Welcome to Fit for Business, a new column from Well+Good’s co-founder and publisher Alexia Brue. Each week, she’ll take you behind-the-scenes with the most successful healthy-living entrepreneurs around the world, so you can learn what inspires them, what challenges them, and what it’s like to work in the (booming) wellness space.
This week she’s sitting down with Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks, the go-to brand for pavement pounders and trail runners alike.
Jim Weber took the CEO reins at Brooks 15 years ago and immediately committed what he dubs “heresy” in the eyes of the athletic footwear world: He cut half of Brooks’ product line (eliminating $30 million in revenue) so the company could focus exclusively on technical running shoes.
“It wasn’t a playbook strategy and everyone in the industry considered it really risky,” he remembers. “It wasn’t clear that it would work.”
Spoiler alert: it did. And because of that decision (in addition to a few other bold moves), Brooks is now positioned as one of the top shoe brands for runners.
While visiting New York City from the company’s Seattle homebase, Weber stopped by Well+Good to talk leadership, time management, and professional inspiration—not to mention Brooks’ stunning new Seattle HQ—with me.
Growing up in the Twin Cities, what were some of your early experiences that influenced your path toward becoming a business leader and a CEO?
In seventh grade we had to write papers about what we wanted to be. I wrote that I wanted to be a professional hockey player or president of a company. I remember researching boards of directors and understanding that you had to get an MBA. So running a business—being part of a team and an organization that was doing something and going somewhere—is really something I’ve wanted to do from a young age. Brooks is the fourth company I’ve run. I’ve been there for 15 years now and I feel so fortunate!
“What makes us unique is that we made a decision that no other brand has made: We decided we’re just going to be a running brand.”
There are a lot of running shoe companies. What makes Brooks different?
We’re a 102-year-old brand and, just like all the other major brands in footwear, we were a full-line athletic company until 2001. Brooks had struggled through the 1980s and 1990s, and by the time I joined the board in the late-’90s it had gone through a series of owners and CEOs and was really losing its way.
What makes us unique is that we made a decision that no other brand has made: We decided we’re just going to be a running brand in 2001. The conventional wisdom had always been that you have three legs to the stool, because when running is down basketball would be up…and it all works. We made the decision to just focus on running, and never looked back—and our product has gotten better and better as we’ve focused on people who run in this active lifestyle.
What’s Berkshire Hathaway—the massive, multinational holding company— like as an owner?
Brooks was part of Fruit of the Loom, which is part of Berkshire Hathaway, and about four years ago Warren Buffet spun Brooks out into a separate, standalone subsidiary reporting directly into him. Berkshire is so unique; they trust us to be stewards of this brand and this business and to think long-term and run a good business. It’s been referred to as a “deserved trust” environment—they want people to operate as if they own the company.
The measure of success is strengthening your brand. Quarterly earnings in a business like ours don’t tell you anything, and we think it’s a huge advantage in our industry that we can focus on our customer and the long-term. Private equity can be really focused on a three-year exit, [but] I’ve always believed that great brands are built over many, many, many years. We want to build a leading brand wherever people run in the world.
“Running is powerful in people’s lives; it’s community, and people use it to transform their lives and invest in themselves.”
What keeps you inspired year after year?
I’ve been running for over 30 years—since I quit ice hockey—and I just love it. It’s more of a mental therapy than anything else. Running is powerful in people’s lives; it’s community, and people use it to transform their lives and invest in themselves. It’s an incredibly positive thing to be a part of because it makes people happy and feel good.
As a company selling a fitness product, how does Brook walk-the-walk itself?
We moved into a gorgeous new headquarters about two years ago, and our offices are right on this great system of trails in Seattle. On Friday afternoons we do big group runs and then a department will host beer and snacks afterwards. Sometimes we’ll do training runs for events we have coming up—we have major events 40 weekends a year, so our teams can travel to races all year long. Also, in our new building, we put in showers and a first-rate kitchen and cafeteria with patios and rooftop decks. We use the same food service company as Google and serve breakfast and lunch with healthy, fresh ingredients.
Tell me about a key decision you made that was a turning point, but that frankly could have gone either way.
The 2001 decision to focus on technical running shoes and cut everything else was huge. We were at about $65-70 million in revenue and we got rid of almost $30 million of it! We simply cut all the lower-priced and non-running shoes and decided that we were only going to make technical running products. That was a bit of heresy.
The other bold decision we made was during the recession of 2008-09. Everyone could feel the economy just stop, and [they were] peering over a cliff. Apparel sales got hammered. But what we saw in early 2009 was that shoes kept selling—and running made the cut in terms of what people were going to spend on! At this point we said, “We’re going to invest.” We cut our profits in half, put more money into R&D, signed on to sponsor the Rock and Roll Marathon, and it set the tone for our brand to grow as this running lifestyle took off.
“I need processing and thinking time, so I use the mornings for that and for absorbing news.”
CEOs are super busy—what are your tried-and-true efficiency hacks?
I need processing and thinking time, so I use the mornings for that and for absorbing news. I love that 5 a.m. hour for reading magazines online, getting through the news, getting through emails.
Most of us have barbell inboxes: There’s all the junk and the garbage that is unsolicited on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end I’m getting emails that require a thoughtful response. It’s critical to separate out time where you can process and move through email in a decisive, thoughtful way. So I separate that from meeting times, where you are present for people and having good productive conversations that lead to good decisions, but then all of the incoming flow of stuff to focus and manage in a thoughtful way.
I really use that early morning; once I get to work I don’t control my schedule and there are always things that come up, and you have to create flexibility for that.
More of a night owl? Jennifer Bandier suggests getting your work done in the evening, when you’re less likely to be interrupted. And if you really want to stay organized, Juice Generation’s founder Eric Helms highly recommends investing in a stack of yellow legal pads.