RBR Interview: John Rogers, Executive Director, IRRA, by Larry Eder

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John Rogers is one of the examples of the high quality of people in our sport. JR, as he is known, was an executive twice at Reebok, and was also at Mizuno, Nautica and Sebago, after a second tour at Reebok, founded the Maine Running company, an excellent example of the specialty running store. JR has influenced the development of Reebok and Mizuno running footwear among others. An excellent high school and college runner, JR ran 29:06 for 10,000 meters on the track.

But his most important job is as the Executive Director of IRRA, the trade group for the specialty running stores of this country. Grass roots running stores are the protector of the running culture, as well as purveyors of running footwear and apparel.

I gave these questions and asked JR to give us a look into what makes him tick. Again, good people in this business. With such human capital, it is my belief that we can solve many of our current challenges...

The truth be told, we have some tough times in front of us, and hiding in a hole, and hoping the bad things will stop happening may be an option, but not one where grass roots running will grow and thrive. Consider some of the comments JR has to say about the business.

RBR, 1. How did you get started in the sport?

JR: My family moved to Oregon in 1972 and during my 1st week in middle school, they required our gym class to run a 1.5 mile X-Country race….I won, much to my surprise, and thought there might be something to the “Running” thing.

RBR, 2. High school running, what did you do there?

JR: OK, I’m dating myself here, but they didn’t race in metrics back then, so I ran 4:12 as a junior and lost the Oregon State meet by inches in 1975. My Sr. year was an extremely deep year for milers in Oregon. I still remember a duel meet with South Eugene and we had 5 runners under 4:20 for the mile from two schools. I’ve never seen that since…. I ran 4:10 as a Sr. but only ranked 4th in Oregon that year. I got invited to the Golden West meet in Sacramento and finished 3rd in the two mile in 9:11…That was the year of Al Salazar, Rudy Chapa….Billy McChesney ran 8:50, for 2 miles in a driving rainstorm at the Oregon State meet….very talented group of runners in the U.S. that year.

RBR, 3. College, how was training, how did you run?

JR: I went to the University of Florida and ran under Roy Benson when I first got there. His philosophy was mainly LSD (long slow distance & Threshold based). I ran anywhere from the 1,500 to 10K and our XC team qualified for nationals. I had the opportunity to meet and train with quite a few world class runners including Marty Liquori, Barry Brown and several athletes who used Gainesville as a base in the winter for their training. I didn’t really anything earth shattering; Made all SEC 5 or 6 times, but ran competitively.

RBR, 4. How did you get involved in Reebok?

JR: I was working as a footwear buyer and heading up the Reebok Racing Team in Raleigh, NC. I always wanted to get into the branded side of the business and at that time the easiest entry was through retail. A Tech Rep position opened up in the Carolina’s and I got the position. I worked my way up the food chain, eventually landing Sr. Roles in product marketing and headed up Running, Walking and Outdoor Product Groups at various times. It was a great experience and we had success in running with the AzTrek, Boston Road, Ventilator series and worked with a number of Specialty Running Stores across the country. I eventually directed the launch of Reebok’s DMX technology in Walking which eventually sold 22 million pairs.

RBR, 5. After Reebok, you worked at Mizuno, name others, how was that?

JR: Mizuno was a great experience as VP of Footwear. I wasn’t there very long, but was there long enough to help direct the launch of the Wave and contribute to the run centric platform they have today. I left because I was at a period in my life where I wasn’t mature enough to handle the transition from a big brand to a smaller, entrepranurial one. The Japanese are very fiscally sound, have tremendous research and development resources and have a tremendous amount of pride. Bob Puccini is a great leader and strong foundation for that brand, and is a tremendous reason for their consistency and success…. I spent a few years working for Genesco as VP of Product Development for the Nautica Brand. That was a great experience because I got to set up a vertical organization in the Far East, from product development to sourcing. I ended up in Maine as VP of Product for Sebago. Everything was manufacturing driven and when the market is consumer driven, that was just going to be a clash of cultures…. I spent a couple of years back at Reebok heading up Walking and Adventure and commuting from Maine to Canton….knowing I wasn’t going to move, especially given the tremendous volatility of the leadership within the Reebok Brand…. I had already started to look at opening a Specialty Running Store in Portland…and did so in 2005.

RBR, 6. Your experiences at specialty channel did not scare you away from retail?

