Yesterday, Apple surprised watchers by announcing that its chief of retail Angela Ahrendts was set to depart the Cupertino company in April, to be replaced by Deirdre O’Brien.

Having spent five years leading Apple’s brick-and-mortar and online stores, she will be leaving the iPhone maker for new “personal and professional pursuits,” Apple’s press release has it.

Making sense of the announcement

A new report Wednesday claims that the 58-year-old executive is not really interested in taking the reins of another company as some have suspected.

Michael Steeber, 9to5Mac:

According to sources familiar with the matter, Ahrendts indicated in a team message that she may plan to step back from day-to-day management and lead a quieter life rather than take the reins of another company following her departure.

Tim Cook called the announcement “bittersweet” on Twitter.

Steeber continues:

Industry analysts have attempted to correlate Apple’s disappointing earnings revision with Ahrendts’ exit. Others have suggested that the executive’s fashion background and preference for experiential retail are to blame for increased product pricing and long waits for customer service. These explanations fail to capture the full picture.

And this, indicating her exit was planned.

Two days after the iPhone XR launch, an unconfirmed rumor suggested Ahrendts could leave Apple and that an announcement could be made as soon as the end of 2018.

The report claimed that internal talent from Australia was being considered as a replacement. Assuming the rumor has more weight than exceptionally good timing, it indicates that Ahrendts’ departure was not an overnight decision.

Be sure to read Steeber’s insightful article over at 9to5Mac.

Leaving Burberry

Ahrendts joined Apple in October 2012 from Burberry, where she served as chief executive. She spoke at the Global Leadership Summit last August about leaving the fashion retailer:

Burberry was 150 years old when I started. That made me realize it was almost like a relay race. Imagine how many batons have been handed off along the way to the different tenures of teams that have been there.

So what was our purpose while we were there?

Our job was to do everything to ensure its relevance for the next 150 years. What do we need to clean up that’s gotten cluttered and disparate? What do we need to pull in and purify, and what do we need to do to keep pace and get ahead, so that when we hand that baton off to the next generation of leaders, it’ll be as great as we could make it during that time?

In a TeDX talk from 2013 back when she was the leader of Burberry, Ahrendts discussed the positive and transformative power of human energy.

In that video, she specifically focused on intuition:

Intuition is the best God-given gift we have. I get aggravated that the education system teaches everything for the mind and left brain, but why can’t there be a class on intuition?

We were given this gift as humans, as a species, to feel, to see. It’s taken us this far. I believe that it’s actually going to be the gift in a world of artificial intelligence and automation that humans are really going to have to go back and rely on again.

Tim Cook & Co. wanted her to lead Apple Retail so badly following the previous retail head John Browett (who proved terribly unfit for that role, but that’s on Cook) that Apple compensated her for unvested Burberry stock she lost by leaving the luxury retailer.

As she was leaving unvested stock awards worth approximately $37 million (as well as cash and perquisites that exceeded $5 million a year), Apple instantly paid $37 million to compensate her for the value of the Burberry stock.

Highest-paid Apple exec

The Cupertino firm also awarded Ahrendts a new-hire stock allocation valued at $33 million (40 percent of which was performance based, with the rest vesting over three years). And that’s not all: she pocketed a $500,000 cash bonus and relocation expenses totaling $457,615,.

Recode reported at the time.

The Cupertino technology giant said its 2014 compensation package was designed to make Ahrendts whole financially—and successfully recruit an executive who, during her tenure at Burberry, led the company through a turnaround in which its market capitalization more than doubled.

At Apple, she quickly became the company’s highest-paid executive.

Ahrendts posing for a selfie with Apple Store customers in June 2014.

Her total compensation was $26.5 million in 2018, according to Apple’s proxy statement from January 8, 2019. By comparison, Cook made $15.7 million in total compensation that year.

In a January 2019 interview with Vogue Business, Ahrendts said that even though she grew up in the fashion industry she was attracted to Apple by the work it was doing at the time.

You know, I loved fashion for 40 years. It is wonderful when you know everything there is to know about the industry because you grew up in it.

There are things about the fashion industry that I miss, but I went to Apple because I felt it was a calling to one of the greatest companies on the planet. I felt we could even do a little of what we did at Burberry: uniting people to do incredible things.


Some people have wondered whether Apple Retail would suffer as a result of her departure. That’s certainly a legitimate question to ponder upon.

The future of Apple Retail

Apple has said that company veteran Deirdre O’Brien, who has worked there for three decades, will take on an expanded role as its new Senior Vice President of Retail + People.

Deirdre O’Brien

O’Brien previously held the title of Vice President of Worldwide Sales and Operations. In July 2017, Apple created a new role for her: Vice President of People.

Retail and Human Resources are two very different animals and I wonder if O’Brien’s promotion to chief of retail and people is just a temporary assignment.

Apple’s press release did note that O’Brien would continue to oversee functions related to both retail and people, including talent development and employee relations, so there’s that.

What do you make of Angela’s departure?

Image: Angela Ahrendts inside Apple’s new flagship store in Washington, DC. Photo by Amy Harrity for Vogue Business