When former Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) executive Ron Johnson took over as CEO at J.C. Penney Company (NYSE:JCP), shareholders had high expectations. After all, he helped build Apple’s retail stores from the ground up and make them into a success, right? Shouldn’t he be able to turn around a 100+ year old retail giant and turn it into a success once again? Maybe not.
An article published in Bloomberg Businessweek posits that he failed because his skills aren’t transferable outside of Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), and there’s certainly a history to back up that theory. But there’s also enough history to tweak that theory just slightly.
Stone runs through several former Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) executives and lists what they’re doing now. iPod father Tony Fadell left to found a tech startup and is finding success selling his networked thermostat. Bertrand Serlet, who was once a senior vice president at Apple, launched Upthere, a cloud computing company. Former CFO Fred Anderson and former software engineer Avie Tevanian became partners at Elevation Partners, a private-equity fund which invests in technology companies.
So you could certainly say that the apple (or Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) executive in this case) doesn’t fall far from the tree. All of the successful former Apple-ites ended up using their skills within the tech field somewhere else. None of them went to a clothing retailer, and it stands to reason that selling flashy tech gadgets is completely different than selling women’s clothing.
Even Johnson’s success at Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) made him ill-prepared to take over a department store because even though it does sell clothing, the big box retailer probably has more in common with tech retail outlets like Apple than with clothing stores because it sells so many other things. That could be why Johnson wanted to build up J.C. Penney Company (NYSE:JCP)’s housewares department rather than focusing (at first anyway) purely on the chain’s bread and butter—women’s clothing.
Of course this isn’t to say that there aren’t going to be some former Apple executives who don’t do as well at other companies when they leave, even if the other company is a tech company. Jon Rubinstein, who once handled the company’s hardware division, became the head of Palm in 2007. In a few years, the company was acquired by Hewlett-Packard Company (NYSE:HPQ).
There’s also an interesting trend in former Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) executives taking time off before they do something else big, but that’s to be expected. It’s not unheard of for executives of major companies like Apple to take time off between jobs. They’re financially able to do so, and running any big public company puts some major pressure down.
But Johnson went straight from Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) to J.C. Penney Company (NYSE:JCP), so that could be another thing that counted against him. He had no time to prepare the different mindset required for running a different type of retail outlet.
So the question remains whether Johnson will be recruited by Cook to rejoin Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s ranks. Cook recruited Bob Mansfield after he announced his retirement and took some much-needed time off, so there’s a precedent for Johnson to return. It could be that he just needs some time off.