In Person: Jim Zwiers Takes Wolverine To New Heights

Standing in a stream behind Wolverine World Wide’s Rockford, Mich., campus, Jim Zwiers is posing for pictures and joking about the Merrell spring ’15 trail shoes he’s wearing.

“This isn’t a problem,” says the company’s head of international operations, showing off the style’s grip as he gets into position with water rushing past the stones he is standing on.

For Zwiers, a 16-year Wolverine vet, talking about outdoor product comes naturally. He led the company’s Outdoor Group for four years until 2013, when he was put in charge of its performance division, which includes outdoor stalwarts Merrell, Chaco, Patagonia Footwear and Cushe as well as running brand Saucony. Then earlier this month, Zwiers started as SVP and president of Wolverine’s International Group, a position that leads not just the outdoor and athletic brands, but all 16 of the company’s footwear labels in hundreds of countries and territories.

Zwiers’ new job — he replaces retiring longtime international head Bill Brown — is a complicated one. There are 200 markets to keep tabs on; 12 of them, including North America and Europe, are company-owned operations, and the rest rely on joint ventures and distribution partnerships. What’s more, the responsibility of the role — and the stakes, for that matter — intensified after the firm’s 2012 acquisition of four labels from Collective Brands. Before the deal, Wolverine sold about 60 percent of its footwear outside the U.S. market; after, it’s just under 50 percent, and the company aims to push it back higher.

Wolverine Chairman, President and CEO Blake Krueger thinks Zwiers is the best person to head it up.

“Jim’s a very talented individual, with a high energy level and a passion for brands,” Krueger said. “He’s the right person at the right time for this particular position, he really is.”

Market watchers agree.

“Jim is an incredibly impressive guy,” said Steven Marotta, an analyst with C.L. King & Associates. “His abilities and skillset are self-evident when you meet him, and I am not surprised by the move considering how important the international strategy is to overall sales and earnings plans.”

Here, Zwiers lays out his plans, the perfect partnerships and what he’s learned on the water.

Entering into your new position, what are your priorities?
JZ:
The first is to lever the brands in the portfolio. Right now, our mix is about 50-50 in terms of U.S. pairs versus international pairs, and so that’s heavily weighted to the brands that were in the portfolio prior to the Performance & Lifestyle Group acquisitions [from Collective]. The company put “worldwide” in its name decades ago, at a time when it was a bit presumptuous, probably? But I think we’ve slowly grown into the moniker.

Is your focus exclusively on the newer PLG brands?
JZ:
There’s a not a single brand that has anywhere near achieved its market potential on a global basis.

How is your day-to-day going to change as you leave the Performance Group side?
JZ:
One of the biggest differences will be that I won’t be as hands-on with the creation engine. It’s a part of the business I enjoy and that is incredibly exciting, but that part will be minimized. Even though the international markets have a lot of input, creation is owned by the brands, which is exactly where you’d want it. It’s a shift in priorities. I’m incredibly fortunate to step into a very strong team with great regional presidents and great regional skills. So my time will be spent more on strategy, aligning to new opportunities, driving the million-unit brands far larger and developing our emerging brands into the next million-unit brands.

Will expansion into additional overseas markets be a priority?
JZ:
Every once in a while, we ask whether there’s any other countries and territories left. [Laughs.] We definitely have scope; what we need to continue to drive now is scale. We have not achieved our optimal market share in any market in any region. We have a long ways to go to get to where we think we can get to in terms of operational excellence, in terms of demand planning and demand creation, but we’re taking steps in that direction, and it’s beginning to show some strong results.

Will you buy back any of your distributor markets?
JZ:
We’re happy with three business models we’ve developed globally — a partner distribution model, an owned model and a joint venture model — and we’re agnostic on which of those is best for any given country. Each of those in their own way can be fantastic.

Sperry Top-Sider was lauded as one of the biggest overseas opportunities for Wolverine at the time of the acquisition. How much progress has that brand made internationally?
JZ:
When you take some of our most penetrated brands, they’d be well above 50 percent of their pairs being sold globally. We’ve not committed to when that will happen for Sperry, but we know the trajectory and we’ve been able to execute it with many brands. We’re still in the first inning with Sperry international. Sperry is priority No. 1, with both new distributor sign-ups and in our owned operations.

Will you make changes to the brand’s strategy as you look to drive more international growth?
JZ:
In the U.S., Sperry is well-established, and we can tell a very nuanced story. In these regional markets where it’s just developing, we need to tell the authentic boat shoe story. [But all of our product and marketing] teams think globally. It’s not like we’re taking U.S. messages and trying to figure out how they translate. Our larger brands and many of our smaller brands focus on international from the first line-kickoff meeting.

