How Merrell President Sue Rechner Is Changing the Outdoor Shoe Company

In her first year as Merrell’s president, Sue Rechner has focused on an agenda for change. Here’s what’s on tap for year two and beyond.

Merrell has been a consistent force in the outdoor market. But to remain a major player, brand president Sue Rechner knows relying on what’s led to success won’t work for the future.

The exec — who assumed the role in May 2017 after stints with Victorinox Swiss Army and Confluence Outdoor — is leading the label into new territory, from product to marketing to talent. Most notably, Merrell’s footwear offering will have a vastly different look and feel.

First, the brand is digging into its vaults to develop a compelling retro lineup to cater to nostalgia-focused shoppers for spring ’19 and beyond. It’s also revamping its performance hiking styles and delivering eco-friendly casual looks that are built to last.

merrell, president
Merrell President Sue Rechner

Moves such as these have caught the attention of experts such as The NPD Group Inc.’s sports industry adviser, Matt Powell, who has been a vocal critic of the greater outdoor market for its lack of freshness. “Merrell certainly makes credible product, and they’re always introducing new technologies to the industry,” Powell said.

The brand’s retail partners are also excited for what’s to come. “Merrell continues to be one of our most successful footwear brands that we carry,” said Sam Halbrecht, DMM of Paragon Sports. “They have an incredible history with the Moab series, and lightweight hiking is Merrell’s signature. What is exciting for spring is the new MQM Ace.” He noted that the style’s waterproof and lightweight qualities are designed for agility and stability. As the industry banks on Merrell’s success, its parent company, Wolverine World Wide, is too.

While Wolverine as a whole has seen its share of ups and downs, Merrell has experienced growth from low single digits to high teens for the last three quarters. The brand confirmed it’s on pace for high-single-digit growth for the year. Here, Rechner talks about the daunting task of leading change, Merrell’s evolution behind the scenes and the challenges of keeping up with consumer demands.

Were there growing pains transitioning from the paddle sports equipment world with Confluence Outdoor to footwear and apparel with Merrell?

“Learning footwear certainly was one of the first and most significant things. But when it comes to leading organizations, especially leading powerful consumer brands in the outdoor category, there’s a lot of similarities you can export from my role in [Victorinox] Swiss Army, my role in Confluence, to my role in Merrell. Each one of them has been about making and leading change.”

How differently does Merrell look and operate since you took over?

“This brand has incredible heritage, unimpeachable authenticity, and retail and consumer equity that is substantial. But when I got here, it was time to check in on where we needed to go to remain highly relevant and attract new consumers. We want to own the trail and express how it’s for everyone. [We think about that] in terms of how we engage with our consumers in both marketing and product — and internally from a talent standpoint. We want to build a team with great expertise and incredible passion. We are also launching a new brand [campaign] in the second half of the year that will be very different than in the past. In my opinion, it’s going back to the true Merrell.”

What are the advantages of being part of a big company like Wolverine?

“There’s a lot of stability and resources at our disposal. There’s also a range of expertise and perspective. With an organization of 12 brands, you have to have expansive [experiences].”

Wolverine has worked to cultivate women in power over the past years. What does that mean to you?

“It’s important to the brand, to the company and to the industry. And I don’t like to make generalizations about gender, but at this point in my life and career, mentoring is one of the most fulfilling aspects of what I do. As a woman, I can offer a perspective about sensitivity and approach that touches people and benefits everybody, regardless of gender. It’s less about specifically mentoring women than it is ensuring that people are open to a woman’s point of view and the challenges we face that can be unique. What pops into my mind is pay equality, which has been a very public issue. That’s a unique challenge, and the rewards for their contributions aren’t equal.”

What keeps you up at night?

“The one topic that consistently keeps me up is that we’re an organization that is fast enough to keep pace with the way consumers are changing.”

President Donald Trump has made several controversial environmental moves. Are you worried about these issues now more than you were before he took office?

“I would say yes. There is significant cause for concern. There seems to be a lack of balance in decision-making that affects our industry and affects our planet. Everything seems to be one-sided and economic in nature, and doesn’t necessarily take into consideration things like the need for conservation and the need to fund the national parks. Those are all critical issues to the sustainability of our industry. We need to unify and use our voice. We need to pay attention and take action.”

Is the footwear sector doing enough to encourage inclusion and diversity in the outdoors?

“We definitely try, but I don’t think we’re successful. We all, as an industry, can do much better. Figuring out how is something [Merrell is] putting a stake in the ground on.”

What specifically is Merrell implementing to address this concern?

“We’re developing a program around inclusivity and accessibility that will get thousands of new hikers onto the trails, inspire others by celebrating the everyday heroes and enhance our partnerships with nonprofits that help maintain our trail systems. We’ve already been driving a lot of the above with the help of our ambassadors through various initiatives with nonprofits such as American Hiking Society and Conservation Alliance, as well as through our Merrell Magic program [to support the hiking community]. Our new platform [to be announced at Outdoor Retailer] will take our dedication to the trails, and those who strive to use them, to a higher level.”

A little more than a year after you took the role, how would you assess Merrell’s product evolution?

“We have strong momentum, and I think we have piqued the interests of the industry. There has been a lot of conversation around the changes that are coming, and it’s definitely increased demand for our product. In the hike category, we’ve moved to fast and light as a platform — the output is a much more modern style — so we’ve once again reinvented hiking. And the Thermo Rogue — which is the fastest and warmest winter boot — came out in fall ’18 and won awards.”

What role will heritage products play in Merrell’s success for spring ’19 and beyond?

“Merrell’s heritage products can’t be understated. Great product is great product, and it stands the test of time. The Jungle Moc was incredible when it launched in 1998, and it is still one of our best-sellers. There is now a demand for heritage product — right now, there’s a retro ’90s trend happening — and we’re going to ensure we’re staying current with the consumer in terms of what they’re demanding. We’ll continue to go into the vault and find heritage products and relaunch them to stay on point.”

What brands are Merrell’s biggest competition?

“We have several brands we compete with, but I don’t think any one brand has all of our categories. Salomon does trail and train and hike, but they don’t do work and casual. Keen is in hike, lifestyle and work, but there are areas they don’t compete in. The challenging part is having to pay attention to a number of competitors in a lot of different areas.”

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