Who is Apple’s new retail boss, and what will he do?

Tim Cook has made his first major appointment since taking the reins at Apple, bringing in the head of British technology retailer Dixons, John Browett. He comes in to fill the gap left by the departure of Ron Johnson, the man who spent a decade building the Apple Store into a force to be reckoned with.
To say that Browett inherits a big job is an understatement. Apple’s retail strategy has been phenomenally successful over the past decade — responsible for $14 billion in sales in 2011, according to the company’s most recent results — and the company scoured the globe and waited several months to find somebody.
Immediate reaction to the news was intriguing, because it was split down the middle. On one side were those who read Browett’s credentials and the PR puffs. To them, it looks as if Apple has just hired a man who has succeeded at most things he’s tried, and spent the last five years steering a large retail business with more than 1,200 stores through a difficult period for the economy.
On the other hand, for those who know Dixons as it exists in the real world, the reaction was somewhat different: the most common refrain I saw was “Has Tim Cook ever been in a Dixons store?”.

Dixons operates two major store brands — Currys and PC World — and a number of online outlets, and their approach probably puts them somewhere in the region of Radio Shack and Best Buy. They are not widely loved by the public. And while it’s fair to say that Browett inherited a troubled company and improved its offerings to ordinary shoppers, he has also presided over a calamitous 90 percent fall in its share price over the last five years.

But Apple is standing by its choice, with Cook suggesting that “our retail stores are all about customer service” and Browett “shares that commitment like no one else we’ve met.”
So perhaps it’s worth asking who Browett actually is.
Let’s take a look at the evidence to try and understand what he might do at Apple.
First, he comes with serious academic chops, with degrees from Cambridge University (albeit in zoology) and an MBA from Wharton. In this Retail Week profile from 2009, he is called “affable and intellectual”, and a fierce advocate of good customer service who prides himself in knowing the ins and outs of every product on sale:

A tour of a PC World or Currys store with him reveals a schoolboy enthusiasm for talking at length about the technology behind flatscreen TVs.
On another occasion, he revealed his hands-on nature when a disgruntled customer barged into a back room after realising who Browett was. He leapt to his feet and attended to the customer.

It’s not quite on a par with the late night email habits of Steve Jobs, but this is the sort of detail that Apple will love. They will also like his reputation for driving very, very hard deals with suppliers: Browett is known for trying to extract every last ounce of value from a deal.
Meanwhile, in a Guardian profile published in 2007, just as he was about to take over at Dixons, a friend is quoted as saying that Browett is not the sort to rant and rave.

“He’s more measured, and more democratic – but not too much of a democrat.” The new DSG boss was “full of enthusiasm in a low-key, measured way” when they spoke last night, according to Mr Hyman. But the group could be in for a shake-up, Mr Hyman believes, saying: “You don’t hire John Browett if you’re not looking for some quite important strategic changes.”

This suggests his personal style is likely to fit with Cook’s own approach — but it is the last part that interested me the most: he is the sort of man who wants to have a strategic impact, wherever he goes.
Why is this particularly interesting? Because of the other businesses he’s linked to.
Browett cut his teeth with Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer and a dominant force in British supermarket retailing. He was the man responsible for building Tesco’s online presence, creating a leading web-based grocery outlet and delivery service, and he also expanded the company’s ranges way beyond food.
He’s also been on the board of EasyJet, the low-cost airline that became famous for its cheap and cheerful approach to flying, for the past five years. Things have been pretty good at the company recently, but it is locked in a battle with the founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who has publicly attacked the company’s directors for what he sees as greed. The board is trying to push through a pay deal that would grant directors substantially more cash than they currently receive.
Both Tesco and EasyJet are companies that seem to come from a very different place than Apple. They both built their reputations through being cheap, aggressive and expansionist. Of course, they pay attention to customer service — but they also achieve highly variable results.
Customer service review site Trustpilot ranks both companies as “acceptable” — Tesco with 6.6 out of 10 and EasyJet with 6.4. Dixons, meanwhile, gets just 4 out of 10: by comparison, Apple scores an 8.
At this stage it’s hard to know what this all means for Apple’s retail strategy. But take a look inside a PC World store and you see that it’s much closer to a pile-em-high approach of Tesco than the pared back approach that Apple prides itself on. The question is whether Browett’s smarts will simply be subsumed into Apple’s existing approach, or whether his instincts for squeezing value out of the lower end of the market will start to dribble into the company.

Photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user cpchannel