Tim, We Need to Talk About John Browett

| Editorial

Browett Mess Up Apple Retail

Dear Tim Cook,

By now you know we’re all aware that something went wrong with Apple Retail in the last week. On Monday, MacRumors reported receiving tips from Apple Retail employees in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada that stores were experiencing layoffs and significant cutbacks in working hours.

The Mac Observer checked with sources in United States and found that, at least in the markets that were surveyed, there were no serious disruptions. However, reports kept coming in from the United Kingdom and MacRumors continued to receive tips about U.S. and Canadian stores that were experiencing unusual workforce reductions.

Cut to Thursday morning and the news hits that Apple Retail chief John Browett emailed Apple Retail Store leadership with a mea culpa. From the Dow Jones Newswire:

In a communication with store leadership teams, senior vice president of retail, John Browett…said that the company had been trying a new staffing formula for its retail stores, leading some employees to see their hourly shifts cut and retail locations to be understaffed.

He instructed leadership teams to tell employees, “We messed up,” according to two people who were aware of the communication, which also stressed that while shift schedules were affected, no one was laid off. He also wanted employees to know that [Apple Retail] was hiring new staff, these people said.

Well, Mr. Cook. It looks like Mr. Browett made a mistake. Okay, fine, you and I can talk about that. But wait, there’s more.

A report from ifoAppleStore claims that it was no staffing formula that caused the commotion; it was Mr. Browett’s own plans put into motion. From the report:

A series of recent administrative moves to reduce the number of Apple retail store employees is being attributed to Sr. VP Retail John Browett…who feels the stores are “too bloated” with employees, and he is willing to gamble the stores’ legendary customer experience to gain back a few points of profit margin.

According to ifoAppleStore’s sources, Mr. Browett sent the following orders to many of Apple’s Retail Stores:

  • Cease all recruiting and hiring events
  • Make no promotions
  • Immediately lay off newly-hired employees who are still on probation
  • Reduce available hours for part-time employees
  • Reduce or eliminate available overtime
  • Lay off or fire employees who can only work more than 32 hours a week and not part-time

Hold up, Johnny B., Apple Retail is the most profitable retail operation in the history of the world. The company as a whole is sitting on enough money to buy several countries. Why is there the need to make drastic cuts to already overworked and underpaid employees? Why risk the one thing that makes Apple Retail, and Apple as a whole, so special?

From my experience as a longtime customer and as an Apple retail employee for several years, I can say with confidence that Apple employs some of the most caring, talented, and loyal people in the industry. Sure, there are lots of employees who are there just part time and may not be the most helpful individuals, but the core group, especially those who provide technical support, are, overall, outstanding.

Apple knows this and, frankly, it has often taken advantage of this fact. Apple employees who repair “computers and relationships,” as the company likes to say, are paid about as much as the individual in the clothing store next door who folds jeans all day. Not to say that folding jeans is not an essential task for the clothing industry, but chances are that he or she doesn’t have to listen to dozens of people each day who have just lost the only copies of photos of their kids, or dunked their phone in a toilet 20 minutes before a flight out of the country.

Apple Retail jobs are stressful, demanding, and require significant technical knowledge in addition to a whole lot of compassion, understanding, and a willingness to take vicious abuse. The kind of people who meet these criteria simply don’t come cheap and Apple needs to divert more money and resources, not less, to this critical group of employees.

Mr. Browett needs to wake up and get his act together: he’s not at Dixons anymore. I had the opportunity to go to a Dixons in Manchester while I was in the UK a few years ago. I don’t mean to offend any Dixons employees, and I know that things can vary from store to store, but the place was a joke, filled with random merchandise and pushy employees who didn’t know anything about the products they were peddling.

Inside DixonsYou know what would be great? If Apple stores looked like this. (via Dixons)

My experience there was the complete antithesis of what we expect from an Apple Store. Yes, there are many examples of Apple Retail Stores doing something stupid but, overall, it’s simply the best way to experience, learn about, purchase, and fix Apple products.

Apple Retail Stores, although they are responsible for a relatively small percentage of the company’s total revenue, are the face of Apple. They’re the symbol of consumer excitement for Apple product launches, they’re the gold standard of retail technical support, and they’re a crucial component of Apple’s overall marketing strategy. Why pay for advertising when the local news stations send trucks to the Apple Stores the morning of every product launch?

