Tuesday, February 5, 2019, Apple Newsroom:
Angela Ahrendts Plans April Departure After Five Successful Years
That wasn't the headline, of course. It was the sub. The hed was:
Apple names Deirdre O'Brien senior vice president of Retail + People
But it was the Angela Ahrendts news that caught fire. There'd been almost no advanced word and so it caught almost everyone by surprise. And, what followed was a fascinating — and somewhat grotesque — glimpse into our collective psyche as the internet stumbled all over itself to rush out its hottest of takes about Ahrendts leaving — many absurd, reflective, projective, and in general little to do with Ahrendts and a lot to do with their own damage and frustrations.
So, what's really going on?
From Burberry to Apple
Angela Ahrendts came to Apple five years ago fresh from a hugely successful stint as CEO of Burberry. Why move from CEO to SVP, some wondered at the time? Isn't that a downgrade in power and prestige? Not when it's at Apple. In many other companies, those roles and responsibilities would be commensurate with CEO or President positions in their own right. Retail is especially enormous, with its own marketing, events, logistics, support, and the lion's share of employees at the company.
"I give them two years before they're turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake." - Bloomberg Business
And it was growing. I mean, back in the beginning, after the usual pundits dismissed the very idea in their usual doom and gloom dismissive ways — after all, Gateway and Dell had failed, how could Apple possibly succeed?
Steve Jobs found a great leader in Ron Johnson, a great consultant in former board-member Mickey Drexler of the Gap and J. Crew, built a prototype to get all the mistakes out of the way before the public set foot one into an operational store, and then began to systematically roll the stores out across the U.S. and, eventually, around the world. Well, some of the world at least.
It was a genius move. Before, Apple was fighting — and often losing — to get shelf space in big boxes and computer stores that cared not one wit about selling a Mac vs. anything else. Or, often worse, were openly hostile about them.
After, Apple had dedicated staff selling not just the Mac and iPod, but everything else Apple ecosystem as well. Not just the what but the why and how. And, while the sticker price was the same, Apple had to fork over not one sent of the sale to Sears or CompUSA.
The Browett Bungle
When Johnson left in 2011, Apple and Tim Cook experienced a brief bout of terminal miss-hiring in the form of Dixon's John Browett. Where Steve Jobs had famously said if you take care of the top line, the bottom line will take care of itself, Browett seemed very much like a bottom line guy. Turned out, you couldn't run retail like supply chain. You had to run it like design.
Lessons re-learned, had Apple turned to Angela Ahrendts to take its retail efforts to the next level. Someone who knew, in the company's grand tradition, that it's ultimately all about customer experience.
Wait, stop, don't jump on your angry comments just yet. I'll get to your rage points. Promise. Just give me a scalding hot minute first.
The Age of Ahrendts
Previously Apple Stores and Apple Online were functionally two different things. To the extent that, if you ordered something online you couldn't pick it up at your local retail location, much less return it there if anything went wrong.
Reorganizing and reconciling those two, disparate apparatuses into a single, harmonious whole, was only one of the several massive challenges that faced Ahrendts when she started.
Another was handling the Jörmungandr-like lineups that circled very Apple Store, sometimes several times, every time Apple launched a hot new product. Marketing loved them because of the publicity they generated, but they were a bad experience for customers who stood out in the cold, hoping the exact configuration they wanted wouldn't already be sold out by the time it became their turn to buy.
Today, you can pre-order any hot new product, reserve it for pickup at your local store, and return it right back if you need to.
Apple was also getting ready to launch Watch, which in addition to blending fashion and technology in a way far unlike anything the company had done before, would require try-ons and other retail situations beyond what the stores had ever offered.
Jony Ive, Apple's chief creative officer, wanted to re-design Apple Stores and, along with Apple Park, considered it important enough to step away from his day-to-day management and consumer products duties for a non-trivial amount of time just to focus on the project. The first part, in deep collaboration with Ahrendts.
Then, there was the environment and recycling programs with Lisa Jackson, and education, a passion shared with Tim Cook, and the desire to transform Apple's efforts from a few courses into the rich curriculum that's become Today at Apple.
I won't dive into all of them, their successes, their failures, their lessons learned, and their many, many challenges still to be overcome.
But, consider that now, today, you can pre-order almost all hot new products and reserve them for pickup at your local store, little to no lining up needed. Trade in your old device for a discount, take a class on how to use it and, if something is wrong, you can take it back there and exchange it or get a refund.
In addition to new and newly-redesigned stores in many more locations, new retail and support app experiences, expanded outreaches to local developer and creative talents, and the list goes on and on, it's impossible to look at what's been accomplished to date as anything less than significant.
