The turnaround in Burberry's fortunes continues with another spectacular set of results. How come its American boss understands 'British' so well? David Prosser asks Angela Ahrendts

Click to follow

It is seven years since the former EastEnders star Danniella Westbrook almost did for Burberry. The photograph of Westbrook and her three-year-old daughter dressed head to toe in the famous check, with matching buggy, told the story of how a 150-year-old classic British brand had become synonymous with chav culture even more powerfully than the company's collapsing sales figures.

That it would be unimaginable today to see the stars of The Only Way is Essex, Westbrook's 2011 counterparts, dressed the same way, is part of the story of how Angela Ahrendts, Burberry's 50-year-old chief executive, has transformed the company since her arrival in 2006. Other chapters include the sales figures – £1.5bn last year, producing a profit of almost £300bn, more than a third higher than in 2009 – and the share price surge. The company has almost trebled in value in the past five years and Ahrendts is now one of a tiny handful of women running a FTSE 100 company.

Leaders of businesses of this sort of scale talk more about where their companies might be in three to five years' time than the day-to-day operational stuff – even if it is not always what shareholders want to hear. Ahrendts unveiled another stellar set of results this week only for Burberry's share price to sink on her announcement of plans to double its investments in new stores around the world (rather than, say, handing more cash back to shareholders in the form of dividends).

Not that investors should have been surprised. Burberry has been on an expansion drive since spotting that the luxury goods market is the one part of the global economy definitely on a profitable upswing, even if much of the world is still fighting to recover from the financial crisis of three years ago. Its trick is to target a global audience that sees a high-end British brand as a desirable badge – of wealth, certainly, but also of sophistication.

China is the biggest play. Having opened a flagship branch in Beijing last month, Ahrendts now has plans to take the number of stores in the country from 60 to 100. There is an obvious irony about Ahrendts' relentless drive to sell this vision of upmarket Britishness around the world – her own background isn't particularly upmarket and it's certainly not British.

She grew up in New Palestine, on the outskirts of Indianopolis, where she was one of six children. It wasn't an especially tough childhood, but nor could this middle American suburb have prepared her for the cut-throat business of New York fashion retail.

Even that career, an impressive stint at Donna Karan notwithstanding, was mostly spent at retailers more focused on the mass market than Burberry – particularly Liz Claiborne, where she spent eight years before moving to the UK.

Christopher Bailey, the much-fêted chief creative officer of Burberry, who had a big say in Ahrendts's appointment having previously worked with her at Donna Karan, often says that a shared sense of being fashion outsiders is one reason why their partnership has proved so successful.

A working-class Northerner, Bailey's collections have consistently struck the right balance between creativity and the practicality required for a high-street offering, albeit a top-end one. The Burberry check, made notorious by Westbrook, now features prominently on less than 10 per cent of the company's products.

Ahrendts, meanwhile, has often concentrated on more mundane aspects of the business – overhauling its supply chain, for example, and bearing down on costs, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. The other major challenge has been to address Burberry's biggest mistake, which was the indiscriminate licensing of its brand to companies all over the world. The deals produced plenty of money, but allowing other companies to slap the Burberry label on their own products, irrespective of quality or design, was ruinous. Ahrendts was quick to recognise that the franchise model would doom the company's hopes of restoring and maintaining its premium rating, and has spent much of her tenure buying back the licences, often taking a sizeable hit as a result.

She looks the part too. It helps that she has inherited the glamorous looks of her mother, who did some modelling work of her own back in Indiana, but Ahrendts also makes sure she is always photographed wearing Burberry – generally something from its Prorsum range, the collections that showcase Burberry's latest creative thinking.

Any suggestion that Ahrendts is more style than substance would be deeply wrong-headed, however. Ask her subordinates what it's like working for her and a striking number use words such as "inspirational". The commencement speech she gave last year to students graduating from her college, Ball State University, has become something of a YouTube hit.

There are critics who wonder whether Burberry ought to be capitalising on its success by launching aggressive bids for rival luxury brands (though some stock-market professionals tip the company as a bid target itself). Ahrendts's pay packet raises a few eyebrows too – her earnings totalled £3.2m last year. Friends point to Burberry's results and talk about her work ethic. Fuelled on Diet Coke, she is up at 4.30am every day and travelling the world one week in four.

On taking the Burberry job she had to relocate her husband and three children from New York to London. Will she go back to the US? One imagines so. Her children are in an American international school and the family has deep roots back home. Burberry, 156 years old this year, will go on without her, so much the stronger for the American who dragged it into the 21st century.

Born June 1960, New Palestine, Indiana.

Education Graduated in 1981 with a BA (Hons) in marketing and merchandising from Ball State University, Indiana.

Family The third of six children, her father was an entrepreneur, and her mother was a local model. She met husband, Gregg Ahrendts in elementary school, and they have two daughters and a son.

Career Has held senior positions in the past 20 years – at Donna Karan International, Henri Bendel, and Liz Claiborne. Became an executive director of Burberry Group in 2006, becoming chief executive officer the same year.

She says: "Walt Disney's core purpose is simple: to make people happy. Burberry's is more expansive: to protect, explore and inspire."

They say: "She's all talent and no pretension." Paul Charron, then chairman and CEO of Liz Claiborne when Ahrendts was hired.