Brooks CEO Jim Weber sits atop one of the fastest-growing footwear brands in the U.S. But the journey to get there was anything but linear.
Upon joining Brooks in 2001, Weber oversaw a vast turnaround plan for the company that had previously been on the brink of bankruptcy. His strategy called for refocusing strictly on the performance running category, guided by its upbeat “Run Happy” messaging. It made steady gains and, after a series of acquisitions, Brooks became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway in 2011. Over the next several years, it developed a large and growing fan base.
Then came the pandemic, when the brand experienced a surge in demand during a global running boom.
In the last year, Brooks has consistently grabbed market share from industry leaders like Nike and Adidas in the crucial category of women’s performance. The Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21, which retails for $130, ranked 8th on The NPD Group’s list of the top 10 best-selling sneakers in 2021 according to dollar rank. And in Q3, revenue for Brooks grew 24% year-over-year, with gains led by the Adrenaline GTS, Ghost and Glycerin franchises, which were up 50% versus 2020.
In his upcoming book, “Running With Purpose,” which releases this spring, Weber reflects on his career path, from his early dreams of becoming a professional athlete to being named the CEO of a major running brand. He also delves into the lessons Brooks has learned over the past two years.
“We’re all outcomes of our journey and experiences in our lives,” Weber told FN. “It’s true with companies too.”
Weber spoke with FN exclusively about six leadership principles included in his book and how he applies those to Brooks to keep the company competitive and authentic.
1. Own a niche
“This really relates to two key elements: focus and choosing your customer. For every brand in business, the biggest decision they make is which customer they choose to focus on. And at Brooks, we focused on runners 20-something years ago. We can compete because of our focus on a customer and a niche and trying to be the best in this one niche that we’re in. And that just gives us a shot at being credible and creating affinity with the customer. I think for most businesses, unless you’re a platform company, you’re a niche player. If you’re not the No. 1 brand, you’re probably a niche player and it’s best to characterize your strategy in that way. I’m a firm believer in that.”
2. Build a moat
“We’re part of Berkshire Hathaway, and Warren Buffett has often talked about a company’s — or brand’s — moat. It’s all those things that are your strengths, your distinctiveness and what allows you to sustain your health and success as a company. What’s interesting about a brand is, it’s not an inanimate thing. It’s not an asset on your balance sheet. It’s in the mind of your customer. So it’s really about creating a distinctive, defendable moat. It’s such a failed road to be on to just emulate your competition because you’re probably never going to be as innovative or up to speed if you’re just following them. You have to know all the choices your customer has and create a distinctive, defendable position that you can sustain over time.”
3. Solve for profitability
“When you have investors, which everybody does — unless you own it yourself and I don’t own Brooks — you have to solve for [profitability] to keep them with you and be able to play another day. We’re seeing in our broader industry that, ultimately, profitability is typically expected. You have to engineer it into your business model. We had to do this at Brooks to survive. And if you’re successful at it, there’s this return on investment flywheel that lets you invest more in growth against the customer. It’s a critical piece to know as you’re building out your brand. And for us, we want to be a profitable business because then our owner is going to want to invest more in it.”
4. Vision without execution is hallucination
“In around 2008-2009, it became clear to me that to grow and scale, it was all about people. It was all about execution. You might have the best strategy, you might have an exciting brand, you may even have a fantastic product, but you’ve got to execute across your entire business. Globally, we’re sort of a niche, smaller player. So if we’re going to execute this brand all around the world through partners and then have a compelling story in front of every runner, whether they’re in Milan or Des Moines or Sydney, it’s all about people to execute that all the way through. We’ve created a collaborative team-based approach at Brooks. And we try to engage everyone on our team. Business is a team sport.”
5. Lead authentically
“I want to be part of something I’m proud of. I want to be part of something that has a future, that’s going to an exciting place. We’re trying to lead our teams against an opportunity to do something great for runners and that’s going to create opportunity for them in their careers to do good, meaningful work. We’ve invested a lot in training at Brooks in the last five or six years. It’s something we think is foundational to our brand. We’re positioned as a running brand, and to earn a sense of authenticity from the customer, you have to be authentic inside. Customers are smart today. They really are doing their homework. And over time, if your company is all about making money, they’re going to figure that out. So leading authentically is a challenge that we’re giving to ourselves across the leadership team.”
6. The ultimate advantage is a strong culture
“We’re competing with culture today. We have this ‘Charting Brooks’ Future’ three-year strategy playbook. It’s very detailed and every department in our company syncs in with that roadmap. But you can only do that if you have a strong culture underneath it. Every part of our business, to execute well, is going to be driven by people. So we’re working hard on our culture and the ultimate test is how it is going to attract and retain the talent we need to execute well in this industry. Right now, I feel very good about that. Again, we don’t take that for granted either. Customers have choices, employees have choices, now more than ever today. But I think we’ve got a strong culture and we’re going to work hard to continue to keep it strong to attract great people to the Brooks brand.”