Ron Johnson: Apple Veteran and Bane of JCPenney

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The tech world is full of movers and shakers, but most of them are behind the scenes. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have long been household names but mostly as nebulous icons known for warring personalities. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good “Amadeus” style rivalry? Beyond that you’ll still find quite a few people who know about Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. But once you get past half a dozen or so of these names, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows that there’s a guy named Michael Dell who started building PCs in his dorm room. For the most part, these guys are invisible. That makes sense; they’re busy working, and if something is functioning well, why peel back that curtain?

Most people who are out accomplishing great things don’t care as much about recognition as the general public assumes. At the end of the day, Steve Wozniak doesn’t actually care as much about the fact that most people assume Steve Jobs did all the work because he knows that’s not really the case. There’s also the fact that any smart person knows that anything worth building on huge scale isn’t going to just blossom because a goofy nerd had a neat idea. There’s so many components to making a viable product and turning it into a profitable business that anyone going to it alone is going to faily miserably. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak both freely admitted that without the other, there would be no Apple. Jobs wouldn’t have been able to build the computer infrastructure he dreamed up on his own; Woz wanted to give it away for free.

Today, one of those men behind the curtain announced a new startup. And he’s interesting. Let’s meet this guy.

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This guy. Hi Ron!

You’ve never heard of him, but if you’re reading this blog it’s probably a given that you’ve been inside a building he is responsible for. This man’s name is Ron Johnson and for ten years, he was the senior vice president of retail operations at Apple. The close ties between Apple and Disney led to Apple taking a cue from the Mouse House and taking the leap of creating its own retail stores. Apple Stores were a hit, and in two years, they had made a cool billion dollars, ousting GAP as the king of retail records. The CEO of GAP and Apple shareholder Mickey Drexler was also responsible for much of Apple’s retail success by insisting to the hotheaded Johnson/Jobs duo that they needed to test their unproven idea before blindly launching it.

Not only did the addition of a retail arm add another money hose directly into Apple’s seemingly infinite coffers, the wildly popular retail presence injected life into the dull sterility of computer showrooms everywhere. And the Apple Stores themselves became a must-see destination for any cool kid’s trip to the mall. With their soft bright lights, smooth wood tables, and lots of open spaces, the stores themselves are just plain fun to just be in. You could argue that certain OS X programs, like Photo Booth, were partially intended as a means of in-store entertainment and a way to get some good word-of-mouth advertistment going.

With Apple as his most obvious success, Ron Johnson has had an intriguing career with only one major hiccup. His first career highlight was as the vice president of merchandising for Target and as you’ll see, things here were already paving the way for Apple. Ron Johnson became intrigued by clean design, and the mark he left on Target was major; he successfully secured famed postmodern and New Urbanist architect Michael Graves’ revolutionary brain to design low-cost, pleasant, and even elegant household wares. Graves, who passed away in March, was one of the original superstar designers whose name was respected outside of the architecture community he dominated. (After health issues left him wheelchair bound as well as a frequent hosiptal guest, he became an advocate for less austere design in medical facilities). With Johnson’s direction and Graves’ design, Target has consquently become established as something of a Braun in the world of boring-ass grocery stores, always aiming just a bit higher than its Wal-Mart and K-Mart siblings.

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“The Michael Graves Target kitchen set is the prettiest thing I have ever owned.” – Michelangelo

Then came Johnson’s Apple years. Leading a team that had experience with the Disney Stores, Johnson worked thrived under Steve Jobs’ high standards of efficiency and design to create a model so successful that other tech brands like Micrsoft and Sony tried to emulate it, albeit unsuccessfully. Johnson doesn’t seem like a guy who coasts on success. With his successful impact at Target and Apple, he decided to go for the impossible. Remember JCPenney? (Ya’know, your mom’s favorite place to buy all your school clothes?) JCPenney was stagnating at best and wanted to change. So Johnson, eager for another challenge, and JCP, expecting the most fabulous makeover that retail money can buy, decided to make some CEO magic happen. It….uh…didn’t go well.

You’ve probably noticed that every time you go to a department store that there is always a sale and there are coupons everywhere. If you’re like me, you think it’s messy, confusing, and redundant. The way the pricing model works in a store like JCP is designed around overpricing the merchandise and always offering deals and sales so that people feel like they’re getting a great bargain. One of Johnson’s changes was to do away with coupons and sales, and approach pricing the same way Apple does. One price everywhere. But instead of testing in a few stores as retail giants usually do, the change was instant and wide. Johnson’s leadership style had been developed and honed for over a decade at Apple. Like many tech companies, Apple never really left startup mode. As a tech startup that hit big, Apple is able to veer in new directions much faster than a 110-year old mall fixture that’s known for khakis and bedsheets.

Going from working at one of the world’s most successful companies to one of the most fastest-sinking was likely a bit of a shock for Johnson and his 14-month stint as Penney’s CEO would make John Sculley blush. Twenty-one thousand people lost their jobs, sales fell 25%, stock prices plummeted, and a billion dollars was lost (half of it in the final quarter). While many think that Johnson at worst may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, some have harsher words. Columbia professor and former Sears Canada CEO Mark Cohen told The New Yorker, “There is nothing good to say about what he’s done. Penney had been run into a ditch when he took it over. But, rather than getting it back on the road, he’s essentially set it on fire.”

Retail is a different beast than a billion dollar Silicon Valley empire, and Johnson’s hindsight shows that he understands that now. Johnson is now combining his more successful retail and tech experience, one that caters to the rising instant/mobile-influenced generation of shoppers. The company is Enjoy Technology. When a purchase is made, an expert will deliver your item and show you how to use it. Aspects of the business are reminiscent of the Apple Store experience. Just as Mac owners can visit the Genius Bar for friendly tech support, Enjoy customers can hire an expert for $99 to visit them for approximately an hour and give them a hands-on lesson regarding a product. Conceptually, Enjoy seems like a much better fit for Ron Johnson. Instead of trying to fit a radical new idea into a hardened out-of-date mold, Johnson will have the freedom he did at Apple to experiment radically with less repercussion. And with potential competitors like Amazon trying to get consumers excited about a freaking button, Johnson’s blend of instant gratification and human interaction may prove to be the start of an entirely different shopping experience.

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