Angela Ahrendts, the head of Apple’s retail division, will step down in April after five years in the role, the company announced today (Feb. 5). Her responsibilities will be shifted to Deirdre O’Brien, who is senior vice president of people at Apple, and now adds the retail business to her portfolio.
While the combination of retail and human resources is unprecedented within Apple, perhaps there’s a bit of logic—the bulk of the company’s 132,000-strong workforce works in its roughly 500 retail stores worldwide.
Ahrendts, during her tenure at Apple, made it her mission to reinvigorate Apple’s retail stores as places for people to convene. In 2017, she launched “Today at Apple,” with customer classes, workshops, and even concerts loosely tied to the company’s hardware offerings. The former Burberry CEO, credited with revitalizing the British fashion house, redesigned Apple stores across the globe, adding in live flora and fauna, wooden-box seating areas, renaming the Genius Bar the “Genius Grove,” and dropping the word “Store” from its stores’ name. Some had tipped Ahrendts to be the successor to current CEO Tim Cook.
It’s not clear why Ahrendts is leaving Apple, beyond the official line that she’ll be taking on “new personal and professional pursuits.” Just last week, Vogue Business published a feature on Ahrendts and her vision for Apple.
The company has floundered in recent months, missing sales targets and offering discounts on its brand-new smartphones as consumers seem disinterested by the company’s ever-more-expensive devices. Some have argued that Ahrendts’ store redesigns took the emphasis away from servicing existing customers, and turned them into glorified showrooms.
Perhaps, as the highest-compensated employee at Apple, she had a bit of a target on her back. Or perhaps, as is the case at other large companies these days, Apple saw an opportunity to tie its people and talent function more closely to business operations. (In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, HR heads are starting to take larger roles in company strategy.) O’Brien already had been overseeing talent development and Apple University, recruiting, employee relations and experience, business partnership, benefits, compensation, and inclusion and diversity.
Or perhaps the choice was Ahrendts’. Announcing her departure, CEO Tim Cook called Ahrents “a positive, transformative force, both for Apple’s stores and the communities they serve. “
As for where she’ll go next, the Vogue interview made it sound like a speedy return to the fashion world wasn’t on her radar screen. “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,” she told Vogue. “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.”