The man who replaced Steve Jobs as chairman of the board

November 16, 2011, 4:01 PM UTC

Will Art Levinson change the power balance at Apple? A closer look at the new chairman

One of the first things Steve Jobs did when he returned Apple (AAPL) in 1997 was dismiss the company’s board and appoint directors more to his liking, including Genentech CEO Arthur D. Levinson.

“Jobs did not cede any real power to his board,” according to Walter Isaacson’s
Steve Jobs
. “But he did use its meetings to kick around ideas and think through strategies in confidence.”

With Jobs gone and Tim Cook as CEO, Levinson has been elevated to chairman of the board — the last position Jobs held before he died. Is Levinson the kind of chairman who will insist on powers that the board never had under the company’s co-founder?

Apple’s press release Tuesday offers a bare-bones summary of his background:

B.S. University of Washington, Ph.D. Princeton. Joined Genentech as a research scientist in 1980, served as CEO 1995-2009, chairman of the board from 2010 on. Author or co-author of 80 scientific papers, named as inventor on 11 U.S. patents. Serves on numerous boards and advisory committees, from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

His Wikipedia entry offers some personal detail and color.

He’s 61 years old, the father of two, married to the same woman for 33 years. Named one of the best managers of the year in 2004 and 2005 by BusinessWeek. Named “America’s Best CEO” in biotech for four years in a row by Institutional Investor. Rated the “nicest” CEO of 2008 with a 93% approval rating by

But we get the closest look at the role he played at Apple — and his relationship with its powerful CEO — through Isaacson’s biography.

  • When Jobs told the board about his plans to build the Apple Stores: “I’m scratching my head and thinking this is crazy,” Levinson told Isaacson. “We are a small company, a marginal player. I said I’m not sure I can support something like this.”
  • On the decision to move the Mac to the Intel architecture: “We debated it, we asked a lot of questions, and finally we all decided it needed to be done.”
  • Levinson was one of the first people Jobs told about his cancer and his decision to try alternative therapies. Levinson “pleaded every day” with him, according to Isaacson. The fights almost ruined their friendship. “You cannot solve this without surgery and blasting it with toxic chemicals,” he told Jobs. “That’s not how cancer works.”
  • On why Jobs waited 9 months to have surgery. “I think Steve has such a strong desire for the world to be a certain way that he wills it to be that way. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Reality is unforgiving.”
  • On why Jobs decided to build a cell phone. “He was always obsessing about what could mess us up.” The conclusion Jobs had come to: “The device that can eat our lunch is the cell phone. Everyone carries a phone, so that could render the iPod unnecessary.”
  • Levinson was among those pushing for Jobs to open the iPhone up to outside developers. “I called him a half dozen times to lobby for the potential of the apps.” If Apple didn’t encourage them, he argued, another smartphone maker would.
  • On the compromise Jobs hit upon: Allow outsiders to write apps, but require that they first be tested and approved by Apple. “It was an absolutely magical solution that hit the sweet spot,” Levinson says. “It gave us the benefits of openness while retaining end-to-end control.”
  • On Jobs’ decision to go after Gizmodo for buying the stolen iPhone 4: “He can react viscerally… There is an arrogance. It ties into Steve’s personality.” Such arrogance was fine when Apple was the feisty underdog, he argued, but not when Apple was dominant in the mobile market. “We need to make the transition to being a big company and dealing with the hubris issue.”
  • On Jobs’ reluctance to respond to complaints about the iPhone 4’s antenna. Jobs was in Hawaii at the time, but in “constant contact” by phone with Levinson, who urged a little humility. “Let’s try to figure out if there’s something wrong.”
  • At Jobs’ final board meeting, Levinson was one of those who spoke, according to Isaacson, praising Jobs’ diligence “in assuring that there was a smooth transition.”