Wow, Cyndi Lauper was right: American girls do just want to have fun. They aren’t so much breaking glass ceilings as shattering them to smithereens.
Janet Yellen is set to become the new head of the Federal Reserve, Hillary Clinton looks a dead cert to run for President and now Angela Ahrendts, the boss of Britain’s Burberry, becomes one of the most influential women in the world of business when she takes up her new job at Apple. Taking charge of the tech giant’s 408 shops and its online business, she cruises past Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Marissa Mayer, head of Yahoo!, in the power stakes.
So this is a huge promotion for Ms Ahrendts (below) and an inspired move by Apple. She has shown the most remarkable grasp of marketing in turning Burberry into a world-class brand and trebling its value in eight years. Investors got the significance of the move immediately: while much was made of the £400m fall in Burberry’s value, there was little focus on how Apple’s shares gained almost as much. That puts a $1bn bounty on Ms Ahrendts’ head – just the sort of magic Apple needs to fight rivals such as Samsung.
Less savvy was the UK media, which responded to her departure with a distinct sense of pique . This bothers me and probably explains why we have so few top women in Britain. The most stupid question – it was asked on Newsnight – was why she would give up being boss of a FTSE 100 company to join Apple as a mere senior vice-president. Then came risible comments about how her departure is a blow to women because it leaves only two female FTSE 100 chiefs.
Let’s deal with the dumb Newsnight question first. Knowing when to leave is always the sign of a good boss, but also Ms Ahrendts has finished what she came to do and built Burberry into a £10bn empire. However, it’s still a tiddler next to Apple with its $460bn (£285bn) worth and unparalleled potential to grow all over the globe. If you were an ambitious executive, still in your prime, which would you choose? You would be mad not to take on the challenge of working at the surreally named Infinite Loop in California, rather than Regent Street.
Now for the more prickly gender issue. Her move should be seen as a fantastic example for aspiring women; you can get to the top in work as well as having a great marriage and three teenage children. Of course, though, being American helps. For the reality is that most of the female FTSE 100 chiefs have been non-British –Dame Marjorie Scardino, Dame Clara Furse and Cynthia Carroll. The two left are British. Maybe it’s time to face up to some unpleasant facts: either talented British women prefer to do their own thing – Jo Malone and Anya Hindmarch et al – rather than climb the corporate tree, or they face massive prejudice. Strangely enough, the next woman to join the FTSE 100 will be Royal Mail chief Moya Greene, a Canadian.
Is this coincidence? I don’t think so. One American businesswoman tells me that there are two big reasons for the success of US women over here: the fact that male Brits don’t know where to place them on the social scale, and their huge reservoirs of American “can do” spirit. In the UK, chief executives measure success with a country house, an Aston Martin or two and sending their children to private school. In the US, CEOs want three houses, to send their children’s children to private school and to leave endowments to their colleges.
While she builds her next fortune, Ms Ahrendts is obviously going to have fun as she’s addicted to Apple’s products. In some ways her new challenge is the reverse of what she did at Burberry. There she took an old name and smartened it up. With Apple, she’s got a beautiful young brand and her task is to help give it longevity. Yet the companies are also similar in style: both are design-led luxury goods and both keep tight control over their products, never allowing them to be undercut or sold elsewhere.
Under Christopher Bailey, Burberry will keep doing what it does well, but the shares may come under pressure if and when emerging markets slow down. Hopefully, readers will have bought into Burberry when I first tipped them at 400p, at £7 and, more bravely, at £10. On Friday they closed at £15.13.
What about Apple? The shares look cheap at $504 and my instinct would be to follow the $1bn woman. She might even end up running the show.