Opposites attract as Dixons' Browett is selected by Apple

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Dixons and Apple (NasdaqGS: AAPL - news) both sell electronic products but, that fact aside, they are about as far apart in retail terms as you could imagine.

Apple's pristine stores have taken the so-called "white box" retail concept and evolved it into a shrine to consumerism: sleek, cavernous and highly profitable.

The company's armies of sales assistants, instructed to ensure customers leave with their new phones, tablets or laptops ready to go, have recalibrated consumer expectations and turned many shoppers into evangelists, who approach Apple stores like churches.

The same cannot be said of Dixons. The electronics retailer's stores are functional and competitive on price, but they are not a place for anyone other than a die-hard technophile to while away a Sunday afternoon.

It was a surprise, then, for Apple arguably the most admired technology company in the world, and certainly the biggest to shop at Dixons for its new head of retail.

John Browett, who has spent the past five years as Dixons' chief executive, in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, will in April move to Apple's Cupertino headquarters.

In doing so, he will become the second British executive in upper echelons of Apple, following in the footsteps of Sir Jonathan Ive, the Essex-born designer credited as the creative driving force behind the iPad and iPhone, and who sits on the Apple board as senior vice-president of industrial design.

Those who know Browett say he is another natural fit for Apple, which has forged its reputation on perfectionism.

"He's very exigent on all of us, which is a great quality in a leader, and above all he's very close to the detail," said Sebastian James, Dixons former operations director, who is replacing Browett as chief executive.

"He's very cerebral and a typical consultant-type: thorough, methodical, with a real way of getting into the heart of an issue very, very quickly," said another retail source. "He doesn't suffer fools gladly. In the past he wasn't known for his people skills, but he has really worked on that."

Surprisingly, Browett, who has an American wife, took some cajoling. A friend at Egon Zehnder, the headhunter appointed to fill the coveted job, had to strong arm him into the initial interview, although he was quickly won over by the "personal humility" and drive of Apple's senior executives. He and Apple chief executive Tim Cook found common ground in the need for excellence in customer service.

The brief Browett inherits at Apple is a rare one for any retailer. Rather than closing stores, cutting staff and battling to entice cash-strapped consumers, he is tasked with building on the success Apple has enjoyed since opening its first store in 2004.

The scale of the challenge the Cambridge University graduate faces was underlined in June when Apple announced that Ron Johnson, the man responsible for building its retail operations, was leaving to run the struggling, if historic, US department store JC Penny. Shares of JC Penny closed up almost 20pc that day.

It's unusual for Apple to hire senior executives from outside its secretive ranks, which only added to the sense of surprise at the iPad maker's move for Browett. His name largely drew blanks from retail and technology analysts in New York (Frankfurt: A0DKRK - news) on Tuesday.

But they, as well as Apple's investors, are likely to draw comfort from the drop in Dixon's share price as investors digested the news of his exit. Those who have tracked Browett's career can understand why his CV put him on Apple's radar.

As chief executive of Dixons, Browett built strong ties with Apple, and the UK chain was one of two retailers handed 60-day rights to sell the iPad when it was launched in spring 2010. He is credited with improving Dixons' shopping experience, for example installing electronic touchscreens to give customers immediate access to detailed information about products.

Although Apple's stores are best known for their futuristic designs, retail experts say it's the experience shoppers get in them that is far more important. "Everything about Apple's stores is about respect for the shopper," says Candace Corlett of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. "You always have the sense that they're working to make the store better for the customer."

To this Browett will bring experience of international retailing. Before joining Dixons, his role as head of operations at Tesco (LSE: TSCO.L - news) was one that required involvement in the supermarket's overseas operations. Thirty of the 40 stores that Apple plans to open this year will be outside the US, reflecting the new engine of growth that company had found overseas.

Apple's decision to open its own stores was treated with scepticism when they were launched in 2004. The past eight years have confounded the doubters. The sales Apple generated from its more than 300 stores jumped 59pc to $6.1bn in the final three months of last year. But, as Colin Gillis, a technology analyst at BGC Partners in New York, warns: "Get the stores wrong and they become a huge overhead".

Sir John, the other Briton at Apple's top table, was a favourite of Steve Jobs. His low public profile only adds to the mystique surrounding the designer. Apple's new Briton will be hoping to earn a similar aura.