It’s been more than 25 years since Pat O’Malley ran competitively at the University of Maine, but the executive is still vying for a top spot in the running space. After 12 years as its SVP of global product, Saucony tapped O’Malley to take over the brand after former head Richie Woodworth assumed the position of president of Wolverine World Wide’s Lifestyle Group in January.
Although the role is new, O’Malley knows Saucony’s strengths and intends on using them to attract new consumers. This includes leveraging its performance authenticity, pushing lifestyle silhouettes and using its expertise to enter the growing digital fitness world.
Andrew Gray, GM of Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker, said there is energy and excitement around Saucony, and the brand is excelling because of its comprehensive consumer base.
“On the performance side, they trend a little older, [and] they’re relevant to both genders,” he explained. “The lifestyle side — where the excitement and momentum is in our business — stretches from the late teens to the mid 30s. Between both categories they cover a wide consumer group.”
And Saucony’s excitement extends beyond large retail chains. According to SportsOneSource, although the label’s share in the running space dropped slightly in 2015, it remained a Top 10 performance brand across all market segments. But its business took a hit to start the year. During the Wolverine Q1 earnings call earlier this month, the company said Saucony was down high-single digits for the quarter.
Its CEO, Blake Krueger, attributed it to a number of factors, including retail bankruptcies, a rough transition to a new Canadian warehouse, and a cold and wet first two months of the year that impacted specialty retail buying patterns.
How does O’Malley plan to compete in a difficult climate? Read on.
What have you learned about Saucony as you’ve climbed the corporate ladder?
PO: I’ve learned the value of knowing the consumer you’re [targeting] and having the ability to try to solve problems for them. We have a defined bull’s-eye for what we’re going after: the runner who wants to celebrate the run lifestyle. My vision is to invite more people into our brand, the [consumers] who wake up and say, “I’m going to work out, and today I’m going to run.”
What are the biggest challenges impacting the industry today?
PO: You’ve seen all the bankruptcies going on. You’ve got a retailer you have history with, done business with, and all of a sudden they’re going through bankruptcy. You’re partners with them, and you want to help them the best you can, but it also makes for a challenging business environment. There’s a lot of consolidation happening, [but] the marketplace is also pretty saturated. There’s a lot of competition out there, whether it’s brick-and-mortar or direct-to-consumer online accounts.
Are you comfortable with the brand’s position in the running market?
PO: I guess it’s how you define comfortable. I like what we stand for, what the brand has done, and the reputation we have, but I want to get more people wearing Saucony. We have a great brand and great stories and products, and I won’t be comfortable until every runner in the world is wearing Saucony.
What are some of Saucony’s biggest challenges?
PO: Performance running continues to do well, but there’s this lifestyle running aspect that everybody’s talking about. The challenge for us is opening up retailer and consumers’ eyes to those opportunities.
There’s been notable executive turnover at your parent company the past few years. How has that impacted you?
PO: Wolverine is the overarching company, but they allow the brands to work independently, and even though there are some synergies across the portfolio, the reality is the [brand heads] run the day-to-day operations. We’ve been fortunate that the turnover at Saucony has been small.
How do you want to evolve Saucony’s retail strategy moving forward?
PO: Run specialty has always been our No. 1 focus and will continue to be. They’re dedicated to the sport just like we are, and they represent our brand well. The other important focus area is sporting goods. That’s because the fitness consumer is going into the sporting goods channel looking for a good running shoe. [The segment] gives us the opportunity to showcase our brand with that consumer.
What categories do you think will outdo others?
PO: First and foremost will be performance running; that will continue to be a growth driver for us. And [18 months ago] we launched this new style of product called “Life on the Run” — performance shoes that have lifestyle-inspired looks. Our strong Originals stories allow us to take lifestyle-inspired looks and bring a performance story to them. We talk about inviting more people to our brand, and this takes the intimidation factor out of performance footwear.
Isofit and Everun were major innovations for Saucony. What’s the next big story to come?
PO: For spring ’17, you’re going to see a strong evolution of those technologies that’s going to have a dramatic impact on the runner’s experience. The other thing we’re doing is working on an app that helps strengthen the runner and allows the runner to do self-diagnostics of their form, where their strengths and weaknesses are, and give them feedback on how to strengthen those areas to make them a better runner.
Overall, how important are digital technology investments?
PO: It’s important because the goal for Saucony is to improve the runner’s experience and create an emotional connection between the consumer and us. These digital platforms are going to allow us to do that. People keep coming with unbelievable ideas around digital, and we’re going to keep working on those things we think are relevant to the consumer.