For Jim Van Dine, part of the reason he believes in the growth potential of Hoka One One is personal. Since starting to run in the maximum-cushioned shoes last year, he’s lost 27 pounds.
“Certainly part of it was diet for sure,” admits Van Dine in an interview at the Outdoor Retailer show. “But part of it is a commitment to exercise with running at the heart of it and Hoka allows me to run again when I couldn’t run.”
Van Dine, who became president of Hoka soon after Deckers Outdoors acquired it last fall, had been a runner his whole life, including heading to Boise State University on a cross-country scholarship, serving as an alternate on the U.S. national cross country team in the seventies, and later dedicating his time as a running coach.
But in 2006, a doctor told him had to stop running because his right knee was shot and it wasn’t worth a complete rebuild at his age. Being a diehard runner, he would still jog 3 miles every Sunday “and then I would limp around for a couple of days so I could do it again.”
But Hoka changed everything. While it hasn’t fixed his knee, wearing Hokas has allowed him to run 4 miles every day without pain.
“I can’t go too far or too fast but it’s a complete rebirth of my running,” said Van Dine. “It’s miraculous. So that’s the reason that I’m more excited about this product than I’ve ever been about any product in my life, either as a consumer or as a businessman. Because as a consumer, I’ve already realized the benefit of the rebirth of my running, and as a businessperson I think this opportunity is limitless.”
While one audience is ”older, broken runners” like himself, the brand is more known for the rabid following it has developed with ultra-runners and the triathlon community. Ultra runners in particular have embraced the brand as word of winning performances in competition has quickly spread. Hoka’s athletes, largely ultra runners, have recorded over 30 podium finishes on five continents in the past 18 months.
As an example of its popularity with ultra runners, Van Dine pointed to the Speedgoat 50K ultra-marathon, held in Park City at the end of July. Of the 330 finishers, 85, or more than 25 percent, were wearing Hokas. Said Van Dine, “The word of mouth on social media has just been incredible.”
Van Dine admits that Hoka remains “not really well known” outside ultra running hotbeds like Boulder but Deckers has already helped expand distribution to about 300 doors this year, up from 92 accounts last year. With Deckers investing aggressively in the rollout, Van Dine sees Hoka’s sales reaching $100 million within a few years.
For selling floors, the most notable attribute about Hoka is it’s unique. Van Dine said a user will immediately recognize the difference between any other shoe when they put it on, and that can’t be said about nearly any other running shoes. Unlike many minimal models that have reached the market in recent years, it also doesn’t require a learning curve or change in running form to use.
“It’s something completely new and innovative and the first true, game-changing innovation, I think, since compression molded EVA 30 years ago,” said Van Dine.
The initial idea behind Hoka came from Nicolas Mermoud, an ultra runner in France who wanted to shoe that would enable him to go downhill faster. He bought the idea to Jean-Luc Diard, who was coincidentally experimenting with bringing an oversize design concept to running shoes. Both had worked at Salomon, where Diard at one time was president of Salomon Group.
Diard had seen how oversized design had already transformed a number of sports equipment categories, including tennis rackets, golf clubs, bicycle tires and skis.
“The interesting thing was they didn’t take existing product and try to refine it,” said Van Dine. “They took the approach that there is no such thing as a running shoe; we’re going to invent it. So they didn’t look at anything else; they took it from ground up.”
He added, “So they started shaping this product in the midsole much like a surfboard shaper would shape a fiberglass surfboard. And so it’s not just oversized, it’s also about geometry, it’s also about the rocker, and it’s about how the upper sits down into the midsole. And it’s the combination of all those things that make the shoe work.”
The shoe launched in 2009 in Europe and soon came to the states. Hoka came to the attention of Deckers Outdoor a few years ago after Johnny Halberstadt of Boulder Running contacted Van Dine and raved about how the product was connecting with his ultra running crowd.
