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Tim Cook taps John Browett, CEO of Dixons, to head his retail empire

Johnson and Browett

Ron Johnson, the former Target (TGT) whiz kid who built more than 300 Apple Stores for Steve Jobs, left a gaping hole in Apple’s (AAPL) management team when he departed last year to run J.C. Penney (JCP). During his seven and a half years with the company, Johnson’s stores became Apple’s public face — clean, well-lighted places where customers were invited to play with the newest toys, surf the Web, check their e-mail and bring their problems to the Genius Bar.

It was a measure of how hard it was to fill Johnson’s shoes that it took Apple seven and a half months and the services of an international headhunting firm to find a new chief of retail.

They found him, of all places, at Dixons, a depression-era photography studio that took its name randomly from a British telephone book and grew through a long series of acquisitions to become one of the world’s largest consumer electronics retail chains, selling everything from cameras to washer dryers across Europe.

Has Tim Cook ever been to a Dixons?

John Browett, Apple’s new senior vice president for retail, had been Dixons’ CEO since 2007 and is credited with helping move it into the digital age, getting rid of analog TVs in 2008, lining up hot new products (securing exclusive rights to the iPad in 2010), and rebranding its service operations with “The Tech Guys” and the KNOWHOW format.

Dixons’ shares fell as much as 13% Tuesday on the news that Browett was leaving.

“Our retail stores are all about customer service, and John shares that commitment like no one else we’ve met,” said Tim Cook in Apple’s press release. “We are thrilled to have him join our team and bring his incredible retail experience to Apple.”

Some Brits who have shopped at Browett’s stores were not so thrilled.

Jonathan Margolis, who advises wealthy readers what technology to buy in the FT’s How to Spend it magazine, tweeted: “#Apple has hired bloke from Dixons to run retail. Tim Cook very excited about this as he’s Mr Customer Service. Has he been to a Dixons?”

Browett will supervise the expansion of Apple’s 361-store retail chain. In its last earnings statement, the company reported that its stores generated $6.1 billion in the December quarter, bringing in an average of $17 million per store.