about him at Daring Fireball:

“First, in terms of iPhone operations and considering nothing else, Jeff Williams has clearly done an amazing job. Apple sold a record 74 million iPhones last quarter, and though the company doesn’t break that down by models for competitive reasons, everyone knows that a huge chunk of those were the brand-new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. They were supply-constrained on both models, particularly the 6 Plus, but only by a few weeks. Operationally Apple did an incredible job meeting demand for iPhones — they sold more than ever but were less supply-constrained than in the last few launch quarters … All credit to the hardware, software, and product marketing teams for the fact that 74 million people wanted to buy an iPhone last quarter. But the credit goes to Williams’s operations team that there were 74 million units available to sell.”

And here’s Neil Cybart, over on Above Avalon:

“One thing became abundantly clear after analyzing Apple’s recent earnings report: Jeff Williams is doing a phenomenal job. As senior vice president of Operations, Williams is tasked with making sure the Apple machine is well-oiled and in tip-top shape, not only capable of producing more than 100 million iOS devices in a quarter, but building flexibility into the system to handle annual hardware updates that would make most hardware companies quiver with fear. I considered Jeff Williams as Tim Cook’s successor before Cook finished his first day as CEO, and I feel even more confident about that today. Regardless of what the future brings, people need to start watching Jeff Williams because he is executing at levels that few are able to achieve.”

While Tim Cook in all probability is not going anywhere in the next decade, there’s no doubt that if Apple was to consider a new CEO, Williams’ name would be one of those up for discussion. And, as you can see, for very good reason.