On Nov. 30, Authentic Brands Group will be honored as Company of the Year at the 35th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 29 print issue about the company’s whirlwind year of acquisitions and investments.
From snapping up Reebok to starting the IPO process, Authentic Brands Group generated nonstop buzz in 2021. The retail powerhouse, led by CEO Jamie Salter and president and CMO Nick Woodhouse, recently secured a pair of major new investors thanks to its talent in reviving struggling yet iconic brands like Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand, Forever 21, JCPenney, and Barneys New York. But in August, ABG arguably landed the biggest shoe deal of the year with the purchase of Reebok from Adidas.
FN visited the company’s New York headquarters to talk with Salter about the deal, where he was joined by former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal. The sports icon became ABG’s second-largest shareholder after he sold the rights to his namesake brand in 2015. An avid deal-maker himself, O’Neal has helped ABG target brands with strong turnaround potential. In the case of Reebok, the former athlete was adamant that the company make a competitive offer to acquire the footwear label from Adidas.
When it comes to selecting a worthwhile investment, Salter told FN that “brands have to have heartbeats.” That mindset set ABG on a path of brand domination in 2021, and the dealmakers have no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
Here, Salter and O’Neal to discuss with FN the company’s successes this year and their vision for the future.
Looking back at 2021, how do you feel about what ABG accomplished?
Jamie Salter: “The team has been working incredibly hard over the past 12 months, and Shaquille and I are incredibly proud of all the people at ABG that make it happen every single day. Without that team we would not be the company of the year.”
Shaquille O’Neal: “I came here because I saw the family operation — I saw [Jamie], I saw his sons, I saw the passion. I wanted to partner with a company that could perhaps have my name go on forever. I met with a lot of companies, but when I met with Jamie and his family, I knew that this was the right place to be. He is a great leader, he’s not a micromanager. He never sleeps. I can call him at any time. He’s the only guy in business — and I’ve been in business with a lot of people — where when I say, ‘Jamie, can you get this done for me,’ he gets it done. If we weren’t the company of the year, I would be surprised because I have never seen anybody work as hard as Jamie Salter and the ABG team.”
Salter: “There is one more person who works as hard as me or even harder than me. They always say Shaq is the hardest-working person in showbiz, and that’s all true. This man works early mornings, late at night, never says no, and he is always there for his fans, for his family and for all of his business partners.”
What drives the company’s success?
Salter: “Building ABG to what it is today is all about family values. That goes through the entire organization. We do believe in family. The most important part about ABG is having a great time every single day. My theory is, if you have a lot of fun, you’re going to probably do pretty good in business. Money’s just a scorecard.”
O’Neal: “The environment here is definitely championship-worthy. We do have a lot of fun. I take pride in considering myself the ambassador of fun. I’m 49 and in my continuing days on this earth, I just want to make it fun for people and make people smile and make people happy.”
How did the Reebok deal become a reality?
O’Neal: “In 1992, when I signed with Reebok, Nike was the giant and Reebok was right there. We were very close. They had Michael Jordan, who was the top player. But Reebok had a top player. Then I saw that Reebok was just sliding away and a lot of other brands were coming up. And being that I’m partners with [Jamie] — the brand master and reviver, the guy who works magic — I told him, ‘I think you should get Reebok.’ And he looked at me to make sure I was serious. He didn’t say anything, he just put his head down and said ‘OK.’ And then a couple of months go by, [I said], ‘I need you to get Reebok.’ He never said no. And then one day I wasn’t even thinking about it and he said, ‘I got a big surprise for you. I’m going to send you something. I want you to sign it. Don’t look at it, just sign it.’ So I signed it. He said, ‘Congratulations, my friend, we own Reebok.’ And it was one of the best days in my life. I want to get Reebok back to prominence because we were right there. We were so close.”
Salter: “To really get why we bought Reebok, it’s all about Shaq. There were people all over the world bidding on Reebok. We actually got kicked out of the process somewhere. I called Shaq up and I said, ‘How bad [do you want this]?’ And he said, ‘I want this one. Do not lose it.’ So I resubmitted a new offer. We got back into the process and we prevailed and we beat out some of the biggest private equity firms in the world.”
How will you take Reebok to the top?
Salter: “Reebok was never broken. Adidas bought Reebok and everything good that was going on at Reebok became Adidas. It didn’t matter if it was players or athletes. They took all the good out of Reebok and they gave it to Adidas. And Reebok has gone down. But all those great people, they still exist at Reebok. We basically said to the employees: Show us what you want to do. Tell us what you want to do.
Reebok’s business for 2022 will be up over 20%. The business will be in excess of $5 billion in retail sales around the globe in 2022. And in 2023, it will be significantly higher than that. Our goal is to take Reebok to $10 billion in annual retail sales globally within the next five years. And we are very confident that we are going to get it there, not just on the footwear side, but on the apparel side. The digital business will grow three times in the next 24 months. We are going to sell lots of Shaq basketball shoes. But more importantly, we are going to have a great time while we’re doing it. People say, ‘Oh, you’re going after Adidas’ or ‘You’re going after Nike.’ We’re not going after Adidas, we’re not going after Nike. We’re going after building a great brand.”
What’s next for ABG?
Salter: “ABG is just getting started. We’re in the second inning. It’s a big world out there and we feel that we can just continue to grow this business. To me, brands have to have heartbeats. Reebok has a major heartbeat. Barneys has a heartbeat. Sports Illustrated has a heartbeat. A lot of people see revenue, but revenue is revenue. If it doesn’t have a heartbeat, it’s very hard to revive and bring it back. Got a heartbeat? You can bring that back.”
O’Neal: “We’re looking to expand, we’re looking to grow, we’re looking to continue to excite people and to have fun. That’s what it’s all about. When you ask what the future holds, if we just continue to do the things that we’re doing, changing people’s lives and putting out great product, the sky’s the limit for this company.”
For 35 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards — often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2021 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Authentic Brands Group, FDRA, Informa, On and Wolverine Worldwide.