Praising “customer commitment” may be a corporate cliché, but the reason cited by Apple’s chief executive for hiring John Browett to join the US technology group will come as little surprise to his colleagues at UK retailer Dixons.
“He is an incredibly customer focused individual – everything he’s done to improve the business has got the customer at the forefront,” said David Lloyd-Seed, Dixons Retail’s communications director.
For Mr Browett, a Cambridge university and Wharton business school graduate, this meant frequently leaving his wife and three daughters on Saturday mornings to sell televisions on the shop floor of Dixon’s megastore in Staples Corner retail park, in north London.
“He wanted to understand what the customer wants and fine-tune the engine to implement it,” said Mr Lloyd-Seed.
A Dixons colleague said staff at the retailer had “mixed emotions” about Mr Browett’s impending departure: both flattery and sadness that the world’s largest personal technology company recognised the success of their CEO.
Since joining from Tesco online in December 2007, Mr Browett is credited with introducing exit surveys of customers and undercover mystery shoppers in a bid to usher in US-style customer service at the struggling electrical products retailer.
One person who worked with Mr Browett at Tesco.com said he was considered a member of the so-called “Tesco Academy” – shorthand for talented individuals who went through the supermarket’s ranks and were later poached.
“John was pretty well regarded not just in Tesco but in the retail sector so there was some surprise when he left for a struggling big box retailer,” the person said.
His departure leaves Dixons, which owns Currys and PC World, without a widely respected leader in a difficult part of the retail landscape.
“Mr Browett has been the figurehead of the Dixons’ renewal and transformation, and his departure will be negative for sentiment,” said David Jeary at Investec. Another retail analyst characterised it as a “big blow”.
Tough economic conditions have left consumers less likely to buy white goods, such as large TV sets and other electrical products. Coupled with pricing pressure from online retailers, such as Amazon, some retailers have struggled to survive.
Last year, Best Buy abandoned its attempt to set up its big box stores in the UK. Just two weeks ago, Dixon’s showed some signs of resilience, reporting market share gains in the UK and Ireland from its struggling rivals, such as Comet, over the festive period.
Mr Browett’s successor, Sebastian James, who joined the company in 2008 and has been running the company’s operations, is seen as a safe pair of hands. But without Mr Browett, a keen sailor in his spare time, Dixons could face more choppy retail waters.
“He designed the ship and built it with others,” said a colleague. “We are well out of the harbour and now it’s time to trim the sails – there are stormy waters ahead.”