You may have frustrations. Hell, I do. The retail experience, absent clear check-out locations, can still be bewildering for first-time customers. High-volume stores can still be clusters, where you can't even imagine walking in or getting an appointment in a timely fashion. Parts can still not be available in-store or, for new products, at all. Diagnostic and repair skill and talent can feel outsourced to depots, and overly broad and expensive. Not all stores have been updated or have all the new Today at Apple courses, not all regions even have stores, like Ireland and India, and the list goes on and on.
And yeah, that, and a lot more, simply sucks.
Some of those problems predate Ahrendts. Some were exacerbated under her watch as Apple has continued to scale at a rate that can only be properly described by a made up word like redonkulous.
And all of them, and more, now sit clearly, battle Royale-style, in the path of Ahrendts successor, Deirdre O'Brien, to tackle as she ramps up as new SVP of Retail + People.
As a 30-year veteran of Apple, O'Brien helped launch both the online and retail stores back in the day, and worked in operations under Tim Cook before becoming head of Human Resources. As such, she's perhaps uniquely qualified to continue Apple's momentum in customer experience while also shoring up many of the day-to-day frustrations that chip away and dent that experience.
There have been some concerns that this puts too much on O'Brien's plate and that, perhaps, running Apple's single biggest employee pool and being head of people puts her in a position of potential conflict.
All of Apple's SVPs are overloaded, so that's nothing new, but it is something Apple may want to address as it continues to scale. And we might see some of that, including some of the individual portfolios, continue to shift in the future like they have in the past as time passes and talent accrues.
Why Angela Ahrendts left Apple
As for Ahrendts, while I could certainly see her pop up again, even soon, ready and eager to take on another challenge at the crossroads of retail and customer experience, I also wouldn't be surprised if we don't see her pop up anywhere for a good long while.
Sometimes "spending time with your family" really is the real reason, and one no amount of money can change.
Some people have claimed that's at odd with Vogue Business running a profile on Ahrendts just a week or so ago, on January 28. That it must be a Scott Forstall, the former SVP of iOS, situation all over again.
Forstall was singularly able to interpret and implement the taste and will of Steve Jobs at an Apple suddenly bereft of Steve Jobs. That was never going to abide. Ahrendts, on the other hand, collaborated beautifully with Ive, Cook, and others.
But, nature abhors a vacuum, and a bad hot take can go viral on twitter before the truth can hit its send button, so an incredible amount of callous, thoughtless, bunk has been written about Apple and Ahrendts over the last couple of days a swell.
No, she didn't get fired because of China or because of XR promos or sales, or because of anything else. No, she didn't quit because she was being passed over for the CEO gig or because of any toxicity in Apple's culture or for any of the other stupefyingly dense fanfic reasons the rest of us have had to read since Tuesday. All of which, let's just point out again, reflect and project only the specific frustrations and damage of the hot taker, never the hot takee.
So, why did Ahrendts leave Apple?
Michael Steeber, writing for 9to5Mac:
According to sources familiar with the matter, Ahrendts indicated in a team message that she may plan to step back from day-to-day management and lead a quieter life rather than take the reins of another company following her departure.
As usual, Steeber knows of what he writes.
From Instagram, by the author of the Vogue profile:
From Vogue France:
"I plan to take the summer off," said Ahrendts, who declined to disclose what type of job she'd be interested in next. She said she plans to enjoy some traveling before making any new commitments. On her agenda are a Rwanda mission and visiting two of her children in London. Ahrendts said that throughout her marriage, her husband has constantly been moving with her to London and then San Francisco, and now it's time for him to get a turn.
Often times "spending time with your family" or more aptly or comedically, you decide, "spending time with your money", are just excuses to save face and cover up bad breakups. And sometimes, something happens that makes you realize you have enough money but you'll never have any more time with your family, and you start considering how to change that equation as best and as fast as you can.
Ahrendts' Next Act
I've had the pleasure of chatting briefly with Angela Ahrendts a couple times during the informal aftermaths of Apple events. The first time was the opening of the Union Square Apple Store, which kicked off the new design and Today at Apple program.
She started off telling everyone there that she really didn't like public speaking but was willing to address us there, that day, because of how deeply she believed in the Today at Apple and associated projects.
Her passion for Apple Stores as community hubs was palpable. She cared enough about it to get up on the Apple keynote stage — one of the biggest stages — several times over the years, to help give it the spotlight she felt it deserved.
Seriously, Jony Ive famously doesn't like the stage either and when's the last time you saw him on it? She did that for Apple and Retail.
And now she's done. At least for now.
Who knows? Bob Mansfield came back from his castle to run Titan. Maybe Angela Ahrendts can be wooed back to launch the showrooms… or maybe she'll just get one for the next road trip. Or maybe that's just my nod at the fanfic.
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