Profiling Deirdre O'Brien, Apple's new head of retail

Posted:
in General Discussion
From outside Apple, new retail chief Deirdre O'Brien appears to have been a low-profile executive. But, she's spent three decades at the center of Apple's operations, personnel and sales.

Deirdre O'Brien (Source: Apple)
Deirdre O'Brien (Source: Apple)


Officially, Angela Ahrendts remains Apple's senior vice president of retail until April but her successor, Deirdre O'Brien, has already taken up the new post of senior vice president of People + Retail. It's a role that has immediately made her one of Apple's highest profile executives, directly and visibly in charge of the online store, 506 retail outlets and some 70,000 staff.

O'Brien was already responsible for those, though, and in total for all 120,000 Apple staff in her previous role as solely senior vice president of people. She was promoted to that position in July 2017.

"As long as I've been at Apple, Deirdre has been the glue that bonds our operations, sales, marketing and finance teams to deliver products to our customers," said Apple CEO Tim Cook at that. time. "Deirdre deeply understands Apple's unique culture and that people join Apple to do the best work of their lives. She is a superb leader and I'm thrilled she will be bringing her experience and talent to this critical role."

Cook joined Apple in March 1998 -- and O'Brien had already been with the company for a decade. After earning a degree in operations management from Michigan State University and then an MBA from San Jose State University, she went straight to Apple in January, 1988.

She did not, as now commonly reported, work for IBM first. While she doesn't have a LinkedIn profile or any public resume and also is not mentioned in books about this period at Apple, it's believed that one of her first jobs was to do with overseeing the manufacturing of the Macintosh SE. She was reportedly at Apple's Fremont plant but manufacturing there was not a success and the company closed it down.

This does mean that she was already in Apple when it was in decline. Asked much later why she stayed when so many others left, she said that the difficulties were exactly what kept her there.

"I stayed because I realized I was learning so much," she told the East Bay Times in 2016. "We were managing a really complicated situation. It's a good skill to have."

According to Fortune magazine in 2008, Tim Cook relied on O'Brien's skill in forecasting demand which seems like another operations task but is key to sales. Being able to accurately predict product demand is what meant Apple could reduce its inventory, the stocks of devices made but not yet sold. Cook correctly gets credit for how he managed to cut inventory down at Apple to the point where it no longer held enough machines to supply months of sales and instead had only days' worth.

However, with O'Brien, Cook was also able to predict the need for large stocks of what would prove to be high-demand products. So when planning the iPod nano, for instance, Apple was able to make an enormous investment in the storage technology used. That meant both that Apple met its own requirements but also effectively locked out competitors.

So despite her training in operations, she has been involved in the details of sales for a long time -- and specifically in the creation and working of the Apple Stores.

Deirdre O'Brien's profile page at Apple.com
Deirdre O'Brien's profile page at Apple.com


"Deirdre brings insight and experience gained over 30 years at Apple -- decades spent focusing on the connection between customers and the people and processes that serve them," said Tim Cook on announcing she was taking over retail. "Working collaboratively across Apple, Deirdre and her teams empower people to lead with purpose and humanity.

"Deirdre was part of the team that planned and launched Apple's very first online and retail stores. She has been a part of Retail's exciting expansion and every product launch since. She knows the value of the deep human connections that retail experiences make possible -- and she knows this is where Apple shows its heart and soul."

Cook also said that O'Brien has been directly involved in every major Apple launch of the last 20 years. For the last 17 months, that has at least been in her role as 'VP of People.' She took over that job from Denise Young Smith who moved to the then-new post of vice president for inclusion and diversity.

L-R: Deirdre O'Brien, Tim Cook, Angela Ahrendts (source: Apple)
L-R: Deirdre O'Brien, Tim Cook, Angela Ahrendts (source: Apple)


Prior to that HR role, O'Brien had been senior vice president of worldwide sales and operations. Apple has a lot of vice presidents, though, and when she spoke to the East Bay Times in early 2016, she was a vice president working on the supply chain operations team.

