When conversations surrounding racial inequality took center stage this year, G. Scott Uzzell was able to lead with personal perspective.
The Converse CEO, who is one of the only Black footwear industry executives atop a big company, did not shy away from using his position to create meaningful change.
“I could go through the multiple speaking sessions or the hundreds of people I mentor or just tell my story,” Uzzell told FN, “but what’s more interesting is using my position of authority to drive real, systematic change in the world that I impact. What I’ve done my whole career is use this seat to make sure I’m driving sustainable change that’s going to last well beyond me.”
Beyond navigating the uncertainty around COVID-19 this year and the ongoing race discussion, Uzzell has also led Converse into new territories and worked to ensure the brand is speaking to consumers authentically.
For example, in his 20 months on the job, Converse has made significant inroads in basketball — a crowded, yet incredibly influential category.
With its reentry underway, the brand added several ballers to its ambassador roster in 2020. Its most celebrated signee is WNBA standout Natasha Cloud, a league champion who is also well-known for her racial justice advocacy. Converse additionally inked deals with style-savvy rising NBA star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and tough-as-nails veteran Draymond Green.
Meanwhile, Converse delivered striking silhouettes to the market, most notably the All Star BB Evo, a court-ready look that also has lifestyle appeal.
Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser at The NPD Group, has long warned brands about investing heavily into a basketball market that has struggled for years. But he applauded Converse’s atypical approach to both merchandising and marketing.
“They’re doing some interesting product. It doesn’t feel like your everyday basketball shoe line. It’s got a Converse sensibility to it,” Powell told FN. “[And] I think they have found their niche in supporting atypical celebrities, whether it’s artists or musicians or athletes. They’ve signed [talent] in a very Converse way.”
As the brand jumps into basketball more heavily, it’s also putting a bigger emphasis on sustainability. Uzzell said while some of the year’s most profound initiatives are still young — most notably the Converse Chuck Taylor Crater made with 40% recycled content — they’re already making an impact.
“I don’t know what the finish line is, but we’re constantly pushing it,” Uzzell said. “We’ve got a team that works in product, design and manufacturing that are just thinking through how we get smarter and better in this area. And the consumers have given us signals that they like it, they’re willing to pay for it and they think it’s within the DNA of the brand, so we’re going to continue to push.”
Below, Uzzell discusses how he’s leading Converse into the future while engaging in the important discussions of today.
As a Black man with a high-level position at an industry leader, what responsibility do you have to elevate Black talent within your company?
G. Scott Uzzell: “I received a phone call from a senior person at Nike a couple days after the passing of George Floyd, and the phone call was that, ‘You’re Black and you’re a CEO, and today they should intersect. And Scott, you’ll make us all better because of your unique experiences, because there’s not many of you.’ To me, it seems so minor because I’m always Black and now I’m a CEO. But I’ll never forget getting off the phone that day thinking about that and saying there’s this trail that I’ve walked throughout my career that many of my peers have not walked. And for people looking for positive change, I can bring unique thought.”
Have you felt new pressures to emphasize your D&I work given the racially charged climate?
SU: “Yes, but not because I’m a Black CEO — it’s just because I am a CEO. I have to have accountability, and that can’t just be amazing footwear, growing sales or having cool products out there. What I’ve learned in the last six months is that I used to think CEOs [have] these two or three big [opportunities] a year where they get to drive diversity and inclusion and make it a better place. It’s actually 100 decisions a week and they don’t have to be necessarily D&I focused, but you have to ask, ‘Do you have representation?’ If you have a town hall and you have nine speakers over the day, they might be all subject matter experts, but do you have a good representation of people of color, women of those of different backgrounds? When you hire young people, they look up and they say, ‘I can be that one day,’ but if they don’t see themselves on stage, on a task force, in the focus group, it takes a bit out of them and then they say, ‘It’s just not a place for me.’ That’s been the most powerful learning for me.”
As the the racial inequity conversation has ramped up, the industry is continuing to navigate COVID-19 disruptions. What have you learned about leadership?