Where does Saucony stand internationally?
JZ:
Saucony started with a terrific base thanks to the great work Richie Woodworth (president of Saucony), Chris Lindner (former CMO and SVP of North America sales for Saucony; now CMO and SVP of business development for Sperry) and the team had done. And a couple of dynamics are excellent right now. The running market in Europe is expanding, and Saucony has a strong base in many parts of Europe, so we’re able to lever that. At the same time, Saucony has been expanding its market share in the U.S. in run specialty. Another market trend [in our favor] is that the classics-type look is moving consistently toward running looks.

How about Keds?
JZ:
The Keds message resonates globally, and it’s in a category that has a lot of heat. And Taylor Swift and some of the tours she has taken continue to help expand [the brand] overseas.

Are there any markets especially potent for any given brand?
JZ:
In 2011, we made an organizational shift at Wolverine, and we moved international into a matrix structure — it used to sit in the brands for every brand. So when we see the world, we see it in buckets of brand opportunities. And while we talk about it sometimes in terms of Latin America or Europe, the hard work and the exciting opportunities are driving consumer connections to a brand, with a product, in a country. We get that specific.

Any categories or areas you think have potential?
JZ:
I don’t know that we have a brand in our portfolio that has maxed out its women’s opportunity. If we could mirror our pairs in women’s as we have in men’s, we will have dramatic growth.

Wolverine is footwear-centric, but Sperry and Merrell, among others, have said apparel and accessories will be growth drivers. How do those categories fit into the strategy?
JZ:
You can get a shoe brand to be a certain level of inspiration and aspiration for a consumer, but a lifestyle brand has more pull. And it’s not just about share of wallet; we think of it more in terms of share of life. How often do you think about this brand, how do you think about this brand empowering and inspiring you? And as you gain additional categories, whether that be accessories or apparel, you begin to have a different relationship with a brand, it becomes more a part of your life. You lean on it to define you a little more, and you create greater loyalty to it. So at the highest level, that’s where we see opportunities.

Has anything changed at Wolverine in the 16 years you’ve been with the company as it’s grown in size and scope?
JZ:
We are fortunate to still have an underdog mentality. We think of ourselves as having to outwork, outhustle and outlast our competitors every day.

Will working with partners and colleagues across so much of the globe present any logistical challenges?
JZ:
The sun never sets on this job, and the sun never sets on Wolverine World Wide. But it’s also changing. Where emails used to be the primary mode of contact, now it’s more social, so it’s WhatsApp and other ways to communicate. It increases the frequency of those touches so you’re not waiting for a phone call — you’re tapping a quick social media message, or you’re doing something else. That’s really the power but also the joy of this role. And with mobile devices and the way people communicate today, things are much more fluid, and as a company we’ve also been able to lever video and communications. We have exceptional video capabilities. It’s never a substitute for travel and being in the market, but at the same time, there’s a lot of great work that can be done and connectivity that can be achieved with modern technology.

Are there any other brands in or out of the outdoor industry that you admire?
JZ:
GoPro is a brand I have amazing respect for. That trend of consumers wanting tellable stories, the ability to show a better version of yourself, GoPro is at the absolute rock face of letting people show the best version of themselves. Nike is in our industry, and it’s something you’ve just got to respect. It’s ubiquitous yet special, and that’s very hard to achieve. And they have a distinct point of view that they’ve been able to maintain as they grow globally. The last one you have to respect also is Red Bull. When you’re selling caffeinated water, you need to be awfully good at creating a point of view and creating a message, and they do a great job.

What do you like to do away from the office?
JZ:
I love fishing. For me, it’s been not only a personal love but a way to connect generations. My family, our kids, my dad and then [people] in the industry, it connects us around an experience, it connects you to people. We troll on Lake Michigan, we spin fish and live bait in Florida. It’s pretty great.

Every fisherman has a fishing story. What’s your best one?
JZ:
Blake and I had to swim across the Colorado River. We were fishing on our way to a show and stopped for lunch. The guide pulled the boat up what he thought was sufficient enough; when we finished lunch and were going back to the river, the boat was gone. Expletives roared and echoed through the canyon, but there was no boat to be had. So Blake, the guide and I all swam across the raging Colorado River to reach a road bridge to then track down our boat.

Any takeaways for a business leader from fishing?
JZ:
If there’s an analogy to brands, it’s that you need to offer what they’re looking for, you need to present it in a way that’s compelling, and you need to be patient.

You were a CPA and then a lawyer before you joined Wolverine. Is this career path one you expected?
JZ:
I’ve always taken this approach in life to not worry too far ahead, to take the opportunities for what lies immediately visible and not worry about what lies beyond. It’s served me well. I’ve probably been more lucky than good, but it’s certainly an unplanned adventure to move from being an accountant, to being a lawyer, to having an opportunity like I have to participate with other amazing leaders in a company like Wolverine.