3 Questions for Reebok’s Uli Becker

Uli Becker is making sure Reebok practices what it preaches.

The CEO of the Canton, Mass.-based athletic brand not only devotes every morning to CrossFit training but he wants to make sure his employees get enthused about fitness as well.

Reebok built a CrossFit training center at its global campus more than a year ago, which Becker said he and nearly half of the staff use on a regular basis.

“Everyone says they want to be fitter, but the journey is not one that makes people very happy,” Becker said. “CrossFit adds components to getting in shape that make it fun for people.”

The athletic brand, which has struggled since the falloff of the toning footwear business, has been partnering with CrossFit training programs since 2010 and is finding ways to combine the activity with retail. Last week, Reebok unveiled its Fit Hub in New York, a retail concept that is part store and part CrossFit Box. Becker said he hopes the concept — the first of its kind in the U.S. — strikes a cord with athletically inclined shoppers.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a consumer in Korea or in the U.S., the overall acceptance of fitness is more of a positive proposition,” Becker said. “The store concept gives a fresh way of looking at things.”

Here, the top exec talks about his plans to rebuild Reebok and the future of the toning category.

1. Reebok’s recent earnings were weaker than expected. What do you attribute that to and how do you intend to get the company back on track?
It’s all part of the process of rebuilding the brand. Six years ago, [Reebok] was a hospital patient on life support. We’re on a little bit of medication now, but we’re not a hospital patient anymore. The news obviously wasn’t very good, but on the positive side, there are some short-term problems we’re addressing like business-model challenges in India and compensating for our license business with the NFL. The toning business was huge, and then it imploded based on things like overdistribution, the Federal Trade Commission and so forth. To compensate, we’re setting up our business on a wider scale for the balance of 2012 and 2013 with concepts like Zig and Realflex. We are very clear and very much on track in regard to brand building. Now, consumers know who we are and we’re on pace to make sure our business is on a sustainable platform to start growing again.

2. How has introducing a CrossFit box to the Reebok staff impacted company culture?
If you want to be a leader in the fitness market, you have to start changing the perception of what fitness is. Our proof is in our own company. I’m one example. Before the day starts, I’m already in the CrossFit box. We’ve got roughly 1,000 people in our offices in Canton, and approximately 500 of them are regular CrossFitters. There are certain components of the activity that we want to bring to our staff — for instance, camaraderie, which affects social skills, is one of them. The community building of CrossFit adds to the joy of getting in shape, and we’ve learned in our own company how this approach to fitness changes how people feel. They’re lighter-weight, they have better posture and they’re more confident. They have more mental strength, so they’re better employees. We know that what we’re trying to tell our customers works with our own people.

3. Toning was once a large part of your business. What are your expectations for relaunching in the category?
We’re looking at that very sensitively. It has a lot to do with how much inventory is still out there. We’re taking a month-by-month look and adjusting our strategy. We’re not sure how big we’re going to be on toning in spring ’13 because we have other stories to talk about. It’s a lot like how we relaunched our Classics line. If we sell too many classic leathers, the demand goes down and we have to dry out the market. We feel like our business in Classics right now is picking up. The demand is back, and we’re managing it as a proper business again. The same will apply to toning. The media, as well as the distribution [of toning products], was out of hand, so it needs to dry out. We’re prepared to relaunch it when we feel the demand has kicked back in.

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