RBR Interview: Tom Carleo, GM, New Balance Running & Outdoor, by Larry Eder

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Tom Carleo, GM, New Balance Running & Outdoor, photo courtesy of NB communications.

The running footwear industry has grown up. An industry that generates $7.5 billion in sales a year, and the creme de la creme is the performance running business, which continues to grow.

The largest privately held brand in our business is New Balance, which was bought on Boston Marathon Day in 1972 by Jim Davis. Davis, now a member of the IRRA Hall of Fame, and one of the most enigmatic leaders in our business, continues to make tough decisions in growing the brand that he worked so hard to build.

Tom Carleo, a life long New Englander, who has spent many of his formative years in the Northwest and Japan, is now GM of Running at New Balance. Carleo knows running from the competitive side of racing, having been a qualifier in the 1,500 meters at the 1988 Olympic Trials. Tom also was instrumental in the development of the Bowerman line, while at Nike. After a stint at Saucony, Tom Carleo is now the General Manager of Running & Outdoor at New Balance. He has held this position for just about one year now.

We caught up with Tom last month, while he was traveling in China. His sense of humor comes across in each interview. Tom could have done stand up comedy. What comes across in this interview is is obvious affection for the people he works with, a genuine love for the sport of running and a keen awareness of what it takes to make a successful running shoe. Read on....

RBR, 1. How did you get started in running? Tell us about high school and college?

Tom Carleo: I ran a little bit when I was a kid. City meets and junior high school meets, but did not start running in HS until indoor track, my junior year. Newton North HS had a very good team, and I just wanted to be on the team. My main motivation came when I ran a 5:05 indoor mile, and then watched a member of the girl’s team run 4:50 or so (Liz Natalie, NNHS 1982). My goal then became to run faster than Liz. Ultimately I did get faster than Liz. My HS coach was named Mark Lech, who was running for Athletics West (1:46 800 that year). He had talked me into running and convinced me I could be pretty good. He kept me on a pretty straight path.. Today Marc is the head coach at the University of Maine and has helped guide thousands of HS and collegiate runners.

HS Running did a lot for me, mostly keeping me out of trouble which had been my specialty prior to joining the team (ok...I still got in some trouble, but nothing I can't tell my kids some day!)

I competed for a few years at U Mass, Amherst and then Boston College. I then ran for three years for the Nike Boston Track club, coached by legendary Bob Sevene. Bob guided me to the 1988 Trials in the 1500m, where I was eliminated in the first round. After a few years of perfecting "first round eliminations", I jumped into the "industry".


RBR, 2. Tell us about your first running job?

Tom Carleo: I started working for NIKE in 1988, at the Nike Wellesley store, which was a technical running store outside of Boston. From that role I became the EKIN in Boston, before moving to Oregon. I spent from 1993 to 2003 living away from Boston, in the rain of Oregon and the earthquakes of Tokyo. I worked in many capacities for NIKE, mostly on the running business. Over those years I worked with many great people on the running business. I was really lucky to work for Tom Hartge, Rudy Chapa and Kirk Richardson, all of who I learned many lessons from that I still tap into today. I also worked with a bunch of great product managers; many of them are currently spread around the running industry. I cannot recall many of their names at this time though.

RBR, 3. You worked at Nike for a long time, do you have any recollections of Bill Bowerman?

Tom Carleo: Mr. Bowerman was a special man. He had a focus and a commitment that was amazing, even in his later years. I spent time with him on several occasions and he always made me laugh. He was a man of our "greatest generation", who returned from war and built a lot more than a shoe company. I remember his brutal honesty while critiquing running shoes ("is that shoe designed for standing around in??").

RBR, 4. You were credited with championing the Bowerman line, what made that special?

Tom Carleo: The team that worked on the first Bowerman line was fun, competitive and really talented. As I said, many of them are still in the industry and still friends today (again, their names are slipping my mind right now).

5. What was the key lesson that you learnt from Nike?

Tom Carleo: Set goals high and push.

6. You spent several years at Saucony running, what did you learn from Saucony?

Tom Carleo: Sometimes you have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

7. You are now at New Balance, the largest privately owned running brand in the world. Some would argue has been leaderless in running since Stuart Babb left in 2005, how do you bring change into such a company?

Tom Carleo: I would not agree that NB Running has been leaderless. There has been erosion to market share in some channels and a lack of focus in a few areas, but the running brand at NB has been growing globally. The changes that we are now undergoing have been easy to implement. Jim Davis has built this company from the ground up, with a passion and instinct that I am so excited to be a close to. I think I bring to the NB team experience I developed moving effectively through a very large organization, as well as the experience developed operating within a very small company.

8. New Balance has had one of the best relationships with its dealers in the Nbx area, how do you improve that?

Tom Carleo: First, it is important to respect and truly listen to what is going on with the runners who come into their shops. As simple as this may sound, truly listening and basing decisions on what we learn from this listening will be how we continue to be a great running shoe brand.

9. How does New Balance develop new consumers while taking care of its current consumers?

Tom Carleo: Our current consumer comes from many age groups and has many usages for their product. We will grow with many of these consumer groups. Our focuses on growing share in the women’s running market and on connecting to the high school runner, will not alienate our existing base as we already have a position with these consumer groups. We simply need to sharpen our product mix and communication in the areas.


10. You brought in Maggie Vessey this past year, and you have some icons in NB running, with the exception of James Carney, where will NB go from here?

Tom Carleo: Athletes have always played a major role at New Balance. John Evans (who runs our athlete marketing efforts) has done a tremendous job over the years in the area. In the last few months we have added Maggie, as well as Sarah Bowman (miler, Tennessee) to the NB family. They have already brought great energy and spirit to our product teams. They are obviously great athletes, but also fun and really good people. We will continue to seek out athletes that are the right fit for the New Balance family.

11. This is a very, very tough running environment. The product has to be great to be considered, and the consumer has more product to choose from than ever before. How do you get NB product to stand out?

Tom Carleo: It is a tough game today, but it has always been a tough game. Developing a world class team, keeping focused on the end user and listening to runners and retailers, are key components to winning in the running space. Our ability to innovate is now really promising, with the resources we have dedicated to our R&
D and innovation facilities. The recent addition of Claire Wood in product marketing and JF Fullum to lead footwear design has brought new insight, passion and energy to NB running from the competition. Adding this type of talent to an already really strong team is already showing results.

12. You have spent most of your adult life in the running biz. What is it about this community, your long time friends, that keeps so many people in the biz?

Tom Carleo: It is an industry of passion. Most of us were runners at some level and not only worked together but also ran together in the past. The friends I worked in the past with are still in the industry. They are in roles today ranging from the complexity of importing and managing the inventory of a major Japanese running brand to the simplicity of managing an inexpensive outdoor boot line. It’s really fun to stay in touch with each other. The running industry has so many opportunities to cross paths (major marathons, trade events or bumping into each other in retail stores).

Special thanks to Tom Carleo, and Kristen Sullivan.

Further information on Tom Carleo :http://www.runblogrun.com/2008/10/post_21.html

For more on New Balance, please click on http://www.newbalance.com

For more on the sport of running, may we suggest http://www.runningnetwork.com?

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