© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Jim Weber, general manager of Brooks Running, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, talks about his Omaha business
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK (Reuters) – There’s an old joke in the marathon community that every runner runs away from something.
This was certainly true of Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks Running, who had to lead his company through a global crisis that disrupted normal life for the past year.
Weber sat down with Reuters to talk about how far we’ve come in the COVID-19 marathon – and how far we still have to run.
Q: For a while there in 2020 it seemed like running was the only sport we still had. How was it navigating during this time?
A: It’s hard to describe how dark things got in March and April. No business was immune and everything froze. We were trying to figure out how we would develop: would people even run? Nobody really knew then.
We had to find new signals for running activity. We looked at data from training apps like Strava. We had a team of marketing gurus who literally sat in parks and counted the number of runners. What we found was that even though the gyms and races were closed, people were still out there collecting their kilometers.
In March and April our sales crashed. At the beginning of May, our shoe sales were up on the previous year. In the second week of May we sold more shoes than ever before. What a roller coaster.
Q: How do you manage now when traditional game books go straight out the window?
A: Brooks is actually the fourth company I have run. So before that I was involved in difficult situations with companies that were on the verge of bankruptcy. When things hit the wall and business stopped, I just put my banker’s hat back on.
At that point it was all about survival and how to get to the other side. I’ve always believed running would make the cut because I’d seen it do after the Great Recession. Back when it looked like the world was going to collapse, running picked up speed because it’s so affordable and practical.
Q: You haven’t had any layoffs. What advice do you have for other companies on how to get there?
A: Do your best to survive as intact as possible. Our darkest moments were when it just wasn’t clear what was happening. Greg Abel (vice chairman, non-insurance business) of our owner Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE 🙂 was just telling us, “Follow your customer.”
That advice was super helpful. It gave me the courage to wait. Every other company took the opportunity to downsize, but we didn’t want to go if we didn’t have to.
It was lonely there for a while. But in May, when we saw people running, we got back on the accelerator.
Q: Part of your challenge is to compete against giant brands like Nike (NYSE 🙂 or Adidas (OTC 🙂 – how do you go about that?
A: I’ve been running against this reality for 20 years. If you’re not the dominant player in a room, you better have a niche.
Each company can choose the customer they want to focus on. We just said, ‘You know what? We’re going to burn the boats on everything else and just focus on people who are running. ‘
People always tell us, “You leave a lot on the table – why don’t you focus on lifestyle, basketball or something else?” We have no problem saying “No.” Our focus is on running.
Q: Has Warren Buffett given you any good advice given that Berkshire Hathaway is your parent company?
A: I remember we first started reporting in 2012 and currencies around the world went crazy at that time. Our margins have been squeezed.
We asked him what we should do and he basically said, “We have no idea what’s going to happen to currencies. Your profits will be less. So just deal with it and focus on your customers. ‘And he was right.
Q: Everyone is pretty burned out right now. What advice do you have for maintaining a healthy balance?
A: I know this has been a tough year for everyone. But if you can find some time to get outside and exercise, it will make your day so much better.
Take the time to invest in yourself and clear your mind. That’s the power of a run.
(Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler)