Apple retail grabs Brit Dixons chief John Browett

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] has hired Dixons chief executive, John Browett, to run its worldwide retail operations, replacing now JC Penney CEO, Ron Johnson. He'll take a seat on Apple's executive board beside Apple's other Brit-born talent, SVP Industrial Design, Jony Ive and will report to Apple CEO, Tim Cook.

[ABOVE: "For me, service is absolutely about selling...customers absolutely want proper help in-store," Apple's new chief says in the Dixons internal video above.]

European connection

Reflecting the growing challenge finding local talent to fill the many empty seats across Silicon Valley, Browett comes to Apple from European technology retailer Dixons Retail, where he has been CEO since 2007. Beginning in April, he will be responsible for Apple’s retail strategy and the continued expansion of Apple retail stores around the world. He leads an army of 41,800 retail store staff.

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

"For me, service is absolutely about selling...customers absolutely want proper help in-store," Browett has said.

Screen_shot_2011-05-17_at_10_58_16.jpg

Are you being serviced?

At Dixons, Browett led a shift in strategy toward a more service-oriented, online retail experience. He's regarded as the: "architect of the renewal plan and the figurehead mouthpiece," said David Jeary, an analyst at Investec Securities.

The impact of this news on Dixons has been immediate. The stock this morning declined as investors considered the loss of the company's leader.

Interviewed in November last year (when previous retail chief, Ron Johnson, left Apple) the then Dixons chief talked about how he felt his company had beaten Best Buy out of the UK. When he arrived at Dixons, the company had several flaws, he explained:

"Our service wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t consistently good. But they looked at our old stores and they looked at our patchy customer service and they decided they could do better. The problem was that I had already seen that opportunity as well and we changed much faster than they expected."

[ABOVE: This is the kind of pandemonium Apple retail store openings attract -- you never got this at Dixons.]

Expansion without restraints

The retail chief will take over leadership of Apple's all-important retail arm at a time the company seeks to expand its chain into new emerging markets: he'll oversee expansion in China and Latin America, and it's possible we'll see new store openings in India and across Russia in the next 12-24 months. And, of course, European expansion continues apace.

Browett's commitment to service in the conventional sense must be quickly tempered with Apple's existing customer-focused template, stepping in the footsteps of the company's original retail architect, Ron Johnson.

Johnson's philosophy seemed pretty successful. Speaking in 2004 he described it thus: "Apple's stores have always been about being more than a store. Our goal is to be part of people's lives, so we need to locate our stores to be part of their lives."

Chatting at the opening of the first Regent Street store, Apple's lead architect, Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson told me, "This is really about people, more than things. Steve has always said he sees himself as at the nexus of technology and art, and I would add, people. We are at the point where technology, art and people meet."

Is the formula rubber-clad?

With 361 stores at last count, Apple's retail operations go from strength-to-strength, generating $6.1 billion in revenue in the just-gone quarter, up 59 percent year-on-year. The stores sold record numbers of iPhones, iPads, and Macs (1.1 million units) in the quarter. As per usual, half the Macs sold in retail stores went to customers new to the platform.

Store traffic reached new record levels with 110 million visitors compared to 76 million visitors in the year-ago quarter, an increase of 45 percent. That translates to an average of almost 22,000 visitors per store per week.

Prior to joining Dixons Retail, Browett held a series of executive positions at Tesco including as CEO of Tesco.com. Earlier in his career he advised retail and consumer goods clients at Boston Consulting Group. He holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University and an MBA from Wharton Business School.

[ABOVE: An International Contender skiff may be Browett's hobby, but I doubt he'll sail the thing across the pond.]

Away from work, Browett and his wife, Fran, (who he met while she was waitressing in Dallas), have three daughters and are refurbishing their house in Rutland. He's a keen yachtsman who captains an International Contender skiff.

Given the vital importance of Apple's retail chain, company-watchers will be waiting to see if the new boss maintains the winning formula, or changes it with an enhanced stress on sales.

In my opinion, driving staff to focus on sales rather than customer service would be a grave error.

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