Can Cook Take the Heat?

CEO Tim Cook has taken to the Apple airwaves, rebutting claims made by The New York Times and others that company indirectly contributes to worker abuse but not rejecting Foxconn as a supplier.

In a letter, published yesterday by 9to5mac, Cook wrote, “Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain. As we reported earlier this month, we’ve made a great deal of progress and improved conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers. We know of no one in our industry doing as much as we are, in as many places, touching as many people.”

I’ll address the second point first. It’s true Apple has been singled out for bad corporate behavior toward Third World workers, while companies such as Dell and H-P are equally reliant on their supply chains (often the same suppliers), yet receive far less flak. It says here Apple is getting the brunt of bad publicity for good reason. The company has struck a wholly sanctimonious tone toward those who dared criticize its leadership. It has been strident in its support of Foxconn, the biggest (in size and in number of incidents) purveyor of recorded worker abuses. Apple on any given day is the largest (by market capitalization) company in the world. If a critic wants to make a point at a company’s expense, who better than Apple? Frankly, HP and Dell have been so beset by internal management problems, attacking them for supply-chain problems seems somewhat quaint by comparison.

As for the first point (“Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain.”), the truth is Apple does not visit every one of its suppliers every year. In 2011, Apple conducted 229 audits, 100 of which were first-time audits. According to the company, 97% of Apple’s procurement expenses are from 156 vendors. Incredibly, by Apple’s own admission, the logic says it audited many of its suppliers for the first time in 2011. (Either that, or the math isn’t working out, unless Apple is churning its supply base — composed primarily of well-known companies in their respective fields — with great rapidity, or that supply base is adding new plants with even greater rapidity, because the number of first-time audits has been at or over 100 three years running.)

I commend Apple for bringing some degree of transparency to the issue. But the numbers don’t quite add up. Nor does the nagging feeling that Apple, which perhaps has no parallel when it comes to leveraging a supply chain for competitive advantage, could effect positive change at places like Foxconn and Pegatron, if only it were willing to shoulder the financial risk.

When you have $100 billion* in the bank, you can afford to stop by each of your suppliers at least once a year. And when you’re the biggest company in the world, and apparently comfortable lecturing anyone else on what they should think, then you’d better be able to handle the blowback. If Cook can’t handle the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.

*Actually $97 billion.

The Genius of Apple’s Supply Chain

A massive competitive advantage for Apple is its operations function. Specifically, its supply chain operations. Apple has a regimented core business vision — built around their supply chain.

“They have a very unified strategy, and every part of their business is aligned around that strategy,” said Matthew Davis, a supply-chain analyst with Gartner (IT), who has ranked Apple as the world’s best supply chain for the last four years, as quoted by Bloomberg/BusinessWeek in a recent story on same.

It’s well known that recently Google paid $12 billion for Motorola’s cultivated, global supply chain. That fact, combined with observations about the genius of Apple’s supply chain — genius which is apparently 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, by the way — make it clearer why a supply line could be worth so much money.

This is the world of manufacturing, procurement, and logistics in which the new chief executive officer, Tim Cook, excelled, earning him the trust of Steve Jobs. According to more than a dozen interviews with former employees, executives at suppliers, and management experts familiar with the company’s operations, Apple has built a closed ecosystem where it exerts control over nearly every piece of the supply chain, from design to retail store. Because of its volume—and its occasional ruthlessness—Apple gets big discounts on parts, manufacturing capacity, and air freight. — Adam Satariano and Peter Burrows, reporters for Bloomberg

The bottom line, according to Satariano and Burrows, is that Apple plans to double spending on its supply chain, to $7.1 billion — continuing its focus on streamlining and controlling manufacturing.

Relative to Google’s $12 billion to procure part of a new one, once again it seems to make financial sense to invest in current accounts rather than invest in new.

Excellent article on Apple’s supply chain can be found here.

Why Cook Won’t Change Apple’s EMS Recipe

New Apple CEO Tim Cook will make no changes to its outsourcing recipe.

That’s my take, based on an assessment of the iPhone maker’s balance sheet.

Cook, of course, has been named to succeed Steve Jobs, who has been fighting a particularly deadly form of cancer.

Foxconn is telling reporters the change at the top won’t impact the companies’ relationship. I couldn’t agree more. It can’t. Much like the US-China relationship, Apple needs Foxconn, and Foxconn needs Apple. Apple carries some $11 billion worth of outstanding off-balance sheet commitments for outsourced manufacturing and components, plus another $1.6 billion committed to manufacturing equipment, presumably for the Foxconn-run plants.

Why would Apple commit all that cash to equipment purchases, when it does not have the internal capacity to build product itself? Because it owns the machines in the Foxconn plant. Although Foxconn has moved much of its Shenzhen campus operations inland to take advantage of lower labor costs, rumor has it the site remains open solely for the benefit of Apple. Apple is said to pay Foxconn roughly $6 for every finished working assembly.

With demand for Apple’s iPads, iPhones, Macs and iPods cresting, it couldn’t leave if it wanted to. If anything, Foxconn is in better position to absorb the loss of Apple than the other way around.