John Browett, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, is leaving the company after just 9 months on the job, Apple announced Monday.
Browett’s departure may have been overshadowed somewhat by that of Scott Forstall, the head of Apple’s iOS division and one of an elite handful of executives formerly seen as successors to Steve Jobs.
Indeed, the news about Browett appeared towards the bottom of Apple’s press release about staff changes among the company’s executive leadership.
But Browett’s departure is a particularly significant sign for both employees and investors.
Browett was brought on at Apple in January to replace Ron Johnson, the man who helped build up Apple’s retail presence under Jobs in the 2000s before leaving to become the CEO of JC Penney. Browett was Tim Cook’s first executive hire after taking over as CEO of Apple — and this choice was widely criticized from the start.
Before joining Apple, Browett was in charge of Dixons, a technology retailer in the UK that some have described as being that country’s version of Best Buy.
When Apple announced it was hiring him, critics complained that he wasn’t the right fit for Apple’s unique retail aesthetic and strategy. Sure enough, a few months into his tenure at Apple, rumors began to come out that Browett was cutting back retail staff in an effort to boost profit margins.
Earlier in his career, Browett had made a name for himself by taking the helm of companies in tough times and helping to stabilize their profit margins, but at Apple — the world’s biggest company by market cap, and one with an incredibly high profit margin — this strategy was more of a solution in search of a problem.
Apple later denied that any retail employees had been laid off, but confessed that the company had experimented with tweaking its retail staffing levels under Browett’s leadership. In a rare admission of error, an Apple spokesperson said “making these changes was a mistake.”
This was one of the first — though certainly not the last — in a series of big blunders under Cook.
Not surprisingly it was particularly controversial among Apple’s thousands of retail employees. ifoAppleStore, a blog that tracks Apple retail news, noted in August that retail employee morale “plummeted” as a result of Browett’s efforts to tweak Apple’s retail formula — not just with staff cuts, but also by changing employee performance metrics.
Apple retail employees will likely breathe a sigh of relief at the news that Browett is leaving, though there is still the question of who will take his place. For now, Cook is in charge of retail operations — and he is already trying to show just how much he appreciates the retail employees.
“Retail has an incredibly strong network of leaders at the store and regional level, and they will continue the excellent work they’ve done over the past decade to revolutionize retailing with unique, innovative services and a focus on the customer that is second to none,” Cook said in a statement announcing the news.
“This phenomenal team of talented and dedicated people works their hearts out making our customers happy. They have our respect, our admiration and our undying support.”
For investors, however, the news might be viewed more wearily. The fact that Cook’s first big hire is leaving the company so quickly after being brought on raises questions about Cook’s leadership and vision, especially considering that no replacement has been named as of yet.
Apple, for its part, seems to be aware of this — as the company shrewdly made the announcement on a day when the stock exchange is closed due to Hurricane Sandy.
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