Jim Weber, President and CEO of Brooks Running, was the speaker at the Albers Executive Speaker Series on May 27th. The title of his talk was, "Building a Loved Running Brand," and he gave an enthusiastic, high energy presentation that began with him declaring he has "the best job in Seattle!" And now Brooks is in Seattle and will move into its new Fremont-based headquarters in August.
This is the 100th year anniversary for Brooks, which was founded in my hometown of Philadelphia. When Weber took over in 2001, Brooks was a full-line athletic footwear and apparel company, and having little success in trying to be "everything to everybody." Weber shifted the strategy to focus on high end running shoes at a time when that was unusual and risky - and it worked. Although annual revenues initially fell from $65 million to $45 million, today Brooks is now over $500 million and climbing.
Brooks did this by establishing a brand that is about "celebrating the run," and no other company is positioned this way. This required producing high quality product that creates trust, but also establishes a connection with the customer who takes running seriously. Brooks has strived to create an inspirational brand, as opposed to Nike which has created an aspirational brand via celebrity endorsements.
Weber closed his opening remarks with some insights on leadership. First, "you have to have a point of view." You have to have a vision and know where you want to take the organization. Second, "you have to play to win." Decide what markets you are going to operate in and invest to do well there. Don't have a bunch of businesses that suffer from lack of resources and investment. Third, "play for the long haul." Do not focus on short term results and understand that success does not come overnight. Great businesses are built over decades, not years.
In the Q&A, Weber was asked about the company's commitment to sustainability. He clarified that for Brooks, sustainability is a value, it is not a strategy. It is want employees want to stand for. People will not pay more for elements of sustainability in the products they purchase.
Weber said that from 2001 to 2009, the company focused on what runners needed, doing significant scientific research on how their shoes should be designed for comfort and performance. After 2009, Brooks started listening to customers to see what they wanted. This resulted in more changes to design and appearance - for example, more distinctive colors and look. For several years, Brooks' pivot to high end running shoes was under the radar, but by 2007 others started jumping into the market, including specialty retailers such as North Face and other shoe companies such as Puma. No one limited themselves to the running category, however.
Weber emphasized the important role that high quality products play in building trust. Brooks needed to become a trusted brand, and to be trusted required high quality product. He also noted the importance of winning over "key influencers," which in the running world is the staff working in specialty running shops, sports medicine personnel, physical therapists, etc….
When asked about sensor technology and wearable sensors and how that would be incorporated into the running products of the future, Weber answered that while that technology would become increasingly popular, he did not think it would end up in shoes and apparel. Instead, it would be incorporated into other items such as ear buds. In other words, he did not think Brooks needed to be investing in that - someone else is going to control that space.
In response to a question about what were the most useful topics he learned about in business school, his answer was that he found his business strategy classes to be very useful, especially working through case studies. Leadership was another area that was very valuable. Everything he learned about leading and connecting with people has been very important in contributing to his success. Disappointing to see him get this wrong and not mention ECONOMICS as the most useful topic in b-school! :}