Regardless of whether the workforce “mess up” was intentional on Mr. Browett’s part, let me emphasize the following because I, and many others, thought he would have figured this out already: He can’t treat Apple like Dixons. It doesn’t matter if the retail division doesn’t directly make as high of a profit percentage as other areas of the company because the mere existence of Apple Stores drives revenue to nearly all areas of Apple. In short, Apple Retail is worth significantly more than the value of its bottom line.

We now have two possibilities: 1) Mr. Browett made a mistake, as he claimed, and this was not intentional, or 2) ifoAppleStore’s sources were correct and this was indeed an aborted attempt at a new retail strategy.

I was surprised when Mr. Browett was picked by Apple to replace Ron Johnson, especially given my personal experience at Dixons. Hiring John Browett to run Apple Retail is like hiring a McDonalds manager to run a world-class restaurant. Sure, you’ll get your food and the owners will get their money, but everyone’s going to have a bad time.

If the recent retail turmoil was a mistake, it speaks to Mr. Browett’s incompetence. If it was intentional, it makes me question the character of an executive who could show such little regard and appreciation for his employees. It also speaks volumes about his fundamental lack of understanding of how Apple arrived at the position it is in and where it needs to go.

This situation with Mr. Browett is the first major screw up by Apple management since the departure of Steve Jobs and, honestly, I’m a bit surprised. Other unfortunate events have occurred, like the EPEAT switcheroo, but this was a serious blow to not only the Apple community, who is now confused about what exactly is going on in Mr. Browett’s administration, but also to Apple’s “greatest asset,” as an Apple spokesperson accurately put it: its employees.

Hardworking people who have given much of their energy to Apple had their lives seriously disrupted, and a little “whoops” email from Uncle Browett isn’t going to fix the situation. If the employees aren’t happy and secure in their jobs, then the customer experience will certainly suffer, all to raise profits a few percent.

Mr. Browett was a bad fit from the beginning. We thought that he could adapt but we were proven wrong. I’m sure he is a fine person but it takes a very special individual to run a very special retail operation and, regardless of what caused this whole situation, Mr. Browett is not that person.

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Comments

geoduck

+1
Reading around the web I got a feel for Mr. Browett’s history. It’s not encouraging.

George

I’m afraid we’ve finally stumbled upon the one true big weakness Apple may have gotten after the passing of Steve Jobs.

It’s not creativity, innovation, execution, filtering or taste.
It’s hiring.
If Tim Cook is significantly worse than Steve Jobs was at sizing up VP level candidates, he’s going to have a bumpy and ultimately unsuccessful ride at preserving Apple’s values.

adrianoconnor

It’ll be interesting to see if he gets fired. In the Steve Jobs biography there’s a story about the VP of Mobile Me who got fired in a town hall event after the miserable launch (and after Walt Mossberg slated the service). He added a quip about the cleaner being allowed to make mistakes, but once you are a VP you get just one chance, no excuses.

I wonder if Browett just blew his one chance? Certainly I don’t like him being there—I live in the UK and have first-hand experience of Dixons, Curry’s and PC World. They represent the EXACT opposite of Apple in every way. They aren’t even successful from a business perspective, so it’s not like he’s there to please Wall St. So far as I can tell, he is not qualified to work in a senior post for Apple, or anybody else for that matter, based on his record so far.

I imagine he bought Zunes for his kids when they asked for iPods.

Lee Dronick

Was he smoking crack?

Stan Kramer

Bravo!  You hit the nail on the head.

This (and on a lighter note, the horrible Podcasts app) makes me nervous about the future of Apple for the first time since Steve passed.

Tactical implementation of a brilliant strategy and keen understanding of people had been the hallmarks of Apple’s success up till now. Hopefully Mr. Cook will take appropriate corrective action before ti’s too late.

MuppetGate

Well, I said “Give him a chance” when everyone said he was a bad fit. Looks like he was a bad fit.