Apple has a lot of vice presidents, clearly, but each of the specific roles we know Deirdre O'Brien has held have all been a mix of operations and sales-related. She's also an insider, she's someone who has not worked outside Apple. That has to give her advantages over her predecessors like Angela Ahrendts who came into Apple from fashion and John Browett who arrived from the UK's Dixons electronics stores.

It must also bring disadvantages, though, as both Ahrendts and Browett were more directly involved with sales in their high-pressure industries.

Nonetheless, O'Brien is not going to have problems fitting in with Apple's culture as Browett did. She's on her way to being a lifer at Apple and in 2016, she explained why she likes it so much. "We feel like a small company every day," she said. "We are not worried about protecting things. It's a very positive rather than a maintenance approach."



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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 26
    She sounds to have many qualities of a capable executive, along with some very helpful prior experiences for this new role.  One cannot rise through roles like this and last as long as she has without the respect of her team as well. 
    GeorgeBMacmacplusplusracerhomie3welshdogStrangeDaysAppleExposedbshankfastasleeplolliverjony0
  • Reply 2 of 26
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 5,288member
    I suspect this predicts a new role for Apple Stores -- away from being mere flashy sales outlets and let them fulfill their original, true function of supporting Apple, its products and its customers.   Suppliers of services rather than products.

    First:   Apple is expanding its sales outlets to include more box stores as well as Amazon.   That relieves the need for Apple Stores to focus on sales.

    Second:  The Apple store serves as an irreplaceable function to support Apple's customers and its products:
    -- Advise customers looking to buy (even if they don't buy that day)
    -- Support customers with specific questions on their existing products
    -- Educate customers on how to use their products
    -- Serve as repair facilities for existing products

    And, every single one of those tasks is done by PEOPLE, not stores (no matter how many fancy tables or curved glass walls it has).  And those people will require abilities and training that go far beyond merely selling a product and taking the cash.

    So, I predict, with a shift away from sales and towards services performed by people, who would be better qualified to lead the effort than the Senior VP or PEOPLE (not HR) who is so well versed in Apple's culture and vision?

    welshdogAppleExposed
  • Reply 3 of 26
    ThrashmanThrashman Posts: 14unconfirmed, member
    Diversity and inclusive....
  • Reply 4 of 26
    I suspect this predicts a new role for Apple Stores -- away from being mere flashy sales outlets and let them fulfill their original, true function of supporting Apple, its products and its customers.   Suppliers of services rather than products.

    First:   Apple is expanding its sales outlets to include more box stores as well as Amazon.   That relieves the need for Apple Stores to focus on sales.

    Second:  The Apple store serves as an irreplaceable function to support Apple's customers and its products:
    -- Advise customers looking to buy (even if they don't buy that day)
    -- Support customers with specific questions on their existing products
    -- Educate customers on how to use their products
    -- Serve as repair facilities for existing products

    And, every single one of those tasks is done by PEOPLE, not stores (no matter how many fancy tables or curved glass walls it has).  And those people will require abilities and training that go far beyond merely selling a product and taking the cash.

    So, I predict, with a shift away from sales and towards services performed by people, who would be better qualified to lead the effort than the Senior VP or PEOPLE (not HR) who is so well versed in Apple's culture and vision?

    You might be right but I also think there is a lot of projection going on. People are taking their feelings on what they think should happen with Apple stores and projecting them onto this new leader. Here’s all the things I don’t like about Apple stores - that must be why Angela is leaving; here’s all the changes Apple needs to make to their stores - surely that’s what this new VP will be doing. Yet nothing in Cook’s employee memo indicated any major changes to retail. Of course I don’t expect everything to stay exactly the same but I also don’t expect things to go back to 2010 either. ‘Genius Bar’ ain’t coming back folks.
    AppleExposed
  • Reply 5 of 26
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 5,288member
    As an aside:
    While Apple has devoted increased resources to expanding its in-store education (Today at Apple), I notice that all of the classes are focused on iOS devices -- and, if you own/use a Mac you're still pretty much on your own.

