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Apple’s new retail chief finally heads west

(Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Amid all the other news from Apple’s earnings call on Wednesday — the 7-for-1 stock split, the iPhone sales that helped earnings blow past expectations, the dividend increase — CEO Tim Cook revealed that Angela Ahrendts is finally on her way to Cupertino.

In October, Ahrendts, the CEO of Burberry, was named the senior vice president of Apple's retail and online stores. She was required to fulfill a six-month notice period, but rumors had suggested she might not start until June in order to collect a performance bonus from Burberry.

Ahrendts’ arrival at Apple is notable for several reasons. For one, not many CEOs of powerhouse global brands go on to become SVPs to other CEOs. They’re typically unwilling to give up the power and authority of holding the top job, particularly when they've been as successful as Ahrendts has.

The move is also notable because Ahrendts will finally add a much-needed female face to Apple’s all-male executive suite, a distinction that has brought the company criticism. For now, at least, it appears Ahrendts will be the lone woman reporting to Cook. And Apple has just one woman on its board of directors.

Moreover, for the first time, there will be a leader at Apple in charge of both the online and bricks-and-mortar store experience. This is no small issue. As one analyst told Fast Company in a profile of Ahrendts back in January, the traditional divide between the two sides has been “a historical failure” at Apple that doesn't track with how people actually shop.

Yet despite all of that, it seems unlikely Ahrendts will have much trouble making the change. In many ways, the fashion industry veteran seems tailor-made for the job. For one, she’s accustomed to working closely with a designer — her partnership with Christopher Bailey at Burberry has been well regarded as a key to the brand’s success, making it more likely she’ll know how to work with Apple’s famous senior vice president of design, Jonathan Ive.

She’s also been a force of digital innovation at Burberry. She turned the fashion house's online site into a multimedia experience, making it much more than just an e-commerce store. She used technology in innovative ways in fashion shows, as well as enhanced the boring back-end side of corporate software to transform the customer experience. As Fortune wrote in a profile of Ahrendts’ technology-driven leadership at Burberry, the company’s “real tech cred…comes from its organically digital approach to virtually everything it now does, from fashion shows to employee communications.”

She is repeatedly commended for her skills managing people, an attribute that will be critical in leading a customer-service retail staff — particularly one that has been without a direct boss since late 2012 and suffered through a short-term hire known for cost-cutting before that. In profiles, Ahrendts is described as accessible, sincere, and able to put her fellow executives at ease while at the same time pushing them harder. She gets up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and reads Maya Angelou or the leadership guru John C. Maxwell so that she can go into work feeling energized and less stressed. "Everybody is watching us," she told Fast Company. "They are feeding off of our energy."

Finally, she knows what it's like to come into a place that has been so successful that it is in danger of losing its cool amid its own ubiquity. When she joined Burberry in 2006, the brand was everywhere — so much so that it was in danger of losing its identity. Apple may seem far from that point, but it has reached a pivotal moment in its history. It needs brand leaders who can help navigate the demands of enormous growth and global consumption, while keeping its products desirable for both trend-setters and Average Joes alike. Ahrendts, it would seem, could be the perfect fit.

Read also:

Apple's Tim Cook on creativity and changing your mind

Apple CEO Tim Cook's candid comments on equality

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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