Richie Woodworth, President, Saucony, photo courtesy of Saucony communications
In the world of performance running, the brands on top are the brands willing to a) focus on consistently strong product,b) be willing to promote the product, c) invest in events, athletes, and local brand support, d) vigilantly watch their customer service and e) invest in long term relationships with specialty retailers.
In 2009, the champions in performance running footwear are ASICS, Brooks, Saucony, Mizuno, Nike and New Balance. The new brands, like Kswiss, Somnia, Merrell, Newton, all look to what the top players have done. The devil is in the details.
One of the hottest brands in 2009 is Saucony. We asked Richie Woodworth, President of Saucony, to spend some time discussing why his brand is firing on all cylinders and what it takes for a brand to excel in such a competitive environment. Please note that we will be interviewing executives from some of the other key players over the next few months. Note also that the Fleet Feet franchises gave their vendor of the year to Saucony. Service is key to survival in this market. Next to product, without service to the retailer, the party is over.
The running footwear biz is $7.5 billion in 2009. Specialty is just over $900 million and growing. This is our world, day in, day out. At the Running Network, we track 800 specialty running stores-about 300 of them are firing on all cylinders.
What is fascinating to me, is that the CEOs and Presidents of the major brands are a fascinating bunch. What is interesting, at least to me, is how the managers like Woodworth use their brand’s key strengths to help them excel.
RBR, 1: Tell us about your early experiences in running industry?
Richie, 1: Relevant background, I am athlete, as all good athletes, we run. I was on the national ski team. After the ski team, I raced professionally, with Bob Beattie on the world professional circuit. I was ranked fourth in the world. I
did a lot nice stuff in my athletic career, for skiing. Then I went into the ski boot business, got into in foot mechanics. This was my good basic training bio- mechanically.
So, I started early as an athlete. Because of ski boots because learned a lot about bio- mechanics. In the ski boot business, I worked for Nordica and Technica. Through skiing, we used to do a lot training with running. Kind of like in your day, we did not lift, we would run and do a lot of intervals…
RBR, 2: After you left the ski business, where did you go?
Richie, 2: After that, I had a tremendous experieince with FootJoy, a golf shoe company. FootJoy is a great company, was number one with the biggest market share. I then went to Reebok where I was for eight years. I worked for Greg Norman brand. We actually started, created and developed the whole business. I then had one stop at the NHL.
RBR, 3: What is the biggest lesson you have learned in the running business?
Richie, 3: I think, if anything, what I have learned and what I love, is the passion that exists, and the energy and the purity of the sport, and specialness of the trade. The specialty business rules: service, fit, gate analysis, hugging your customer and consumer makes so much sense in our world, so much personal contact, and a shared love of the sport. There is a shared passion for moving the sport forward. It is not the easiest for an outsider to come into. Key to succeeding in our business is sharing the values of appreciating and probably, respecting and understanding consumer.
RBR, 4: What do you enjoy about your job at Saucony?
Richie, 4: I feel like our brand is the mirror of the industry and we have a passion about running here. It is an incredibly feisty environment, there is this competitive side in our offices, within the context of how we work, being involved and part of Saucony. It is a microcosm and mirror in how it is supposed to work. There is a lot of negative in general life, and in this industry, at this time, the purity of what we do to inspire runners every day, through our customers, that is kind of cool.
RBR, 5: Where is your growth, is it in younger runners as well as older runners?
Richie, 5: It is pretty balanced. I will tell you that in our strategy for young runners, 16-20 years of age, we grew significantly. It is a combination of a many factors: our cross country project with you (Twelve Week Cross country program, in print, web, digital, 350,000 runners, in second year). We are connecting there. Getting people into the brand at an earlier age is key. Making great product that is successful. Making a $175 running shoe does not resonate here-go to a cross country race, see the kids wearing an average $65 shoe. Knowing that we make great shoes at that-the best of those, as well as great high-end, premium tech product. We are growing with men, and it is something we really need to do, it is a challenge for us.
We over index in women. The general market is 62 percent male, in run specialty. Women are more prominent for us, at 52 percent of the market, so, for us, we over index in women. We are both proud of about our women’s business, while, at same time, we also we need we fit for guys too.
Anthony Famiglietti, aka FAM, is one of Saucony’s top athletes, photo by PhotoRun.net.
RBR, 6: Saucony’s attention to its specialty accounts seems to be paying you back right now, how is specialty looking for you this year?
Richie, 6: It looks to be growing in double digits, and I think that the growth is really healthy, across number of shoes, and good silos.We are under- indexed in light stability, the Guide is doing phenomenally well. A lot of people will get into it–a lot of room for us to grow. The newer version of a more high end neutral shoe, the Triumph has picked up. The Ride, has been exceptional. You do not want to rely on one shoe.
RBR, 7: Your entree into cross country gave you the two best xc shoes in the US, are you finding young runners trying Saucony?
Richie, 7: I think that, for us, the first step was to get into a cross country shoe that filled a specific need–hey coach, what do I need to know. More than just provide a shoe, we provided them with a training program, and coach on line. We provide them with spike nights, with local retailers-parents really like it–the spike nights get the runner into the right shoe, and added value that creates a relationship between the athlete, parent and store retailer, as well as between the store retailer and Saucony.
That relationship can last a lifetime, being able to look at it holistically, that enables us to gain number onecross country market share spot.