    This is an area that an experienced Apple veteran could help improve.

    AppleExposed
  • Reply 6 of 26
    larryjwlarryjw Posts: 426member
    O'Brien seems like a good fit -- and may have been a good fit for many years. I wonder whether she was somewhat ignored within Apple because she didn't play office politics with sharp elbows. 
  • Reply 7 of 26
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 5,288member
    I suspect this predicts a new role for Apple Stores -- away from being mere flashy sales outlets and let them fulfill their original, true function of supporting Apple, its products and its customers.   Suppliers of services rather than products.

    First:   Apple is expanding its sales outlets to include more box stores as well as Amazon.   That relieves the need for Apple Stores to focus on sales.

    Second:  The Apple store serves as an irreplaceable function to support Apple's customers and its products:
    -- Advise customers looking to buy (even if they don't buy that day)
    -- Support customers with specific questions on their existing products
    -- Educate customers on how to use their products
    -- Serve as repair facilities for existing products

    And, every single one of those tasks is done by PEOPLE, not stores (no matter how many fancy tables or curved glass walls it has).  And those people will require abilities and training that go far beyond merely selling a product and taking the cash.

    So, I predict, with a shift away from sales and towards services performed by people, who would be better qualified to lead the effort than the Senior VP or PEOPLE (not HR) who is so well versed in Apple's culture and vision?

    You might be right but I also think there is a lot of projection going on. People are taking their feelings on what they think should happen with Apple stores and projecting them onto this new leader. Here’s all the things I don’t like about Apple stores - that must be why Angela is leaving; here’s all the changes Apple needs to make to their stores - surely that’s what this new VP will be doing. Yet nothing in Cook’s employee memo indicated any major changes to retail. Of course I don’t expect everything to stay exactly the same but I also don’t expect things to go back to 2010 either. ‘Genius Bar’ ain’t coming back folks.
    Yes, projection & self interest is often apparent on these forums.
    But, all the stuff I mentioned are related to business decisions, not projection or self interest.   Specifically:
    -- Apple has already announced a shift toward services
    -- Apple has already announced new sales partners such as Amazon (who have decimated brick & mortar outlets)
    -- Apple has already announced a shift in their stores towards becoming community focused centers
    -- Apple has already announced enhancements to their education efforts

    All of which point directly to what I spoke of:   A shift away from being mostly focused on sales and towards an expansion of services in the Apple stores.  And that, as I mentioned puts a greater emphasis and demand on the employees delivering those services -- thus a Senior VP of People would be best qualified to find and develop those highly qualified people. 

    Added after thought:   To put it a bit more bluntly.   To effectively turn the whole damn store into an expanded version of the genius bar and minimize the role of the sales clerk -- which is no longer needed.
    edited February 7 bshank
  • Reply 8 of 26
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 5,288member
    larryjw said:
    O'Brien seems like a good fit -- and may have been a good fit for many years. I wonder whether she was somewhat ignored within Apple because she didn't play office politics with sharp elbows. 
    It sounds to me that she was just one of the many quiet players working in the background that made things "just work" at the company.   The best companies don't rely on stars -- they come and they go and they fade away.   But the best, longest lived companies cultivate and retain the highest quality employees who get the job done without making a splash.

    After thought:   Steve cultivated highly competitive employees.  But they were competing in product innovation -- who did the best work, not office politics.  BIG difference!
    edited February 7 AppleExposed
  • Reply 9 of 26
    pk22901pk22901 Posts: 139member
    As an aside:
    While Apple has devoted increased resources to expanding its in-store education (Today at Apple), I notice that all of the classes are focused on iOS devices -- and, if you own/use a Mac you're still pretty much on your own.

    This is an area that an experienced Apple veteran could help improve.

