As you are probably aware, Ron Johnson was recently sacked as CEO of JC Penney. The man often credited with inventing the Apple Store was clearly not a match for the clothing retailer, and that’s why, understandably, he had to go. His philosophy clashed big time with the ultra-discount, low-tech one of JC Penney, and in hindsight, you wonder if it was worth him even going there in the first place.
Meanwhile, in Cupertino, when in comes to retail, Apple really hasn’t covered itself in glory over the past twelve months either. The man they chose to replace Johnson, John Browett, would have been, ironically, more suited to JC Penney. The British exec was head of U.K. retail firm Dixons, parent company of PC World/Currys, a chain of discount tech stores. Just as Johnson wasn’t a match for JC Penney, Browett wasn’t a match for Apple.
Once hired, Tim Cook took longer than he should have to recognise his mistake. Discontent between Browett and Apple employees started to brew, and eventually came to a boiling point, which was one of the main reasons Tim Cook ate humble pie and showed him the door. ‘He was the best by far’, Cook said of Browett at the time of his hiring. Oops.
Now that you’re up-to-date, let’s jump back to today. Johnson is a free agent. Browett is at some fashion company somewhere, not that anyone cares. However more importantly, since sacking Browett at the end of October, Apple has been somewhat coy about naming a replacement. It seems that despite much searching, they haven’t found the right guy. Well, in this case, waiting has paid off. The legendary creator of Apple’s retail empire is now looking for a job, and Apple really can’t turn him down. Here’s why.
Ron Johnson is Apple through and through. His high-tech, fixed-price philosophy was as a result of being at Apple the first time around with Steve Jobs at the helm. Unlike any other candidate, Johnson will just slip right in. There’s no worry about adaptation, not knowing the company.
This is a guy that worked there during Apple’s rise, through the early 2000s, and knows how the company works. More than that, he embodies the philosophy that Steve Jobs formed for the company. That is Johnson’s most unique attribute.
You want retail experience? Johnson’s got it, and then some. You can’t really find a much better SVP than ‘the guy who co-invented the Apple Store’. He knows how everything operates, the ins and outs of retail more generally.
However it goes even further. In terms of experience, the JC Penney saga is something that would absolutely benefit Apple to know about. Johnson’s been at the head of a failing company for the last twelve months. Apple’s share price has also almost halved over the course of the last few months. Johnson’s now been in a sticky situation. As such, he’s especially well positioned to offer Tim Cook advice on how to handle Apple’s present situation.
For me at least, this is probably the most important reason he should come back. I’m fully aware this is a touchy area of contention between the ‘Apple can’t manage without Steve Jobs’ clan and the ‘Apple is doing better than ever clan’, so I’ll proceed carefully.
Tim Cook is undeniably a logistics and behind-the-scenes type of guy. When he was COO, barely anyone knew who he was. He didn’t take keynotes, he wasn’t in the public eye. Now he is.
That’s not his natural habitat, and while he’s adjusting, I do think a bit of help on the product side, analysing what’s needed, and thinking not about what customers want, but about what customers don’t know they want, is what’s needed. It is something Jobs was the master at. I would argue that because of Cook’s nature and job title COO, and Johnson’s more general approach and job title as head of retail, the latter has a better nose for what’s needed on the product side, and took more from Jobs in terms of thinking about new products.
Such a move would not only help Cook, it would help Jony Ive as well. Somebody from the old guard, who knows how to think about products, and would probably have a better idea than anyone else about how customers will respond.
Some things are meant to be. I believe this is absolutely one of those times. Johnson needs something to put JC Penney behind him – and Apple is in need of a killer head of retail to reinvigorate the company. Johnson is the complete package, and a first choice for assistant-CEO, if such a title exists.
Such great timing will never happen again. The door to the job at Apple is wide open with glowing neon lights surrounding it. If Ron Johnson doesn’t come back to Apple now, there’s a good chance he never will. Simple as that.