- Angela Ahrendts grew Burberry’s brand as its CEO before becoming Apple‘s senior vice president of retail and online stores in 2014.
- She is Apple’s highest-paid employee, making $24.2 million in 2017.
- Throughout her career, she says she has been guided by core values like compassion, humility, and ambition.
Angela Ahrendts had a wildly successful career in fashion before becoming Apple’s highest-paid employee. But, in a 2010 commencement address she gave at her alma mater, Ball State University, she said she hadn’t discovered the secret to her success until she was asked to give the speech.
“This speech-writing journey forced me to stop and reflect, in a way I haven’t done in years,” she said.
She said that in the months before the speech, she realized her success could be traced back to her character and core values – compassion, humility, ambition, and intuition – a discovery that Ahrendts admitted “only took me 20 years of youth, 30 years of experience, and five months of reflecting to discover.”
Rising quickly through the fashion world
Ahrendts grew up in New Palestine, Indiana, with a passion for design and fashion. After college, she moved to New York, where she quickly worked her way up in the fashion world, eventually becoming the president of Donna Karan International and executive vice president of Liz Claiborne before finding her way to Burberry.
She took the CEO position in 2006 and spent the next eight years rehabilitating the clothing brand’s image. Her professional life was going as well as she could imagine when Apple CEO Tim Cook gave her a call, according to Fortune. He was looking for someone to lead Apple’s retail operation.
“I did not expect to be moved by the man, and I left and I thought, ‘Ohhhhh! My life was perfect. Aaargh, why, why, why?'” she told Fortune in 2015. But what impressed Ahrendts wasn’t Cook’s financial sense or vision for new products. It was his core values that swayed her.
“I just absolutely loved his integrity, his values,” she said. “Nothing anybody can write, say, or do is going to take him off of always doing the right thing. Not just for Apple, but for Apple’s people, for communities, for countries.”
Making Apple’s retail strategy more intimate and personal
Ahrendts joined Apple as its senior vice president of retail and online stores in 2014 and redesigned the company’s retail operation to emphasize human connection. Her primary goal wasn’t centered on sales numbers, but, rather, designing the stores to encourage social interaction.
“I’ll know we’ve done a really, really great job if the next generation, if Gen Z says, ‘Meet me at Apple. Did you see what’s going on at Apple today?'” she said in an interview broadcasted on CBS This Morning in 2017. Ahrendts has worked toward that goal by developing strong relationships with her employees and making Apple stores a place where people can connect with each other.
Apple retail employees reportedly noticed her personal touch immediately, raving about her ability to convey warmth, kindness, and genuine interest in her interactions with them. “Even over the phone, you feel like you are speaking to her as she is sitting right next to you,” one store manager said to 9to5Mac in 2014.
Ahrendts has received similar praise for the weekly video messages she sends to Apple retail employees, where she offers updates and encouragement. Employees have given Ahrendts’ messages high marks, calling them “unscripted” and “natural.”
And, under Ahrendts, more retail employees have participated in a program where they can work with corporate teams for special projects, an initiative that can provide opportunities to ascend within the company.
In 2016, Apple announced a number of tweaks it planned to make to its stores, which have been the gold standard in physical retail for years, allowing customers to interact with products and receive assistance for their devices in an unthreatening, aesthetically pleasing environment.
The changes – softer lighting, better displays for Beats headphones and Apple phone cases, large screens placed across from the entrance – revealed design instincts honed during Ahrendts’ years in the fashion industry. Since then, she’s revealed a vision to take the stores’ success a step further by making them resemble “town squares” where customers can socialize and take classes to learn tech skills.
While there have been some missteps along the way – including an Apple Watch launch that reportedly confused some customers – Ahrendts has trusted her instincts and been rewarded with praise from her colleagues and the most generous compensation at the company. (She made $24.2 million in 2017, according to Apple company filings.)
As big as her career has become, it seems she’s never forgotten to trust her instincts and stick to her values.
“The intuitive, feeling heart will never mislead you, in work, a relationship, or with family,” she said in the 2010 commencement address.