RBR Interview: Pat O'Malley, VP, Footwear, Saucony

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Pat O'Malley is the zen master of performance running footwear. A man who has gone from running promotions to special make ups at Nike, to redefining running footwear at Reebok and now, at Saucony, fine tuning a well oiled machine.

I have known Pat for a dozen or so years, and was lucky enough to really spend time with him at Reebok, and now at Saucony. A thoughtful man, a serious runner, and someone who has found his niche, Pat O'Malley is another example of the great people we find in our industry.

I sent these questions to Pat last week and they showed up Sunday, on my I-phone, as I was trying to recover from an aborted take-off in a commercial air carrier. His answers got me laughing and smiling, which Pat can do frequently. My worries vanished..

RBR: 1. How did you get involved in running?

Pat O'Malley: I decided to join the high school track team my senior year because there was a girl I liked on the team. I planned on doing the high jump, however, the high jump stands and pit were locked in a storage shed at our school and the coach could not find the key. Every day I would show up for practice and ask the coach if he found the key, he would say no and told me to run with the distance runners to get in shape. By the time our first meet showed up, I still had not practiced the high jump. The coach put me in the mile and the two mile. I won the mile and came in second in 2 mile. I did do the high jump as well, and came in 4th. It was the last time I did the high jump. From that point on I was a distance runner.

RBR: 2. How was running in high school? College?

Pat O'Malley: I went to high school in northern Maine and I think it was a big reason running became a big part of my life. Because it was small town America, I was able to make it to the state meet even though I only started running the spring of my senior year. All it took was for me to have a little success and I fell in love with the sport. If I ran at a big city school, I am sure it would have been tough get that positive reinforcement that winning can give you when you are young.

As far as college goes, I actually first went to a school that did not have cross country or track. However, I kept running and started winning some local road races. The coach at the University of Maine contacted me and got me to transer to Maine. I loved every minute of running at Maine. Weekend xc meets at Franklin Park, indoor meets at the BU Armory and outdoor meets at Dartmouth were some of my favorites. We had some good teams and I was lucky enough to be named All New England, All American East, All Maine and All Eastern.

RBR: 3. Any unusual race remembrances?

Pat O'Malley: Two unusual races stick out to me. First was the Maine College Championships at Colby College. It snowed pretty much all day. They shoveled the track and I ran the 10,000. It was cold and windy and I can remember everyone stayed on the bus during the 10k. Every time I ran by the bus, my teammates yelled out the windows and the bus driver would honk the horn. Only in Maine.

The other was the Penn Relays. Thursday Distance Night was so great. I remember finishing the 10k and Bill Cosby was at the finish line congratulating the runners.

RBR:4. At Nike you were involved with road race promotions, correct? Did you work on product there?

Pat O'Malley: Yes, I was the Running Events Manager at Nike. I got to go to many of the great road races and track meets around the world in that job. From that job I did move into product marketing. I worked in the Special Make-up division working on shoes for accounts like Foot locker. From there I moved into the Running Department where I was the Product Manager for Asia-Pacific and lived into Hong Kong. I worked with all the countries in that region and helped them with their product line. I then moved back to Oregon and was a PLM in the Running Division.

RBR: 5. At Reebok, you totally redid their product, making a clean, Model T of a shoe, the Premier road, why did you do that?

Pat O'Malley: At the time, I felt that it was really important to listen to runners and retailers as to what they though Reebok needed to do to get re-established in the technical running world. The feedback i got was to make the shoes look, feel and respond like true technical running shoes. No gimmicks, just features and benefits that speak to what a runner wants. Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in "new and improved, but we felt it was important establish a foundation that would be respected by runners. This also worked really well with the design team as it gave them a bulls-eye to design towards. The consumer and the mission was well defined. We felt like we had a direction and a goal that was right for the brand at the time.

RBR:6. Now, at Saucony, a well established running brand, with certain tastes, how have you approached changing footwear at Saucony?

Pat O'Malley: Well the great thing about Saucony is that it is such a respected running brand with a history of making great running shoes. There have been some great product people that worked at Saucony before I did that have set the brand up really well. We have a loyal group of runners who like our brand. Over the last few years, our product team has really focused on exposing our brand to younger consumers. Our cross country shoes like the Kilkenny and Shay XC has really energized the product team and our brand. Last year we were the number one cross country brand in the running specialty channel. Now high school kids know our brand and see how good of a technical running brand we are. These type of shoes are like our concept cars and from these we are able to bring the technical features and design language into our training shoes. So our designs have become faster and the great Saucony technical tradition continues on.

RBR:7. What is your philosophy about running footwear? In 10,000 words or less?

Pat O'Malley: Design follows function. Our team really hit its stride with this philosophy. Every overlay, line and material should have some function to help the runner. It is so easy to make new shoes a science project, and when that happens, it is easy to lose focus on the important thing, the consumer. When someone trust our brand to spend $100 on our product, it is our responsibility to make sure their shoes do what they expect. We are lucky, our brand only makes running shoes, so we can really focus on runners and our shoes reflect that.

RBR: 8. Is there a perfect running shoe for everyone? How does a brand like Saucony, command so much attention from retail and respect from the consumer?

Pat O'Malley: I do believe there is a perfect shoe for everyone. It is just that the perfect shoe is different for each runner. I believe that the shoe that keeps the runner injury free and on the roads, is the perfect shoes. If a shoe does that, then the runner gets to do what they love, run.

As far as Saucony commanding attention from retail and respect from consumers, we know who we are and we are focused in the right area. As far a retail goes, we have some of the best sales reps in the industry who do a great job telling our story and building those key relationships with our retail partners. Retailers and consumers respect us because we are the brand that focuses on them and the sport they love. We are a running company.

(Saucony Pro Grid Ride, Fall 2008)

RBR:9. Saucony grew last year, when many of your competitors were flat of loosing market share, why?

Pat O'Malley: Over the last 5 years, our product has been consistent and has built loyalty. Runners know and trust us and now we have attracted a new runner, the high school runner with our cross country and track spikes. On top of that, our marketing and sales team has done a great job of promoting our brand and getting our message out in the running community.

RBR:10. Do you believe you will ever win the coveted two RN Best of Shoe awards in one shoe review? How will you celebrate?

Pat O'Malley: Why stop at two awards? Our goal is to win every award that RN has in one review. If that happens, we will rent out Fenway and have your son's band perform there.

(Final notes: For several years, Mr. O'Malley has been chiding me on why he does not get two special awards. My response was that he had to earn them. His retort: "when one company wins two awards, you must call it the 0'Malley." We will take that under advisement.)

For more on saucony, please check http://www.saucony.com

For more on the sport of running, please check http://www.runningnetwork.com

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