While the prevailing opinion on Wall Street seems to be that Steve Jobs is staying put as CEO of Apple (AAPL) - Get Report despite a lingering stock-options probe, the snowballing prosecutions for corporate backdating prompt the question of how the company would fare if Jobs were no longer in charge.
Apple has said that Jobs
knew of backdated option grants but "was unaware of the accounting implications," and an internal investigation cleared him of misconduct.
Still, according to media reports, he's been questioned by authorities at the
Securities and Exchange Commission
, and the investigation by federal authorities is ongoing.
With such questions still swirling, some wonder about the possible downside of leaning so heavily on one person to drive the company's success -- and what
the Jobs-friendly board is doing to prepare for the possibility of losing its star pitchman.
At other companies in which options were manipulated, boards of directors haven't wasted time in showing chief executives the door. But Jobs is a whole different animal.
"Steve Jobs is Apple's No. 1 asset," says Jim Post, professor of management at Boston University. "A great deal of
Apple's market valuation is tied up with Jobs' presence and his role."
If Jobs were to be charged with securities fraud, Post predicts the stock would take a 25% hit. Apple shares closed Thursday trading at $89.51, gaining 31 cents. The stock has remained somewhat range-bound in the past three months.
Well-run company boards should be thinking about and planning for succession all the time -- and it's doubly important for a company that's heavily associated with one person, some say.
, for example, has appeared to weather a change in leadership without taking a dramatic hit to its shares or to the perception of its future prospects.
Apple observers say that while there is a perception that the company would fall apart without Jobs, it's unlikely.
"Investors can actually become familiar with transitions even with companies that have great and storied executives," says Chirag Vasavada, an investment analyst with T. Rowe Price, which holds Apple shares.
Investors would have an initial emotional reaction if Jobs were to leave, but "stocks ultimately move around their fundamental value," he says. "If Jobs leaves, it's not necessary that Apple falls apart. The perception might be that."
Still, it seems prudent to some investors that the company consider not putting all its focus on Jobs.
"We'd like to see more visible leaders within Apple," says Jim Grossman, an equity analyst with Thrivent Asset Management, which holds Apple shares.
"Their secrecy makes people think that Steve Jobs is the only brilliant guy
at Apple," Grossman says. "There are a lot of smart people working there.
"It's not just him, but he is a big deal."
Vasavada says that he's met some of Jobs' lieutenants, and they're intelligent and capable people. COO Tim Cook, for one, participates in quarterly earnings calls and investor meetings while Jobs does not.
"If you have more people exposed to analysts and investors, you have a deeper bench," says Standard & Poor's equity analyst Richard Stice, who does not own Apple shares and his firm does not do banking.
Of course, a lot of Apple's success is credited to Jobs' salesmanship and promotion, so adding another person to the formula could divert attention from the chief salesman, Stice says. "I don't think Apple would let people know that they would earmark a successor," he says.
Whether or not Jobs is implicated for backdating options, some Apple watchers say that the company is likely preparing for that possibility.
Jobs has temporarily stepped aside before. In 2004, Apple's chief had surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor and took time off to recover. In his stead, sales and operations head Tim Cook ran the company.
Boston University's Post, who teaches corporate governance and ethics, believes that charges will be brought against Jobs.
"The backdating practices -- both the rationale and the process of doing the backdating -- that whole pattern hasn't been explained satisfactorily," Post says.
"What we know at this point is that Jobs knew backdating was a questionable practice; he deliberately acted to backdate the options
and people benefited from that," he says. "You've got that intentional action that produces a windfall for some lucky people -- friends and associates of Steve Jobs -- and a loss for people who weren't," Post says.
"That's what the securities laws are there to protect against."
A lot of people want the company to be cleared, says Post, but Jobs doesn't appear to have "much inclination" of helping the process.
When asked about the possibility of Jobs' departure, Apple spokesman Steve Dowling reiterated that "the board has expressed its complete confidence in Steve and senior management."
Apple has said it is fully cooperating with the SEC.
Nevertheless, Apple's brash comments in filings that seem to thumb its nose at the seriousness of the backdating charges. Its recent 10-Q filing reads: "The resolution of these matters will be time consuming, expensive, and will distract management from the conduct of the company's business."
In other words, the investigations are a nuisance and keep Apple from making "insanely great" products.
In the meantime, investors will wait for news of an options resolution -- and how the Jobs-as-savior strategy will play out.