    I believe that the Mac OS on x86 will be displaced by iOS on A Series, an iOS that supports Mac OS. Apple has 1.2B users running iOS and maybe 200M running Mac OS. It'd be an easy call to launch the "A Series Mac" by 2021 (latest) as the 3rd iteration of the A chip (A15) on 5nm will easily outperform (in power and battery life) the x86 on 10nm.
    edited February 7 AppleExposed
  • Reply 10 of 26
    mike54mike54 Posts: 349member
    I hope she got the guts to clean up the mess that Angela left behind.
    1stAppleExposed
  • Reply 11 of 26
    GeorgeBMacGeorgeBMac Posts: 5,288member
    pk22901 said:
    As an aside:
    While Apple has devoted increased resources to expanding its in-store education (Today at Apple), I notice that all of the classes are focused on iOS devices -- and, if you own/use a Mac you're still pretty much on your own.

    This is an area that an experienced Apple veteran could help improve.

    I believe that the Mac OS on x86 will be displaced by iOS on A Series, an iOS that supports Mac OS. Apple has 1.2B users running iOS and maybe 200M running Mac OS. It'd be an easy call to launch the "A Series Mac" by 2021 (latest) as the 3rd iteration of the A chip (A15) on 5nm will easily outperform (in power and battery life) the x86 on 10nm.
    While I do not doubt that we will see an "A series" powered Mac (likely the MacBook -- at least to start), I see no reason why it have to be running iOS instead of MacOS.

    iOS was a simplified interface designed to run on a small, mobile device.   But, at this point, the device/screen size, etc. is the limiting factor, not the processor or even the memory.
    AppleExposed
  • Reply 12 of 26
    Thrashman said:
    Diversity and inclusive....
    Not a bad thing, despite what you're suggesting. Monoculture offers less value than non-mono, because different perspectives cover more use cases.

    And yes, even in a diverse culture excellence is still required. It is bizarre that people pretend that hiring non-mono means lowering standards of excellence. It does not.
    fastasleep
  • Reply 13 of 26

    mike54 said:
    I hope she got the guts to clean up the mess that Angela left behind.
    What on earth...? What mess? That the stores are busier than ever? That isn't a mess. Yeah, they're busier than when Ron Johnson launched them -- because Apple is busier. Apple today is much larger and more in demand than the Apple of Ron Johnson’s day. The iPhone didn’t even exist when he and Jobs launched the stores, just Macs and iPods. Now there is iPhone, the most successful consumer good in history, plus iPad, plus Mac, and iPods. That they are more busy and in-demand isn’t a fault on her, just as launch-day order backlogs aren’t a blemish on Cook.

    But please, do explain in detail the "mess" you perceive she left. lol
    AppleExposedfastasleep
  • Reply 14 of 26
    Dierdre, bring back the Genius Bar and service counters. Add sound deadening materials. Free water again would be a nice touch. More lounge, less factory floor. 
    edited February 7 1st
  • Reply 15 of 26
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 5,006administrator
    Dierdre, bring back the Genius Bar and service counters. Add sound deadening materials. Free water again would be a nice touch. More lounge, less factory floor. 
    The trees and high ceilings. That is literally why they are there.
    bshankrogifan_new
  • Reply 16 of 26
    canukstormcanukstorm Posts: 1,981member
    pk22901 said:
    As an aside:
    While Apple has devoted increased resources to expanding its in-store education (Today at Apple), I notice that all of the classes are focused on iOS devices -- and, if you own/use a Mac you're still pretty much on your own.

    This is an area that an experienced Apple veteran could help improve.

    I believe that the Mac OS on x86 will be displaced by iOS on A Series, an iOS that supports Mac OS. Apple has 1.2B users running iOS and maybe 200M running Mac OS. It'd be an easy call to launch the "A Series Mac" by 2021 (latest) as the 3rd iteration of the A chip (A15) on 5nm will easily outperform (in power and battery life) the x86 on 10nm.
    While I do not doubt that we will see an "A series" powered Mac (likely the MacBook -- at least to start), I see no reason why it have to be running iOS instead of MacOS.

    iOS was a simplified interface designed to run on a small, mobile device.   But, at this point, the device/screen size, etc. is the limiting factor, not the processor or even the memory.

