I began asking ASICS America about an interview with Kevin Wulff in early March, and Kevin, was, while not reticent, not ready to interview. Kevin did feel it was the time. In early May, Kevin Wulff, to his credit, called me and we spoke about his time and ties with Wisconsin, and he offered to respond to some questions.
Mr. Wulff knows that he has the eyes of the industry on him, as he works to finesse an iconic brand into some changes and also steer the brand, who has stiff challenges from competitors, in the upcoming years. Like all running footwear brands, management has to look at the global economy, the fears of the general consumer and overall health of the sport.
I think that you, our readers, will find this interview quite revealing. Kevin did not answer all of my questions. He did not feel it was appropriate to speak about past accomplishments-he wanted to focus on ASICS America. I will tell you, my readers, that he made the right choice. His concerns, his thought process, his respect for ASICS America comes through. In the end, it is one of my favorite interviews.
Thanks to Kevin Wulff for his time and candor. Recognition should be made to Heather Spears for her support in this interview.
RBR, #1. Now you are at ASICS, what have been your first impressions?
Kevin Wulff: It's been a good change to be with a company in which its employees have a history with the brand. So many of the individuals live and breathe the brand, its heritage and products on a daily basis and have done so for several years. This experience has been key for me to tap into for implementing strategic plans moving forward.
It's also been amazing to be with a brand that has such clout and position within the running community - having styles such as the Kayano, Nimbus and 2000 series that have been around for 15+ years and have a strong reputation with consumers and retailers.
RBR, #2. You have taken over from Rich Bourne, who created a family at ASICS America, how have the first few months been?
Kevin Wulff: Rich Bourne laid the foundation for success that I plan to continue with the ASICS family and brand.
RBR, #3. ASICS is the number one-number two performance footwear brand, and has been for over a decade, what are your first observations there?
Kevin Wulff: ASICS top priority is to be the #1 leader in performance running. We are constantly striving to improve product and service to the specialty running retailers and to the loyal customers of the ASICS brand. While technical advancements and innovation have played a big role in our success in running, what the consumer really cares about is fit and comfort, which we have consistently delivered as well. As the brand moves forward, we will continue to innovate and improve our performance running product, while developing new product that will broaden our market and introduce the brand to new customers.
RBR, #4. Will ASICS change its focus on performance running?
Kevin Wulff: Performance running will continue to be the #1 priority for ASICS. Our key styles, including the Kayano, Nimbus and 2000 series, will continue forward with exciting technical and trend relevant updates in 2012. We have had amazing success with these styles and they will continue to be a big part of our overall story. However, we will also be bringing new product to the line to broaden our appeal to consumers and grow the brand. The 33 by ASICS collection will be key driver of this initiative.
RBR, #5. You have a tremendous heritage with wrestling, volleyball-how big is that business?
Kevin Wulff: ASICS is either #1 or #2 in both categories and both team sports will continue to be a priority.
RBR, #6. ASICS has had strong growth in the high school running market, where do you go from here?
Kevin Wulff: The goal is to introduce the brand to young consumers and then ensure that they grow up with the brand to become loyal ASICS followers. Our traditional strategy to achieve that has been to provide technically superior and visually exciting products that don't break the budget. We'll continue along that path, but in today's market, you have to reach out to young consumers in so many ways beyond simply offering good-looking product at Point of Sale. So going forward, we'll move aggressively toward Social Media and other marketing strategies that appeal to young consumers. We want to get them excited about wearing ASICS, and then tell their friends about their experience with the brand.
RBR, # 7. ASICS response to lightweight has been 33 by ASICS, how has that been received?
Kevin Wulff: The 33 by ASICS collection represents ASICS' unique and innovative answer to the lightweight, 'minimal' trend in the market. The collection derives its name -and emulates- the 33 joints in the foot that work together to allow for efficient movement through the gait cycle. So basically, these products are designed to provide comfort, cushioning and flexibility while encouraging natural foot movement.
The initial response has been fantastic. The GEL-Blur33 and the Rush33 debuted to a select group of retailers in early April and will have a wider distribution this summer and fall. Two new styles within this collection will debut in Specialty Running dealers this December, each with an exciting and innovative story to tell. The key point is that each offering will be a unique product solution that will appeal to a broad consumer audience from a gait perspective. The ability of this product to work for a range of gait needs will be our key point of difference, something that we feel is lacking in the product that is currently on the market.
RBR, #8. Your gold medal accounts have been huge supporters of ASICS, what would you say to the store owners about ASICS and the future of run specialty?
Kevin Wulff: Our Gold Accounts (Specialty Running Dealers) are the backbone of our business, and we've been fortunate to be the leading brand within the channel for the past decade. We recognize however, that the channel has evolved...the way Specialty connects to the running consumer has become more sophisticated, and our competition has stepped up their product offerings and level of service to the channel. So we're going to pick up the pace, but in a fashion that addresses the needs of the channel in our own unique way. At the same time, we'll dramatically improve the value we bring to the channel in the form of unique new service elements and marketing initiatives.
The evolution of the legendary products like the Kayano series will get an update, plus we'll debut some new styles from our 33 by ASICS collection. These new styles will enable specialty running dealers to reach out to a new community of runners.
