Apple Reaches To UK For New Retail Chief

January 31, 2012

Ending a six-month international search for someone with the necessary skills and enthusiasm to carry Apple’s retail stores through its next 10 years, the company announced late Monday that it has appointed John Browett as Sr. vice-president of the Retail segment. Browett, 47, is a British citizen who is CEO of Dixons Retail plc, a UK-based electronics retailer. He graduated from Cambridge University (UK), and also attended The Wharton School, a graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, variously ranked as the #1 business school in the United States. His appointment will test whether someone from another style of retailing can adopt Apple’s culture and philosophy of product sales and customer service. More importantly, Browett’s appointment will largely determine the path of Apple retail at a crticial period in its evolution: 10 years and growing internationally, with crowded Genius Bars and pressures on customer service quality.

Browett replaces the first and only leader of Apple retail, Ron Johnson, who resigned last November to become CEO of JC Penney. Johnson was a tireless force that not only tackled the business side of retail, but who also challenged almost every retail tradition related to store design and architecture, and customer service. His style and philosophy of business was a perfect match to Apple’s design-oriented focus, and he was never without enthusiasm for the retail operation. Observers of Apple retail will be looking for that same enthusiasm from Browett.

Browett began his business career in 1993 with the Boston Consulting Group, a Boston-based business strategy company. He moved to Tesco PLC in 1998, where he held a series of senior roles including Operations Development Director, Chief Executive of and Group Strategy Director. He joined the firm DSG International in 2007, which was later renamed to Dixons Retail plc. It’s not know if he interviewed with Steve Jobs before Jobs died last October.

When he left Tesco, Browett was Operations Development Director, and had roles in improving customer service and operational efficiencies, and on store redesigns and back-office procedure updates. When he joined Dixons in 2007, a financial analyst said, “You don’t hire John Browett if you’re not looking for some quite important strategic changes.”

Dixons has 1,200 multi-branded stores in 12 European and Scandanavian countries, including the more well-known PC World and Currys stores. Dixons operates several stores beyond Apple retail’s territory, including the Czech Republic, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. Dixons abandoned retail operations in Spain and wrote off certain operations in Greece during 2011. There are about 38,000 employees in the chain.

In contrast to Apple’s up-ticking retail chain, Browett joined Dixons as the company’s financials were headed downward. Over his last five years, company revenues have stabilized somewhat. However, continuing competition from on-line and brick-and-motar retailers, 2010/2011 revenues were down two percent from the previous year, and the previous year’s loss doubled. Dixons’ stock shares dropped 51 percent during calendar 2011, and December holiday sales were down five percent. But the stock price has rebonded since January 1st, up 43 percent on Dixons’ forecast of a profit in the next financial period.

Browett has focused on remaking Dixons over his past five years, most recently redesigning the stores’ interior and architecture. He has also introduced consolidated Currys/PC World stores that combine electronics and “electricals”—washing machines, vacuums and other household machines.

Ironically, one of Dixons primary competitors in the UK was Best Buy, a company with which Browett will now have to cooperate in his new role as Apple Sr. V-P. Last November Best Buy abandoned its big-box, U.S.–like stores in the UK, preferring to focus on selling from smaller stores. In the U.S., Best Buy is an important Apple authorized retailer, and participates in the store-within-a-store project.

Last November Browett told that Best Buy was never a serious threat to Dixons. He said of his own company, “Our service wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t consistently good. But (Best Buy) 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.”

Dixons sales techniques vary greatly from Apple’s, according to several Web postings that describe “The Fives” method. Read more about the sales technique and watch Browett describe it in a video.

Browett will step down from Dixons’ board on February 20, 2012 and will leave the company on April 20th. It’s assumed that he will move to the Cupertino (N. Calif.) area.

It’s not known if Browett is a Mac or Windows PC user.

Update: A fan of Apple emailed CEO Tim Cook to express his apprehensions about Browett. Cook allegedly emailed back, “I think you will be as pleased as I am.” Read Tony Hart’s account of the email.

  • View a comparison chart of Dixons and Apple stock price from mid-2010.
  • Read about Dixons’ business model
  • Dixons’ annual report (pdf) for 2010/2011 provides more details and a flavor for the company’s operations
  • In June 2011 Browett gave a presentation (pdf) to the company on his plans for bringing Dixons back to profitability

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