Halberstadt recognized that Mermoud and Diard were undercapitalized and “didn’t really have a running background” to fully exploit the opportunity, said Van Dine. At the same time, Deckers had ample capital and both Van Dine and Angel Martinez, the CEO of Deckers who was also a competitive runner in his younger days, had a passion for running.
Martinez, who likewise has been able to return to running with Hoka’s help, hired Van Dine to his first job out of college at a running store in Northern California owned by Runners World at the time. Van Dine helped Martinez open a running store in Alameda in 1979 called Island City Sports. In the eighties, the two worked together at Reebok to help bring the brand from a start-up to a billion in sales in five years, riding the aerobics craze. The two later partnered again to help launch Keen Footwear in 2003.
Most recently, Van Dine rejoined Martinez after Ahnu, an outdoor footwear brand Van Dine founded, was sold to Deckers. Van Dine still also oversees Ahnu for Deckers, which also owns Uggs and Teva. For both executives, Hoka marks a return to working around their favorite activity.
“We’re a running shoe brand led by real runners so that’s just pretty cool,” said Van Dine.
Diard continues to work on Hoka's international distribution and product innovation while Mermoud supports the brand's sports marketing and athlete management. The first new product tapping Decker’s design knowhow is the Conquest, which just earned Outside Magazine’s Gear of the Show award at the Outdoor Retail Summer Market.
The Conquest, which hits retail stores in January, gets a more modernized look but the big change from the performance side is the addition of a proprietary Rmat midsole material, a blend of EVA and rubber that offers both “tremendous rebound” and “great shock absorption” along with strong durability, said Van Dine.
The basic geometrics of the shoe remain the same. Among the features:
The foam in the midsoles is up to 30 percent softer than the material used in traditional running shoes with up to 2.5 times more midsole volume, enabling the runner to float over the ground instead of repeatedly pounding;
The voluminous midsole allows for two- to three-times the vertical travel of conventional running shoes, also feeding a softer ride with better control;
A 40mm high sole design and a 13cm rocker profile that extends over the front half of the shoe allows for a fluid stride and a plush ride;
A 50 percent increase in outsole surface area (compared to traditional running shoes) allows greater contact with the ground for grip and stability;
Despite the girth, the shoes are still about 15 percent lighter than most running shoes.
Van Dine said the industry hasn’t found a way to reduce the amount of running injuries over the last thirty years. And while no scientific evidence exists, scores of runners, anecdotally, are heralding the benefits Hoka brings in dulling the pounding the knees, joints and lower legs take from running.
While appealing to ultra runners particularly so far, Van Dine sees Hoka working for all types of runners, including road marathoners, according to Van Dine. Runners way want a sleeker shoe for speed workouts around a track, but Hoka is ideal for recovery runs and recovery runs represent the majority of runs for distance training. Van Dine adds, “Even an elite runner would benefit from having a shoe that reduces the stress and strain on their recovery day.”
Beyond running, Van Dine sees the opportunity for Hoka to expand into walking, hiking and possible other athletic activities. Although much of the attention has focused on the oversized design, the brand is also working on non-oversized shoes that still take advantage of Hoka’s “tuned midsole geometry” stemming from its unique shape.
“You almost gain the type of benefits that dual density would provide without the dual density. So it’s more of the shape that’s the real innovation,” said Van Dine. “Nobody’s done that.”
The focus now is on run and Hoka has hired nine field service tech reps to canvas the country. Its internal team includes Isaac Alvear, who formerly ran Avia and Ryka for American Sporting Goods, as Hoka’s brand manager;
Howard Jones, formerly of Montrail, as its national sales manager; and Tom Daley as its marketing manager.
The marketing push include a heavy social media and grassroots focus, with plan to be at weekly fun runs at the local level, as well as a presence at races and race expos, including major ones such as Boston, New York, Chicago and Marine Corps. Hoka’s athletes’ roster will also be expanded.
Overall, Van Dine said Deckers is “investing as if this is a brand that’s already a large brand,” to quickly fill its potential. Added Van Dine, “We have the benefit of a small entrepreneurial quick strike team with the power of Deckers behind it.”