Apple's Hiring of an Outsider is Out of Character
Earlier this week, Tim Cook announced the hiring of John Browett to replace Ron Johnson as the Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple. After spending more than 10 years at Apple, building the world's most successful retail chain from scratch, Johnson was appointed CEO at JC Penney with the difficult task of turning around one of the country's most well-known department stores.
Johnson announced his departure from Apple in June of 2011 and by August Apple's recruiters were in full-swing looking for a replacement. Curiously, for a company where nearly the entire executive team is home-grown, reports emerged that Apple was using executive search-firm Egon Zehnder to assist with finding the perfect candidate. The Wall Street Journal reported that Steve Jobs, at the time still on medical leave, was intimately involved in the decision to hire an outside firm "mainly because he wants to consider executives who are based abroad."
The entire executive team at Apple, aside from the just-hired Browett and Bruce Sewell, Apple's general counsel, has been with the company for more than 10 years. Aside from the general counsel position, Apple's leadership team has remained fairly consistent through the second Steve Jobs era.
Of nearly two dozen current and former executives, only a bare handful were hired from outside the company rather than being promoted from within, and only one -- general counsel Bruce Sewell -- is still with the firm. Apple's most famous crash-and-burn external hire was that of Mark Papermaster, a long-time IBMer who was hired by Apple in 2008 as Senior Vice President for Devices Hardware Engineering. After a lengthy court battle with IBM over a non-compete clause he had signed, he was put in charge of the teams behind the iPod and iPhone, and presumably the early development of the iPad as well.
He was in charge of the division that created the iPhone 4, and Papermaster's departure would seem to be that of an executive who fell on his sword over perceived issues with Apple's flagship product. However, Adam Lashinsky's book Inside Apple notes that there was more to it than a simple product miscue. Papermaster's years at IBM left him ill-prepared for the aggressive corporate culture at the top of Apple.
Steve Jobs was on medical leave when Papermaster, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed, started at Apple. By the time Jobs returned, the word on Papermaster was that he wasn't fitting in. He wasn't seen as fighting hard for his division, a requisite internally. "Papermaster is a really nice guy, proverbially the guy you'd want to have a beer with," said someone who interacted with him during his time at Apple. "He is warm, patient, and willing to listen--just not the right qualities for Apple. It was so painfully obvious to everyone." It was said that when he came back to work, Jobs paid little attention to Papermaster, meaning the new executive had achieved "bozo" status in the founder's exacting judgement."
Inside Apple is full of tales of the unique culture at Apple, such as the lack of profit-and-loss reports for individual divisions, like those that exist at most large companies. Apple's idiosyncratic culture and the complete lack of external hires at the top -- plus the short life-spans of those that have been tried -- mean John Browett, currently the CEO of European technology retailer Dixons Retail, could be in for a bumpy ride.
From both Apple's press release announcing the move and an email Tim Cook sent to an Apple customer about Browett's hire, it's clear that Apple is not hiring Browett for his experience at Dixons. Browett's hire has raised some concerns from Apple fans because of poor shopping experiences at the different retailers he was in charge of. Instead, Cook is hiring Browett for his enthusiasm for amazing customer service -- something Apple puts a lot of stock in -- as well as his international expertise.
John Browett is Tim Cook's first major hire as CEO, and a lot of analysts and Apple fans will be watching to see how it plays out. Though it is likely Steve Jobs had extensive input on the process both before he resigned as CEO and before he passed away, Tim Cook is indisputably in charge.
The first Apple Store opened in 2001, more than 10 years ago. Apple Retail's second 10 years are called the "decade of significance" within the company. It seems likely that retail will continue to be Apple's most noteworthy corporate initiative -- showcasing both the brand and its products to millions of visitors a week -- and John Browett, a complete outsider, is Apple's choice to run it.