JR: If anything, it enhanced it. I got to work with some of the brightest and most eccentric Specialty Running Store owners in the U.S…from Gary Gribble in Kansas City, Chet James at Super Jock N Jill, Gary Murchke, Super Runners Shop, Gary Goettleman, Ryans Sport Shop, Paul Carrozza at RunTex and Tom Raynor at Fleet Feet…. You could see that community out reach, good SKU and inventory management, passion were ways those guys drove their business. I also reached a point in my life where lifestyle and seeing my kids grow up became more important than traveling all over Asia, Europe and merchandising and marketing another shoe line….

RBR, 7. Tell us about your retail store and experience?

JR: It’s been great! We started out and really focused on community outreach and building the Maine Running Brand through races, training groups and on customer acquisition and retention. Last year we posted our 4th consecutive year of solid double digit increases. Portland has a wonderful year round fitness market and our specialty differentiation has been received well.


RBR, 8. How has your life changed?

JR: Well, I’ve more or less become “Married with Kids”…. Tremendous employees and a great spouse give me the flexibility to be Mr. Mom, on occasion. I’m fairly involved in the community and coach other runners. We’re involved in Portland Trails and do a summer series to benefit the Trails network in Portland. I network a lot with other Specialty Stores and other industry friends to find out what’s happening in their neck of the woods…..

RBR, 9. Was it insanity or just a high pain threshold that got you involved with IRRA?

JR: It was a desire to help foster a network and learn from the best at Specialty Running Retail. I’m in awe with the business acumen of our board members such as Guy Perry, Kris Hartner, Ed Griffin, Garry Gribble, etc… tremendous knowledge and they attack their businesses everyday with passion and solid business principles. I learn something every time I’m at an IRRA meeting or just through networking. Specialty Running Stores for years was a hobby for most, but the marketplace and the cost of doing business has changed. I am totally fascinated with what drives the Specialty Running Channel and finding new ways to acquire customers.

RBR, 10. What is IRRA? Its goals?

JR:The Independent Running Retailers Association takes on the responsibility of serving and promoting the interest of every running retailer in the U.S. The goal is to support the needs of the specialty running retailer, enhance profitability and promote the specialty running retailers passion for running. The association is working on this by providing education, research, vendor relations, advocacy and discount programs. In today’s economic climate, you can’t afford not to have that support.

RBR, 11.Why should media join? Industry?

JR: Because a healthy specialty channel means we all benefit…. The media and trade need healthy specialty running business operators so their business can grow as well.

RBR, 12. What are the greatest challenges for IRRA today?

JR: The greatest challenge is moving from a “Chamber Of Commerce” format to an association that provides a multitude of tangible benefits and support and growing our membership. Formula 4 has been great at supporting our infrastructure to get there. We are working on an IRRA portal with support mechanisms so members can reach out and find solutions to help run their business. We’ve also worked hard to develop industry alliances and relationships.

RBR, 13. Where is the business going?

JR:The business is one of the few channels experiencing growth, but it is at a tipping point. We need running store owners to become good operators and take ownership to another level. The credit crisis is going to make it extremely difficult for those running stores that have been operating on credit cards and not managing inventory or cash flow, to re-finance long term debt.

Vendors are tightening up. Not to sound grim, but we could lose 10% of our doors this year…but that could be offset by new stores entering the market. The other thing is we have a mix of new store owners and exiting owners. We need to find ways for all store owners to be cognizant of how to plan a healthy exit strategy. Tom Raynor’s new SRDC group is a great opportunity for exiting stores. I think he will do well with it.

RBR, 14. Talk about product? Great product?

JR: The big “Six” are all making great product. Of course some brands and product do better than others, but that is contingent on what each store gets behind. All we can do is put each brands product out there and let them compete. Of course, the entire brand ensemble; in store support, education, customer service and ease of doing business are all part of the equation as well. It’s more difficult then ever to break in and, in today’s economy, stores are going to stick with trusted brands more than ever.

RBR, 15. Finally, if the President gave every American $100 to purchase a pair of running shoes in order to start a walking or fitness program, would that be a good investment?

Absolutely….but we don’t need a bail out….our channel is strong and our specialty differentiation is providing a great experience and way for folks to invest in their fitness, health and well being.

To find your local running store, please click http://www.runningnetwork.com

To get a hold of Larry Eder, try [email protected]

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