RBR, #9. ASICS wants to grow; can you support and handle the growth in core running with the need for product in fitness and new runners and walkers?
Kevin Wulff: Absolutely! We recognize that it's impossible to grow without building the infrastructure to support that growth. So we've expanded our product development team and added product line managers that have a specialized focus on key growth categories, including walking and training.
These categories, by the way, have traditionally been quite strong for the brand, and Fall '11 will bring a new collection of training shoes that bring more variety to the gym experience. In an effort to provide footwear for the various gym activities, for example, ASICS will be introducing the GEL-Ipera, an elliptical to Pilates shoe, and a new category of dance-fitness shoes that include the GEL-Iilyeo II and the GEL-Rythmic.
Then in Spring' 12 a new collection of walking shoes will debut - debuting a lightweight product for the walking enthusiast along with several traditional silhouettes.
RBR, #10. Is the Latino community a target for ASICS?
Kevin Wulff: In the short term, we will not be targeting this particular segment per se as we already know that we index quite high with this segment. However, down the road long term, we might look into it.
RBR, #11. In your experience in the industry, what would you tell young people who want to come into the running footwear industry?
Kevin Wulff: My advice would be to get your foot in the door, whether that is working in customer service or at a retail store or an internship. The key is to build relationships. Key people travel from company to company, so the more relationships you build, the better chance you have to land a position of your choice later on.
RBR, #12. With prices rising in China, is ASICS moving manufacturing?
Kevin Wulff: ASICS has been looking outside of China for years and has ventured into several new countries. We will continue to look to reduce our dependency on China.
RBR, #13. How has the recent earthquakes in Japan affected ASICS America?
Kevin Wulff: Fortunately, neither ASICS headquarters nor its people were directly impacted by the earthquake, however, in the long term, we will see the financial effects within the economy from the devastation. Japan has made up a significant portion of our global sales and that will definitely be affected this year.
The employees in the U.S. office declared April as 'Japan Relief Month' and came together to help raise over $50,000 which we recently donated to the American Red Cross to aid those in Japan. In addition, ASICS Corporation donated $250,000 plus over 80,000 pieces of apparel, footwear and accessories.
RBR, #14. Tell us about moving Gary Slayton into emerging markets?
Kevin Wulff: Gary Slayton is seasoned footwear, sales and marketing guy within the ASICS business - his 28 years of experience has taken him from a tech rep to footwear product marketing to Western Regional Sales manager to the VP of Marketing. I needed someone experienced within the ASICS business to head up a new department which is the rapidly growing business in both Canada and South/Latin Americas. His overall expertise with the ASICS brand and the product will help lay and facilitate the strategic growth plans for this area.
In addition, Gary strongly expressed the need to take on new challenges by transitioning from a functional role to a general management role and we feel he will bring great value to these growing businesses.
RBR, #15.Tell us about your changes in the Sales Department?
Kevin Wulff: With the goal of becoming a billion dollar brand, ASICS sales management has been re-structured with an emphasis on specialization. This new management strategy allows us to focus on the specific channels that will drive us toward our goal.
To that end, we've added some new members who each bring specific talents: Mike Mitchell is an industry veteran who will serve as one of the two Senior Sales Directors overseeing the West and Southwest regions.
Tracy Paoletti will serve as his counterpart over the East and Midwest regions. These two bring tremendous senior level national sales experience and a complete understanding of premium performance products.
In addition, Patty Kelly has moved from apparel product development into an Apparel Sales position, bringing her experience with design and development to the sales team. Terry Schalow, a 23-year veteran of ASICS with both specialty sales and performance running product management experience, will lead a group that focuses on Specialty Sales which includes specialty retail dealers, team sales and medical sales. John Kraus who has been with ASICS since 2004 will add Director of Sales Operations to his West Sales Manager title, this new responsibility will help set ASICS in a position for future growth.
My hope with this re-organization is to best utilize the experience and knowledge of these members to set us up strategically for growth and expansion.
RBR, #16. With all of these fine running shoes in the market, how do you steer ASICS America down a continued course of success?
Kevin Wulff: Product innovation will be key to our business growth. ASICS will continue to innovate with new ideas, develop new products, and broaden our range of running offerings designed specifically to serve the needs of our core retail channels. The key for success here will be to play to our unique strengths, which will allow us to bring value and differentiation that our competition cannot match.
RBR, 17. Finally, you have the bully pulpit, what would you say to the running industry and key observers about where ASICS America will go under your direction?
Kevin Wulff: The long term growth plan for ASICS America is to reach one billion dollars by 2015. With that goal in mind, we need to grow all categories of the ASICS business.
A few of my top priorities to make this goal feasible are:
To be a total running company by focusing on all segments in running with the 'core' focus of bringing new innovations and business leadership to the performance running segment.
New product categories will be crucial in building a larger consumer base, which will also allow us to better serve our retailers with more product offerings.
Freshen our look within retail - offer new POP, shop-in-shops, etc. to gain more space within retail.
Distribution - the new warehouse in Byhalia, MISS will improve distribution and services to retailers and customers.
And finally...Build a strong and strategic internal team to tackle the goal ahead of us. I have brought in some new people and moved some current people around so that I can take that senior level experience and bring it to new positions/departments.