Each week, we present an influential woman whose career and style has inspired the Silkarmour team to aim higher and dress better. This week’s Silkarmour woman is Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores at Apple and former Burberry CEO.
What does it take to become the first woman to top the UK’s highest-paid list? Five or six cans of Diet Coke a day, according to Angels Ahrendts. Having made a name for herself in restoring British fashion brand Burberry before moving to Apple as its Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Stores, Ahrendts was one of the highest paid executives in the luxury retail industry. In light of the 15th anniversary of the tech giant’s iconic retail store, Ahrendts has recently unveiled new plans to shake up the tactile retail experience, just in time for the rumoured iPhone 7 launch and to fulfil the long-awaited rumours of the new Mac computer. Clearly she’s relying on more than a continuous caffeine-high.
Prior to her $26million salary at Apple, Ahrendts arrived at Burberry in 2006, on a hell-or-high-water mission to revive the flagging brand. Fighting an uphill battle against counterfeit goods and the smeared reputation of the once iconic plaid, it was no secret that Burberry had fallen out of favour in the luxury market. Ahrendts noticed the fundamental problem when she flew in more than 60 top managers across the globe for a drawing-board meeting and observed in the midst of classic British weather, “not one of these people was wearing a Burberry trench coat.” It was a simple diagnosis but painfully obvious in hindsight as “if our top people weren’t buying our products…how could we expect customers to pay full price for them?” It was then that she decided the trench coat would be Burberry’s defibrillator. In order to thrive, the brand needed a new aesthetic to lay the foundations for a new identity; Ahrendts was fine with this, as long as the trench coat was the canvas.
But Ahrendts knew this would not be enough. If Burberry was to rise from the ashes and become a favourite among a new generation of consumers, it had to appeal on its own accord. Millennials, she argued were the untapped “white space” of luxury consumers; those without disposable income but who cherished the value of an investment piece. Naturally this was not met without controversy as focusing on a target market that had no current knowledge of Burberry’s core product created an immense sense of pressure in creating something that would combine the old with the new. Now having sent trench-coats made out of embroidered latex, gem-coloured metallic leather and Aboriginal-inspired applique down the runway, Ahrendts has increased Burberry’s revenue from $2bn to $7bn within her time at Burberry and now owns over a dozen trench coats herself. Confident of her success, she expressed relief in what she had accomplished; that something so precious to British heritage could be restored in full. “They’re not just raincoats anymore” she said, “they are the foundation of a great brand and a great company.”
Interestingly, when the role at Apple presented itself, Ahrendts did not expect to be seduced. But the company’s vision to do more than just create a name for itself appealed to the human aspect that she loved about business; “Steve’s whole raison d’être just enriched and changed people’s lives,” she told Fortune, “then Tim’s added a whole other level, which is; Apple has gotten so big that it is our responsibility to leave it better than we found it”. Similarly, Apple’s CEO Time Cook did not expect to be so moved by Ahrendts account in transforming Burberry, but in remodelling Apple away from Steve Jobs’ God-like status, he believed she was the “perfect culture fit”. Continuing down the path of Apple's personal approach to making profit, Ahrendts places a huge emphasis on the value of the retail staff as part of the company’s anatomy. 2015 was the highest year of retention rates for Apple, which Ahrendts puts down to staff feeling “connected” with the products they sell. “They don’t feel like they’re just somebody over here working with customers. I see them as executives in the company who are touching the customers with the products that Jony Ive [chief designer] and the team took years to build.” Topping this off with a visit to over 100 stores across the US, any concerns over hiring a SVP from the infamously venomous fashion industry have all but been dissolved.
Ahrendts saw the value in consistent branding when at Burberry and mirrors these same values in her own professional image. With consistency comes reliability; always seen in the perfect smart-but-chic Burberry ensemble (trench coat to match) with the same casual blow-dry and sleek black-rimmed glasses, her wardrobe exudes the authority of a CEO but goes one step further in cementing her position at the core of the brand’s new identity. Unlike the average suit-wearing executive, the Burberry consumer knew Ahrendts through brand association as opposed to a disconnected businesswoman who ran the company from afar. Ahrendts doesn’t just use fashion as part of her professional image, but inspires loyalty in others by leading by example as a Burberry customer, wearing and now using the (Apple) product on the public stage of fashion week and technology events. There's no doubt the 60 other managers are following suit.
It is this approach to business that has enabled Ahrendts to thrive at Apple in a similar fashion to her time at Burberry as she continues to revolve her work around one belief; “the more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human communication.” Technology companies have always prided themselves on cultivating a relaxed working environment within the walls of the corporations but Ahrendts insists on spreading this across the retail spaces. Her commitment to the balance between man and machine is what will see Apple through the changing tides of the new iPhone. Although consumers think Apple has passed the check-point in shaping the history of technology, Ahrendts fiercely believes there is more work to be done, inside and outside the product. After all, “this is not retail,” she told Fortune, in relaying her future plans. “This is Apple.”
On perfecting your craft: "Stay in your lane…stay focused on your core competencies to add greater value [in the] long term”
On learning on the job: "Ask questions, don't make assumptions. Invite conversations, stimulate thinking, break down barriers, create positive energy and show your willingness to understand and learn".
On new roles: "Trust your instincts and emotions. They will not fail you. Never will your objectivity be as clear or your instincts sharper than in the first 30-90 days. Cherish this time and fight the urge to overthink".
On integrity: “Always, to thyself be true. We’re all born with what we have. Take what you have and do the best you can with it.”