    think of it as iOS underneath but with a macOS UI just like tvOS is iOS but with a TV UI and watchOS is iOS but with a watch UI.  I could be wrong but it seems like Apple is unifying the core technologies of its operating systems around iOS + UIKit
    AppleExposed
  • Reply 17 of 26
    1st1st Posts: 394member
    home grow is better than transplant - look like she know the soil well to make apple grow faster in a critical time - just before the new 5G show up.  Her HR background will be handy to bring back tech superiority as serves center used to be at Apple store (used to skip lunch during San fran conference to attend training course - with noisy stomach... collect "final cut pro" training DVD at launch event hosted by apple... still has them somewhere in my room.. walked in have a chat with staff and figure out what would be the best bet for upgrade path).  With new OS, new 5G software, tech support might need some heavy lifting (not the staff want to chat with grandpa can use "face time" to enhance "life experience" ;-(. IMHO.  
  • Reply 18 of 26
    AppleExposedAppleExposed Posts: 1,689unconfirmed, member
    Shes one of the few who suffered through the fall of Apple in the 90s. She's gonna be killer.

    Projecting:

    Hopefully she opens the most Apple Stores ever. 1-3 per city ain't cutting it. They've become so crowded.Apple can be the new Best Buy, except they control the whole operation from hardware to sales.

    Also wondering how a shift to digital services will affect Apple Stores?
    bshankStrangeDays
  • Reply 19 of 26
    I suspect this predicts a new role for Apple Stores -- away from being mere flashy sales outlets and let them fulfill their original, true function of supporting Apple, its products and its customers.   Suppliers of services rather than products.

    First:   Apple is expanding its sales outlets to include more box stores as well as Amazon.   That relieves the need for Apple Stores to focus on sales.

    Second:  The Apple store serves as an irreplaceable function to support Apple's customers and its products:
    -- Advise customers looking to buy (even if they don't buy that day)
    -- Support customers with specific questions on their existing products
    -- Educate customers on how to use their products
    -- Serve as repair facilities for existing products

    And, every single one of those tasks is done by PEOPLE, not stores (no matter how many fancy tables or curved glass walls it has).  And those people will require abilities and training that go far beyond merely selling a product and taking the cash.

    So, I predict, with a shift away from sales and towards services performed by people, who would be better qualified to lead the effort than the Senior VP or PEOPLE (not HR) who is so well versed in Apple's culture and vision?

    You might be right but I also think there is a lot of projection going on. People are taking their feelings on what they think should happen with Apple stores and projecting them onto this new leader. Here’s all the things I don’t like about Apple stores - that must be why Angela is leaving; here’s all the changes Apple needs to make to their stores - surely that’s what this new VP will be doing. Yet nothing in Cook’s employee memo indicated any major changes to retail. Of course I don’t expect everything to stay exactly the same but I also don’t expect things to go back to 2010 either. ‘Genius Bar’ ain’t coming back folks.
    Yes, projection & self interest is often apparent on these forums.
    But, all the stuff I mentioned are related to business decisions, not projection or self interest.   Specifically:
    -- Apple has already announced a shift toward services
    -- Apple has already announced new sales partners such as Amazon (who have decimated brick & mortar outlets)
    -- Apple has already announced a shift in their stores towards becoming community focused centers
    -- Apple has already announced enhancements to their education efforts

    All of which point directly to what I spoke of:   A shift away from being mostly focused on sales and towards an expansion of services in the Apple stores.  And that, as I mentioned puts a greater emphasis and demand on the employees delivering those services -- thus a Senior VP of People would be best qualified to find and develop those highly qualified people. 

    Added after thought:   To put it a bit more bluntly.   To effectively turn the whole damn store into an expanded version of the genius bar and minimize the role of the sales clerk -- which is no longer needed.
    That may be what you want. I don’t think either of Cook’s memos/letters suggest that.
  • Reply 20 of 26
    mike54 said:
    I hope she got the guts to clean up the mess that Angela left behind.

    What mess?
    claire1
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