Brooks Sports is about to enter its second century on the crest of a growth wave that CEO Jim Weber has guided by turning the company from "an also-ran, price-point brand" to a leading performance premium brand in what he refers to as a unique "class to mass to class" repositioning.
Weber, who was brought in as CEO in 2001 to turn around a troubled athletic-shoe company, took Brooks from a $60 million company to a running-shoes-only business that did $400 million last year and is now positioned, as number one among shoes sold by specialty running shops. And it's typically in the top three shoes worn by runners in major races across the U.S. and Europe.
The 53-year-old Weber, whose pre-Brooks background includes 12 years in consumer products with Pillsbury, Coleman and Sims Sports and a couple of years in investment banking, is now a finalist in
When Brooks moves late this year to a new Seattle headquarters in the funky Fremont District across the street from runners-dominated Burke-Gilman Trail, the 80,000-square-foot facility will house Brooks first-ever retail concept store.
Brooks has been a shoe company from its founding in Philadelphia in 1914, first as a maker of bathing shoes but soon moving into athletic shoes that were worn by football and baseball players in the '20s and '30s.
It continued as a mostly off-the-radar family-owned athletic shoe company for decades, before sinking into bankruptcy in the late 1970s and being bought by a series of owners who moved its home office first to Grand Rapids, MI, then to Bothell, northeast of Seattle.
The company experienced a business uptick in the '90s when Norwegian entrepreneurs Kjell Rokke and Bjorn Gilstein owned the company and brought in local CEO Helen Rockey. But the company got into financial trouble after Rokke and Gilstein sold Brooks to an investment-banking firm and Weber, who had been on the board for two years, was coaxed into taking the Brooks reins.
Russell Corp, acquired Brooks in 2004 and two years later, Berkshire Hathaway acquired Russell, down in the bowels of whose holdings was Brooks, which has since acquired a higher visibility in the Warren Buffet business empire.
"In running, we've taken an inclusive celebrate-running image, a 'run happy umbrella' that really creates a focus for us as a fitness company," Weber said. "In 12 years we've gone from 1 percent of the running-shoes market to third place."
"And we've done by what I think is a unique class-to-mass-to-class transition," he noted. "Brooks was a class running shoe that then was positioned to be a price-point brand and now is repositioned as basically the highest-priced premium running shoe."
As evidence of that, he points, in a Nordstrom-like explanation, to the average prices of the three tops running shoes as of early this year. Brooks' average price was $100.30, Asics' $91.20 and Nike $70.50
According to Leisure Trends, Brooks is Number One in the specialty running shoe channel in this country, with a market share of 29 percent, and number three overall. Weber notes, "the company is usually number two behind Asics in terms of which shoes runners are wearing at the 20 races we perform around the world."
"Shoes matter for competitive runners and we're one of the two top shoes in races, behind Asics," he added.
Weber says that while the focus on running "makes us a niche player, it's a niche we think can bring us to a $1.5 billion company. We're on track to reach half a billion this year."
I asked Weber if it seems a bit unusual for the head of a $400 million, century-old company, even having grown the business by 700 percent over the past decade, to be considered an entrepreneur. He replied:"What is an entrepreneur? Someone who brings unique solutions to problems that no one else has solved for a company."
In fact, Weber's comment about entrepreneurs could apply to several of the finalists in this year's Northwest EoY event who either guide large companies or have been around for an extended time. Those include bank CEOs Mark Mason of HomeStreet and Greg Seibly of Sterling, both of whom guided major turnarounds of their institutions, Expedia head Dana Khosrowshaki and four of the directors of Madrona Venture Group, the 18-year-old Seattle-based venture capital firm.
: Tom Alberg, Paul Goodrich, Gerald Grinstein and William Ruckelshaus are the Madrona directors up for honoring with Grinstein and Ruckelshaus once having served as the leaders of major national public companies.
When I asked Dan smith, managing partner of the Seattle office of Ernst & Young, which is in its 26th year with the EoY event in the Northwest, what defines an entrepreneur, he said "You have to stand back with an open pair of eyes and ask who is really making a difference. Who is taking companies to that next level?"
"They may not be starting a business, but the turnaround is almost like starting a business and takes the same entrepreneurial skills," he said.