My main concern, aside from his callous disregard for Apple’s greatest frontline asset, is that he did not introduce a gradual, organised, paced transition (Change Management 101 - I thought this bloke had an MBA); he went at it like a bull in a china shop, keen to quickly demonstrate his one true talent: cutting costs.
Apple doesn’t need a cost cutter. Let him go.

Tardis

Point Seven on John Browett’s List:

If any customer comes in and asks about Apple products, try and sell them a Microsoft Windows product instead.

Nick

Dixon’s on the high street does not exist anymore. The “Dixon’s Experience” is probably the worst retail experience I have ever had. I once had to interrupt a sales person because of the the crap they were talking. He was mixing up RAM with the size of the HDD.

I could not believe it when Apple hired him He is the antithesis of the company

tampaappleman

Bullseye comment JIM TANOUS. Mr. Browett is clearly a mispick. Also it doesn’t speak for Apple ( Tim Cook ) that it took the company such a long time to replace Ron Johnson. I think that Tim Cook is the best person to step into Steve’s shoes, however he will never fill them since he is irreplaceable. This is the first major personnel hiring mistake on a VP level and is just one indicator that Apple in a couple of years from now won’t be the same company that it was before Steve died. There are already a few more hints and mishaps that occurred lately who makes me believe this. Think about the half ass implementation of iCloud into OSX and the attention to detail that Apple used to pay in the past. Nowadays they are dragging on software glitches from one OS to the next one without fixing them. How can this be?

skipaq

I have been following this story closely since it first broke. It has me greatly concerned. Browett should be out the door. I sure hope that he did this on his own authority because I would hate to think that he ran this plan past Tim Cook first.

I also keep in mind that not every hire by Steve Jobs proved to be a winner. But this is a far greater issue than the EPEAT stuff for me. I spent several years in retail management. I have seen the disaster caused when someone like this took over higher up. Putting stupid policies from on high in place was always sickening.

ibuck

It’s probably incorrect to accuse all MBA’s of callous behavior based on ratios and percentages, but that seems to be their MO. Employees are nearly always a company’s most valuable asset. When executives, whether VP’s or CEO’s, treat their employees poorly, they risk adversely affecting the company’s image, and frequently the bottom line. The cost of such loss for a few percentage points is too high for Apple. Perhaps it’s time to layoff Browett.

mrmwebmax

+

I have to wonder how many Apple Stores Browett has actually seen with his own eyes. I’m guessing few to none. Instead, he probably based his decisions solely on Excel spreadsheets while having no clue of what goes on “inthe trenches.” Typical idiotic, ignorant top manager.

John Martellaro

A new, green Apple V.P. thinks he’s totally in charge and finds out otherwise.  Has happened before. Perhaps not so visibly.

Lwio

When this guy got the job we in the UK couldn’t believe it. He had been previously working for Dixons etc and these stores are pretty much reviled by Apple users and to a large extent PC users.
Their selling methods which include pushing the largest commission items rather than what the customer needs and pressure selling of very bad value extended warranties are legendary.
Apple made a poor decision imo, even I was surprised how quickly it became apparent.

BurmaYank

I don’t see this disastrous mismanagement as John Brower screwing up, because he surely was only doing, to the very best of his ability, what all his training and experience revealed to him as the best thing for a manager in his position to do.  He shouldn’t have done anything else than this; the very best he knew how to do.

Instead, I am more than appalled to see this disastrous mismanagement as revealing Tim Cook having cluelessly screwed up bigtime in having chosen to put this bull-in-a-china-shop there.

What’s going to be your next such disastrous mismanagement, Tim?

If Wall Street had a clue, AAPL should be in freefall now, with such a helmsman at Apple.

Arnis65

I hope Tim Cook shows Browett the door. Apple and John Lewis (over here in the UK) set the bench mark for customer experience and service. In my opinion, in terms of customer experience and service, the likes of Apple and John Lewis are at 10/10 but Dixons was never more than 3/10.

eDc

Tim needs to take action NOW.  He has stated that the decline of Apple’s values and culture will not erode under his watch.  We are waiting for the outcome of this, arguably, first true test of his leadership.

BurmaYank

Thank you for that great iconic portrait of John Browett!
smile

iJack

Cook to Browett: “iFire.”

Garion

A new, green Apple V.P. thinks he?s totally in charge and finds out otherwise.? Has happened before. Perhaps not so visibly.

