By Lou Dzierzak
On January 29, Adidas Global announced management of the Adidas Outdoor brand is moving in house, and operations will shift from Los Angeles, CA, to Adidas headquarters in Portland, OR. The transition is expected to take two years.
SGB spoke with Greg Thomsen, chief outdoor officer, Adidas Outdoor and the manager of the outdoor business in the U.S. about his experiences.
First some context. Since 1970, Thomsen’s outdoor industry resume includes experience as a climbing guide, sales rep, and specialty outdoor retailer, and product designer, owner of brands such as Mountainsmith and co-founder of Wilderness Experience, the first outdoor brand to go public.
Thomsen started with Agron Inc. in May 2010. Adidas Outdoor debuted at the January 2011 Outdoor Retailer Show. Today, the Adidas Outdoor product line includes technical performance footwear, and apparel sold through over 800 outdoor specialty and sporting goods retailers. In recent years, sales have grown exponentially.
Here’s what Thomsen shared with SGB about the brand’s growth, its future and what’s next for him.
What was the outdoor industry culture when Adidas entered the outdoor market? We came up with a plan that focused exclusively on specialty outdoor retailers for the first three or four years, even though we knew we could have done more immediate volume with bigger sporting goods chains and department stores. We wanted to earn our credibility and authenticity. We didn’t realize how hard it would be. It was a very, very difficult start, but helped build a strong performance foundation.
Initially, Adidas Outdoor was an unknown entity. What was your strategy to launch the brand? We looked at Adidas Outdoor in the United States as a startup business. We looked for areas that we could be unique and complimentary. We built Adidas Outdoor like a creative entrepreneurial startup with the ability to make fast and quick decisions.
We always make decisions based on what is best for the business in the long term. If we feel the decision is the correct one we will move forward. We have had a lot of freedom to test ideas. Some have failed and some succeeded. We were able to find our way through a difficult competitive maze.
During the announcement of the change in Adidas Outdoor, you mentioned in launching the brand it felt like the first 100 specialty retailers turned you down. How did you overcome that initial resistance? Larry Harrison (former director of sales) and I struggled. We did not give up and just kept trying our best. We knew a lot of people in the industry. Most of them said, ‘why would I put a sporting goods brand in my store next to my outdoor brands?’ Larry is the master sales professional. We just kept focused and didn’t give up. At the time our apparel was very European looking. The colors were very different for what the market was used too. We had bright red hiking boots. The product was right technically, and from an engineering standpoint it was great but it styling wasn’t quite right for the US market and our consumers at that point in time..
Nike and Coleman offer examples of successful brands that walked back attempts to offer technical performance outdoor-specific brands. Did you encounter their ghosts when you started introducing Adidas Outdoor to specialty retailers? I was involved with Nike and the ACG days. To be in this outdoor industry you have to really be passionate about the outdoors and the outdoor industry. You have to keep your strategy on track and not just chase sales or fast dollars.
If you just chase sales, the brand starts to lose authenticity. Some brands have followed the fashion segment of outdoor. It’s a really easy path to go down. When fashion trends change, and you’ve neglected the core consumer, the performance foundation of the business can become eroded.
Fashion trends require new looks and direction every season. Whereas really good performance outdoor products require consistency. Refined simplicity with evolutionary improvements. Someone said, ‘design is best not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away. That’s exactly my approach.
Year by year, more retailers added Adidas Outdoor product lines and outdoor enthusiasts took notice. Was there a turning point when you felt your strategies were succeeding? Our footwear styles really drove the process. The Fast X hiking boot won a Gear the Year award. We had the boot made in solid black and other market correct colorways that went into all of the REI’s stores. That gave us some momentum. Other styles followed and they performed well too.
After nine years building Adidas Outdoor, what do you think about the transition? The news was not a surprise. It was something I thought was going to happen eventually. As a global company, managers really want to control the brands tactics and message directly.
It feels like I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last eight or nine years thinking about what we needed to do two years down the road to keep the momentum going strong. My focus is always farther out than the current season or even the next season after that. I’ve concentrated on how we need to be positioned to take advantage of market opportunities and stay ahead of a wide range of competitors.
I think it’s probably the right time. My focus for the next couple of years is how to make the transition as perfect as possible. It’s like a brand new challenge. How do you make a transition from an entrepreneurial company to an integrated global brand? I’m kind of looking forward to those challenges.
There’s a quote I like that goes, “Graveyards are filled with indispensable people,” I know Adidas Outdoor will go on and do extremely well with or without me. I’m happy to help and also watch the brand move into the next generation.
With your success with Adidas Outdoor, there may be a long line of entrepreneurial outdoor brands seeking out your advice and wisdom? Will those appeals bring you back to brand management? Probably not! Even though my personal time is relatively limited I’m really generous with a helping hand to those that ask. Building brands is kind of like art to me, I enjoy the process and the creativity.
I’m in a fortunate position. I was successful early on and have been pretty blessed for a long time. When I think about what I might do next I always have a million things I would be interested in doing. That doesn’t always have to be work or business orientated. It could also just be playing more guitar. It could be bird watching or learning to fly fish. It could just be traveling and experiencing places. It’s a big world!
My favorite saying is “in a short time. This will be a long time ago.” I’m going to savor every day.”
Photo courtesy Adidas Outdoor