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How Tim Cook Brags About Apple’s Success Without Giving Too Much Away

Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the China Development Forum in BeijingApple CEO Tim Cook attends the China Development Forum in Beijing
Apple CEO Tim Cook Thomas Peter REUTERS

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s predecessor, Steve Jobs, wasn’t fond of talking to Wall Street analysts. And on the rare occasions Jobs did show up for a quarterly earnings call, it was usually to attack rivals.

Thus, even before becoming CEO, Cook, as one of Jobs’ underlings, had to explain Apple’s strategy and results to investors. Lacking Jobs’ gift for the zinger, in his nearly six years as CEO, Cook has instead developed his own lingo— his own code.

The goal seems to be to give analysts a smidgen of information to incorporate evidence into their financial reports that Apple is succeeding. But Cook and other executives always seem to draw a line to avoid giving away too much real information that may help competitors figure out how Apple is really doing.

Tuesday evening’s call with analysts for Apple’s fiscal second quarter results, was loaded with plenty of Cook-isms. Lately, one of his new favorite techniques is using other companies in the Fortune 500 as a measuring stick.

For example, Cook on Tuesday repeated a claim he’s made before that Apple’s growing services business, which encompasses everything from music and video sales to online storage and app sales, is growing so quickly that its revenue will soon equal that of a Fortune 100 company.

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In fact, Apple may have already reached that milestone. For the past two quarters, services revenue has exceeded $7 billion, or $28 billion annually if that rate continues. The 100th-largest company in the Fortune 500 by revenue is insurer Northwestern Mutual, which had just over $28 billion of revenue.

Why Cook uses the Fortune 100 measuring stick instead of just saying $28 billion of revenue, no one knows for sure. Perhaps it sounds more impressive to the MBA-trained exec (For the record, Apple itself ranks third, behind only Exxon Mobile and Walmart).

On Tuesday, Cook offered another Fortune reference, though this time in a somewhat more convoluted formulation. The CEO said that sales of Apple’s watch, AirPod earphones, and other Beats-branded earphones brought in as much revenue over the past year as a Fortune 500 company. In a second reference, he said the total was “well into” the Fortune 500.

Apple’s wearable sales, therefore, equals the revenue of another sort of wearables company, Burlington Stores (BURL). The coat maker had revenue of just over $5 billion to rank No. 500 in the Fortune 500. Analyst Jan Dawson estimated Apple wearable revenue may reach $6 billion, equal to the revenue of No. 430 on the Fortune list, LifePoint Health.

Aside from the Fortune 500 measuring stick, Cook seems to have adopted the tactic used by Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos to report the size of increases in various businesses, without reporting the actual dollar amount of the increases.

Revenue in the App Store was up 40% last quarter while Apple Music sales were up double-digit percentages, Cook said. Over the last 12 months the amount of Apple Pay transactions increased 450%. At another point, Cook said sales of the Apple Watch by unit had more than doubled in six of the company’s 10 top markets without revealing which countries were included.

It’s all very interesting and it can certainly be used in a Wall Street analyst’s report to make a case for Apple (AAPL). But it’s not exactly what Cook’s professors back at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business might demand from students analyzing a company’s value.