John Browett: Why Apple Hired Dixons' CEO to Steer Retail

  @redletterdave on January 31 2012 11:10 AM

Enigmatic tech giant Apple announced Tuesday that it has selected John Browett to be the company's new senior vice president of retail, replacing Ron Johnson, who left Apple in June 2011 to become CEO of J.C. Penney. Browett, formerly the CEO of European tech retailer Dixons Retail since 2007, will now be the lead architect of Apple's retail store strategy, including upkeep and expansion. He will report directly to Apple's CEO Tim Cook.

Our retail stores are all about customer service, and John shares that commitment like no one else we've met, Cook said in a statement. We are thrilled to have him join our team and bring his incredible retail experience to Apple.

Browett was born in 1963 in Rutland, England, and studied zoology at Magdalene College in Cambridge University, graduating with a degree in Natural Sciences. After picking up his degree and spending some time at investment bank Kleinwort Benson, he moved to America to attend the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his MBA.

After a brief stint as a management consultant, Browett joined the UK's largest retailer Tesco in 1998. In just two years, he became the company's chief executive of online operations.

I don't do lunch. I don't do conferences. We are too busy, Browett said at the time. I just don't meet people -- there is too much to do.

When it became clear that he would not replace Sir Terry Leahy as the company's CEO, Browett looked elsewhere. He was picked up by Dixons Retail in 2007, and since then he had made a good stab at repairing the chain's reputation for shoddy customer service, and improving its financial position.

Apple chose the 48-year-old Browett not only for his financial and customer service savvy, but because he's a great fit for the Apple brand. Browett is a fanatic about health and fitness, he loves music from Mozart and Madonna and he's a big fan of sailing, but more importantly, he hates the boardroom approach to business. In fact, much like Apple founder Steve Jobs did, Browett refuses to wear a suit and tie.

I am not particularly motivated by money, power, or celebrity, Browett said. I think that those things are frankly for the birds, I don't really care about them. What really drives me is if I can see I can make a difference, and I saw that I could do something different with Dixons. I did not forsee the consumer recession which we've had -- nobody did -- but are we still on plan with what we said we would do? Yes, we are.

Browett was picked because he's a great professional and cultural fit for Apple, but he will have mighty big shoes to fill. Ron Johnson, who worked as Apple's senior VP of retail since 2000, is largely seen as the driving force behind conceptualizing the service design within Apple's physical retail stores, which first debuted in 2001. Johnson was also responsible for the Apple Store's mobile checkout process and the Genius Bar.

No one came to the Genius Bar during the first years, Johnson said in a column for the Harvard Business Review. We had Evian water in refrigerators for customers to try to get them to sit down and spend time at the bar. But we stuck with it because we knew that face-to-face support was the very best way to help customers. Three years after the Genius Bar launched, it was so popular we had to set up a reservation system.

While Johnson was responsible for the way the stores worked, Jobs was the one responsible for the store's physical details, from the glass stairs to the stone used for the flooring. In case you're keeping track at home, Jobs settled on a gray-blue Pietera Serena sandstone from Il Casone, a family-owned quarry just outside of Florence, Italy.

People come to the Apple Store for the experience - and they're willing to pay a premium for that, Johnson said. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important - and this is something that can translate to any retailer - is that the staff isn't focused on selling stuff, it's focused on building relationships and trying to make people's lives better. That may sound hokey, but it's true.

Browett will be responsible for each of Apple's 361 stores worldwide.

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