RBR, 8: You have a very close knit team, can you explain who does what, in department terms?
Richie, 8: Pat O’ Malley is in charge of product, design and development. Pat took the leadership a year ago, he is phenomenal guy, there is no body that is more committed, I think the great thing about Pat is, how open he is not
to be afraid not be to try something new.
Mary O’Brien is in charge of marketing, developing consumer demand. Mary is a great athlete, and understands the business. Sharon Barbano handles public relations and the event marketing side of business. Sharon has long time ties with the sport, and knows the players, from her racing days as well. (Editor’s note: Sharon was one of the most prolific and top women road racers in the seventies and eighties.)
Freddie Doyle manages our field sales team, long time veteran of the business and well liked. I believe that Freddie is worth at least, one point market share—deep relationships with players on the run specialty side. (Editor’s note: Freddie was a very good marathoner, and has the tenth best marathon time for the Greater Boston Track Club-time is from late in the nineteeth century, though).
Fran Allen was recently senior vice president of sales at New Balance for 17 years. The great thing Fran is that he is a great guy, great team player, and he has experience. Fran has seen large ramped up growth,and what it can do: he knows the good things and the pitfalls. As we strive to really grow our business, get bigger and better, and stronger, having him as a good partner, learning how not to make some of the same kinds of mistakes, will reap the benefits of his experience.
Operations is Dan Horgan. In Run Specialty, they will not tolerate poor service, deliveries. Dan ran at Notre Dame, he is a fabulous back ground guy.We are ranked number one in customer service.
RBR, 9: At Saucony, you seem to have learned the lesson that tinkering a bit with a popular model does not mean changing the entire shoe, can you comment on that?
Richie, 9: It is a testement at Saucony to our shoes being really good. There is not a tremendous change you can throw at a franchise model; we have six good core franchise models: Hurricane in 11th versions, Omni in 8th. So, we have a history, developed a consumer. I would be lying-we do change things, we are always tinkering with things. I am glad to hear from the trade, that it is not a detriment.
RBR, 10: Saucony has some classics business, has that grown or slowed down during the past year?
Richie, 10: Classics is growing slowly: it is pretty moderate, a little bit by design, a bit of a priority. We want to dominate run specialty, the sporting goods business, it is a little bit behind those. We spend a good deal of time on it, have added some fresh faces. It gets some focus and energy, and it is getting good play in sneaker boutiques. But we have not been banging the drum in Nylon, Vibe, Grow.
If Saucony is guilty of anything in recent past; we were milking that market, running it up and watching it fall. That is not the way to do it, you build it with sustainable growth, and that is through strategic, thoughtful distribution .
RBR, 11:What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead for Saucony?
Richie, 11: I can not think of anyone who thinks that the economy is not a factor. We are doing great, we have got good growth going. Who knows, where we would be?
I think as much as we appreciate and respect the heritage, some legacy issues still exist. People see us as a sleepy New England company. And being a women’s brand. I use every bit of energy thinking in mens as we do womens. No reason Saucony should not sell more shoes for men. Some of that is the legacy, people tend to put you in a box. It is important, that is the stage for us at present. We are starting to see growth, it is showing in sales, with young kids. We need more men, we need to have it be okay for men to try Saucony product.
RBR, 12: Saucony sponsored the FootLocker XC in 2008, are you going to work with that event in 2009?
Richie, 12: Actually, we loved it. We liked that it created a relationship with kids and not just a side affect from promotional opportunities. But, the shoes we gave, and running gear, you know, now we see them, on the top high school athletes. At front of the sport, these atlhlblogging, just a great sort of side win. And we did not go into it not really knowing, right now we are in discussions with the Foot on how to perpetuate the event.
RBR, 13: How many races and events does Saucony sponsor? You can send me the info later?
Richie, 13: Let’s ask Sharon Barbano.
(Editor’s note: Sharon, being the professional that she is, sent me the following info, which is appropos at this time:
Saucony has been the official sponsor of the 2009 US National XC Championships and the 2008 Footlocker National XC championships
Saucony attends shows at 20 national level road races
Saucony is the official footwear sponsor of the Endorfun 5-event triathlon series
Saucony sponsors or attends over 100 local races
Saucony supports 18 elite athletes (runners and triathletes) and 50 “regional heroes” (Hurricane Team) )
RBR, 14: Rumor has it that you are building a special chamber for Pat O’Malley, your vp of product, to live in 24/7-can we get any pictures? Any comments?
Richie, 14: (Laughing) He is quite a stud. Pat has been great and good. As most people know is a Mainer, there is some granite from New Hampshire there. The honest truth is, that in Pat, one can’t find one more dedicated to running. He runs every day. although he did finally, miss a day, when he passed kidney stone in China on one of his many trips there. That is dedication!
Another good read would be our RBR interview with Pat O’Malley, Saucony’s VP of Product: https://www.runblogrun.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt.cgi?__mode=view&_type=entry&id=1032&blog_id=1
Special thanks to Richie Woodworth for his time, Sharon Barbano for her patience and support (plus background information), and Mary 0’Brien for her thoughtful emails at all hours of the day.
To learn more about the Saucony brand, please check out http://www.saucony.com
To learn more about the world of running, visit one or more of the twenty-four websites located at http://www.runningnetwork.com
To reach RBR, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org