SU: “Nothing prepared me — a graduate degree in business school and working at Kraft-Nabisco and The Coca-Cola Company — for this. The lessons I learned are that you have to know that your environment is going to be ever-changing with a lot of new normals. Two, you’re going to have to stay connected with your people by listening, engaging and getting closer than you ever have in the past. It’s even more difficult when you’re doing it through Zoom or conference calls because you’re not able to be with them like you were in the past. What’s most important is continuing editing and focusing your agenda because you can’t do all the things you would [normally] do during times like this. You’ll burn people out. It’s constantly asking what’s most important now, what matters most and making sure people are working on those two or three things. It’s also saying no to a lot of things that are interesting and opportunistic, that have big promise, because right now is not the time.”
What areas of Converse’s business were hit the hardest and what have performed the best amid the economic uncertainty?
SU: “As we went into COVID, there were many things we wanted to do to continue to build on the momentum of our brand in basket- ball, product innovation and investing in digital platforms. As we went into COVID, we had to say, ‘How do we edit our agenda and focus on the few things we can do over the next three to six months?’ Across the product line, our performance has been pretty even, but we did have several new entries into our portfolio that have done really well. One is the Run Star Hike. It’s a take on the Chuck design that’s elevated. The other is the CX, which brings more comfort and a modern feel to the Chuck franchise. It’s done really well in China and Europe, as well as North America.”
How did you use the pandemic landscape and recovery in China to develop your plan for the rest of the world?
SU: “I was in China for Chinese New Year on Jan. 15, and four or five days later, China went into a lockdown. Then I was back in Boston talking to my folks in Asia the next week about their business, trying to figure out what was next. We learned early on to put our people first. Second, we needed to manage our marketplace. How do we make sure we are serving demand, that we’re buying the right products, when we aren’t sure of what’s next? Lastly, what parts of our strategy do we pause? What parts do we continue to invest in, knowing we’re going into an uneven situation? That became our playbook for Asia that we then turned on for Europe and then North America, which is what we operate today.”
What fueled your decision to focus on the basketball market?
SU: “It opened the view of what people think about Converse, which is really important to me as CEO. Second, there’s now this whole lane of product innovation that we can do from a performance standpoint. And lastly, we get to fuel that young creative athlete consumer — which is one of our targets — and serve new products against the things that are important in their life.”
Converse has also forged connections via the “All Stars” network for young creatives, in which you just invested $1 million. Why is it such an important initiative?
SU: “It’s a grassroots effort — we’ve got about 3,000 individuals in 27 cities and it goes from Los Angeles to Lima to Shanghai. This program keeps us connected, it’s how we make sure the brand stays firmly planted and authentic. Converse is just an accelerator [for this community]. The Converse All Star captains aim to fast track ideas. We’re not talking about huge celebrities that we’re paying. These are people who have their mission, their passion and they’re driving progress in the world that they’re in. We found a more purposeful two-way road with communities that have always embraced us, and it’s been truly exciting.”
The Nike Inc. banners have also made significant progress with sustainability, one of the industry’s most pressing issues. How receptive have consumers been?
SU: “Our consumers are intensely focused on sustainability; it’s really important to them. They want to make sure we’re doing things that are good for our planet. Through Converse Renew and most recently with our work with Nike that led to the Chuck Taylor All Star Crater, we’re exploring new methods to lessen our environmental impact and make smart use of materials, recycled textiles and leftover canvas. Frankly, we made some really cool shoes. Equally, these products allow us to drive impacted scale. In one year, we made hundreds of thousands of these shoes and diverted tons from the landfill. That gave us a signal that this has potential to grow to millions and we’re going to continue to challenge ourselves to advance that, to use materials in our manufacturing processes and use resources in a smarter way so we can continue to do good work. It’s not easy, but we’re excited about it.”
What keeps you up at night?
SU: “I think about my employees. When February and March came and we were moving to work from home, everybody hunkered down. Then the summer came and we kind of broke it up a bit, but it still was challenging. Now, it’s October and I really believe this is the new normal.”
With so many unknowns, how do you plot the future?
SU: “My challenge is how do I continue to sustain the excitement, the commitment and the energy, leading in an environment that is so different than where we were in nine months ago? I’m a leader who is used to spending time with people traveling, being in front of people, as well as with my leadership team — and we’re doing a lot of it virtually. It’s going to take a new leadership muscle that wasn’t there.”