Fortune has a thoroughly entertaining and informative profile of Ron Johnson, Apple’s former retail chief who recently assumed the CEO position at JC Penney where he’s excited to tackle his latest challenge – transforming JC Penney from a has-been department store into a rousing shopping experience.
Described as relentless and cheery with an all-American upbringing, Johnson, who holds a degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard, has become something of a retail legend after re-invigorating the shopping experience at Target and spearheading Apple’s successful line of retail stores which now number 326.
Reflecting back on his desicion to work for Apple, Johnson described Jobs as a kindred spirit.
“I just could tell I could work with him,” Johnson said. “And I wanted to help him fulfill his dream, which was to change people’s lives.”
The article details how Johnson and Jobs initially butted heads over how to position the retail stores
Even before Johnson signed on, he challenged Jobs over a fundamental aspect of Apple’s new outlets. “He said it’ll be a store for creative professionals,” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘Well, then I’m not coming. If you want to be a store for all Americans, sign me up.’ ” Johnson envisioned a place where the experience was as important as the products themselves.
That would involve a change in corporate DNA. Apple’s attitude had always reflected Jobs’ outlook: Customers should feel lucky just to own an Apple product. By contrast, Johnson wanted the stores to feel welcoming. He began by flying the original 10 members of the team to two soon-to-open Ritz-Carlton hotels, where they immersed themselves in the Ritz’s respected approach to customer service.
Johnson launched a series of innovations that put customers at ease. There was the Genius Bar, where Apple customers can go for free help, and “personal training,” in which users can pay $99 for a year of classes on how to use Apple products.
Further, Johnson also convinced Jobs that paying sales people commissions was not in Apple’s best interest.
“You can motivate by a mission or motivate by money,” Johnson explained. “The mission will work.”
To find those mission-driven employees, Johnson devoted enormous effort to hiring: Not only did potential employees endure as many as eight interviews, but Johnson interviewed every store manager personally.
Johnson’s formula worked, and throngs flocked to the stores. Says veteran Apple board member Bill Campbell: “Steve wanted happy customers. Ron knew how to get them.
Johnson also relays a story which has been enumerated a few times previously. The story goes that in the weeks preceding Apple’s first retail store launch, Johnson wasn’t exactly feeling what Apple had done. Johnson approached Apple CEO and told him that it was all wrong to the extent that teh stores were organized around individual products instead of celebrating the digital hub lifestyle Apple was then trying to promote.
“The stores are fundamentally flawed,” Johnson told Jobs.
Jobs was furious: “Do you realize how much time I put into designing this store?” After an excruciating silence, Jobs spoke again. “You might be right, but don’t talk about it to the team today.” Then, he says, Jobs entered the meeting. “The first word out of his mouth is, ‘Ron thinks this store is all wrong, and he’s right. We’re going to start over.’”
And so they did, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today Apple earns more per square foot (around $6,000) than any other retailer in the world and is the envy of every other retailer on the planet.