And not so expensively! John Browett is a $56 million mistake for Apple.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/05/28/apple-pays-another-englishman-56-million/

xmattingly

Well, with the way things are going at J.C. Penney, Ron Johnson might be available again…

Tadvocate

The thing about John Browett is that he is very; engaging, affable, interviews very well, and always seems to have the right answer.

I was one of his biggest fans @ Dixons Retail until I took a detailed look at the P&L statement at the end of the financial year in 2011 and saw a ?224 million loss. Also, when he took over at Dixons in 2007 the share price was at ?1.44 but when he left in 2012, it is was at 18p. (a decline of over 90%)

At Dixons Retail,Browett introduced and oversaw a culture of heavy cost cutting, and as a result, created an atmosphere where members of staff were constantly fearful of losing their jobs.

Funny enough, I was quite pleased for him when I heard he got his new job at Apple but am now very surprised that he didn’t understand that Apple as manufacturers, innovators and creative designers, have a totally different approach to retailing.

Randall Murphy

Browett did come to the US stores.  He was at our for a brief visit.  “bloated”?  Really?  I can tell you that the reduction in hours and staff was complained about everyday in closing procedure emails to managers.  Lack of staff to takes breaks, lack of staff for the floor, lack of staff for opening and closing.

The next change has been in the total reduction in inventory.  On hand inventory has been cut to the bone.  They want the inventory team to do less counting and support the floor when their lack of staffing caused backups on the floor.  Untrained back of house people were sent to the floor to sell.  Great customer experience! 

We were told the layoff in the UK were caused by 1 store leader “over hiring”  This was not a new staffing formula.  They said they cut over 200 hours per week as a company mandate to operate with less staff.  Browbeat has no idea how Apple Stores run if he thinks our stores can run with slow lines, long waits.  Customers who come to Apple Retail expect problems to be solved and get the best information possible.  This was seriously jeopardized with this moronic change. 

Apples credo says that “our most valuable resource is our people”. John Browett didn’t read that part I guess!  When you have people come to work and dread seeing the schedule and just how low staffed they are going to be its hard to get excited about giving world class service when you know you are heading into the lions den.  What other “changes” is this clown gong to make?  Don’t mess with the most successful retail operation on the planet!  I hadn’t read the other items he had planned on…. Wow, as a part-timer that is hard to read.  Are you going to take away my part-time health benefits Mr Browett?

Mr. Cook, as an Apple employee I suggest you don’t put the keys to Apple Retail in the hands of a guy who would even begin to think your stores are “bloated”.  What an insult to the hard working people that strive to enrich each customers life with personal service.  We are not Dixons!  I’ve never been in one but I can say that we here in the states are not Best Buy!..

bob

Apple’s TRUE colours are now starting to show…. greed, greed , greed..

Personally I hope they get a big kickintheass from consumers…
eg the Sept event will be even more boring than the last one…

the accountants now RUN the company

no ethics .. just $$$

iJack

Apple?s TRUE colours are now starting to show?

Really?

danthemason

This is the red meat of a union organizer.

Apple Store Employee

As an employee at Apple Store Retail I can confirm the major cutbacks for part-timers, lack of new hires, and low morale. Browett may have claimed to have “messed up” but little change is occurring at the retail level. We are still understaffed and notice it almost every day when we struggle to meet every customer in a timely fashion when there are a few people on the floor and also underpaid considering the amount of revenue each employee makes for the store. I don’t want us to become ANYTHING like a Dixons, I left that retail experience to Apple for a reason. Tim Cook and Browett are operations guys who care more about the amount of profit they can throw into the bank and not the soul of the company, which is the people.

Andy Cowan

I can confirm that the Apple Store experience in the UK has gone from me thinking that they were the future of retailing to a totally appalling lack of service. They look short staffed and chaotic. I stood around for 20 minutes with a queue of other customers, product in hand just waiting for a staff member to offer to take payment. I left dreading having to ever return and boiling with anger - not the way I used to feel leaving Apple - it used to feel like I’d been to the future.

This has happened every time I’ve been in t the Store in the last three weeks. The speed of the decline is just extraordinary. It’s very, very sad.

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