Apple, Like Disney, Will Survive Death of Founder

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Drawing parallels between Apple (AAPL) and Disney (DIS) is easier than mentioning that the late Steve Jobs was the media company's largest shareholder.

Apple said Jobs, 56, died Wednesday. He was diagnosed in 2003 with a neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of pancreatic cancer, and had a liver transplant in 2009. Jobs stepped down as CEO in August after reviving the company from the brink of failure in 1998. Before returning to Apple, Jobs personally acquired a majority stake in animation studio Pixar, which was then sold to Disney. Jobs became Disney's largest shareholder, with a 7% stake.

Disney CEO Robert Iger and Steve Jobs

Jobs' death unfortunately comes at a critical time for Apple. While the company has continued to deliver updates for innovative products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad, there have been questions over whether new executive leadership can innovate, execute and connect with consumers the way Jobs famously did.

The situation is reminiscent of the struggles Disney dealt with in the mid-1960s after the death of entrepreneur and icon Walt Disney who, like Jobs, died of complications related to cancer. Just as Disney didn't survive to see the completion of his masterpiece, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Jobs will never see the release of the iPhone 4S or other rumored devices like the iPhone 5, iPad 3, or a high-definition Apple television set.

Dan Morris, manager of the Manor Growth Fund ( MNRGX), counts Apple as its largest holding with a 5.4% weighting. In drawing comparisons between Jobs and Disney, he notes the massive preparations each icon had to make in order to see their companies survive long after they did.

"In the 1960s, Walt Disney passed away as the creative company was still growing," Morris says. "He had spent a fair amount of time managing the transition. He had a strong management team that would continue his vision."

Today's edition of The New York Times argues that similarities between Apple post-Jobs and Walt Disney post-Disney should raise more caution than praise, especially now that Tim Cook, as Apple's new CEO, must delicately navigate a difficult time for the company.
Disney's executives often praised corporate decision-making by saying, "Walt would have liked it." But by the late 1970s, Disney was struggling after a string of box-office flops and was the subject of a hostile-takeover attempt. It took the hiring of Michael Eisner and other top executives in the 1980s to revitalize Disney through more aggressive investments in animated filmmaking, theme parks and stores.

Still, long-term investors argue Apple is well-positioned and could outperform, as Disney's stock has. When Disney died Dec. 15, 1965, shares of the company's stock slipped only 2% to $58.50 on an unadjusted basis, according to historical data from Yahoo! Finance. On an adjusted basis, Disney shares have rocketed by more than 28,000% from 11 cents in late 1965 to $31.82 now.

Similarly, Apple investors are sticking with the stock today. Apple shares are little changed today. That's quite a contrast to selloffs in Apple's stock when rumors swirled about the health of Steve Jobs when the former CEO took three separate medical leaves from the company. Fund manager Morris, though, isn't surprised that Apple investors haven't panicked today.

"We have followed the potential for this type of event for a couple of years, frankly. It's not something that happened in a vacuum," Morris says. "Most investors in the stock have noted this as a discussion point for a while. That's why the stock price hasn't reacted much to the actual news."

Morris founded Morris Capital Advisors and has been managing more than $100 million in client assets since 1979. He bought Apple shares long before the advent of the iPhone and even the iPod, when the company was dependent on its Macintosh line of personal computers.

"We bought it because we thought the Mac and its development would be the driver of growth. The iPod, iPhone and iPad came in after our initial thesis," Morris says.

As a long-term investor who looks out over the next three to five years, the investor says Apple is still a "buy."

"This is still one of the best attractively priced growth stocks in the sector. It's that simple," he says. "We look at earnings, cash flow, valuation over time. From that point of view, we think it's still an attractive investment at this point in time."

Morris points out that companies, especially technology giants like Apple, go through stages in development as they grow and mature. "Entrepreneurial companies need to move from the reliance on creativity to execution," he says. "Apple has gotten to a stage where execution has become more important in terms of where they ultimately go as a company. Jobs put in managers who can handle the execution side."

Flags around Apple's campus in Cupertino, Calif., have been at half-mast since the news of Jobs' death circulated yesterday. When Walt Disney died, company employees turned his office into a museum. When considering doing the same for Steve Jobs, newly minted CEO Tim Cook should want to focus more on the future than on the past.

-- Written by Robert Holmes in Boston.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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