The RBR Interview: Fritz Taylor, VP/GM, Running Division, Mizuno by Larry Eder


Over the past three years, we have been fortunate enough to interviewed many of the key players in our business. I must admit that Fritz Taylor is one of my favorites. I have enjoyed talking with Fritz over nearly the two decades that I have know him. I asked Fritz to give RBR an interview a few weeks ago. I sent him the questions, and here are his very thoughtful responses. You will notice the praise Fritz gives to his mentors and be the best, one must learn from the best...

RBR,#1: Fritz, you got your start at Nike, working with some of the greats in our business, such as Kirk Richardson, Tom Hartge, Mark Nenow. Tell us about your beginnings in the running business.

Fritz Taylor: I got my foot in the door with Nike in 1988 working in one of the very first Nike stores up in Freeport Maine. I quit a job as a teacher & coach to pursue a love of running and a fascination with running shoes and I think I was making $5 an hour. My mother thought it was one of the dumber things I had done. But for someone with that mindset, the early Nike days were like living a dream. I remember running the backroads of Freeport with Joanie Samuelson (getting hammered!) and thinking “…can’t believe I’m doing this.” When I finally got a chance to move to Oregon to work on shoes it was the same feeling. I was working with and learning from guys who had a unique way of looking at business and it was incredibly energizing and inspiring. There was a high level of creativity throughout the organization and it was all more about a mission than a job. I remember when Tom Hartge showed me the first designs for the Huarache running shoe I about pee’d in my pants.

Kirk Richardson was a huge mentor. He’s such a legend at Nike and even back in those days he was a bigger than life character. Kirk didn’t have a lot of patience for the endless debate we would all have about product strategy and positioning. Kirk would pooh-pooh it and tell us that if we weren’t out in the market listening to consumers then all our hallway conversations weren’t worth squat.

Tom Carleo and I were both working in running when Asics started having success back in the late 90’s. They were remarkably consistent with their product at a time we were so focused on the next innovation. We both realized that we needed to rally the company around a more consistent, evolutionary running model that was more in-tune with the mindset of runners. I was focused on the shoes and Tom was the one who came up with the idea to name it the Bowerman Series as a way to honor and remember Nike’s founder. His thinking was brilliant really – if we had named it anything else there is a good chance it wouldn’t have survived a year. But he understood the reverence that name carried within the hallways of Nike.

RBR, #2: You spent time working in Nike/Europe, what was that business like? Is running that much different in Europe?

Fritz Taylor: Actually, I wasn’t just working on running in Europe – I was in charge of the footwear team for all the performance categories. I loved my time there – the office was small and there was an opportunity to be a lot more entrepreneurial. The Nike European HQ was a dynamic mix of Dutch, Italians, Germans, Brits, South Africans and a few Americans and despite all the potential differences there was an intense, shared passion for the brand. Some of my strongest friendships were forged during my 6 years there. I even met my wife over there!

In terms of running there are more similarities than differences from a fit and performance stand-point, but there are some funny oddities as well. In general, Southern Europeans tend to favor lighter neutral shoes and, especially in Italy, they like brighter colors. The Northern European countries tend to prefer more supportive, structured shoes and more muted, darker colors. As example, you see a fair number of runners in Germany wearing all-black shoes where you would never see a black shoe on a runner in Italy. At the same time, the German and Nordic markets are very, very driven by perceptions of quality engineering while the Italian and Spanish markets tend to place an emphasis on style and design.

RBR, #3: You returned to the US and worked in Nike global running. What was the biggest lesson you learnt from working at Nike?

Fritz Taylor: The biggest lesson I learned from Nike was how to compete. Nike is full of people who were super-competitive athletes at one time in their lives and that competitiveness is still pervasive there. I think part of the genius of Phil Knight is that he figured out how to channel that raw competitiveness in people in to a business environment. When you work at Nike, you spend huge amounts of energy trying to beat-out the guys working next to you in everything – from a product brief to a presentation to the next innovation. It fuels much of what comes out of that place. But it also has its downside. There were many times when you would see people walking around like an over-trained runner in a kind of a thick fog. A lot of people didn’t have much of a life outside of the office.

RBR, #4: You went from Nike to Brooks. Brooks is focused on running, and you had left a large company with a little group focused on running. What did you learn from your time at Brooks?

Fritz Taylor: Brooks is a great company with one of the best guys in the business running the show – Jim Weber. Brooks is a very externally focused company, very in-tune with its customers and runners, and that was great to experience. Rick Wilhelm (VP of Sales) is one of the guys responsible for that as well. Who is better connected or liked in the running community than Rick? Every time I saw Rick he had some news or some feedback from a running store he had just spoken with. A lot of the success they are having at Brooks goes back to what Kirk Richardson was always hammering us about at Nike – if you get out in the market and really listen and respond to what people are telling you, you will be successful.

RBR, #5: You have an appreciation for the running consumer and their interaction with specialty retail. How would you describe the relationship between the consumer and the grass roots running store owner?

Fritz Taylor: In 2005 at Nike we had an external market-research firm do a running market study. They made a presentation to us highlighting the emerging importance of “community” amongst runners and they described running stores as “The High Church” of the local running community. That one has stuck with me because I think it rings so true. Running stores are much, much more than just a place to go buy shoes or clothes and in a way they play the same kind of role in uniting the community that churches also do. Want to train for a big race? Head to you local running store. Injured and want some advice on how to recover? Head to your local running store. Want to find some running partners? Head to your local running store. I think its why running specialty stores have stayed so healthy in this down economy – they aren’t just selling stuff, they are offering a whole plethora of ways to enjoy running more.

RBR, #6. The business of running is one of the few positive lights in the sports business. And the business is it its most competitive. How do you get the retailer to pay attention to your product?

Fritz Taylor: Last time I was in Dallas I asked Bob Wallace at Run On the same question and his response has stuck with me. He said “I don’t view your product as just your shoes or clothes. Your product is also your service, your marketing, your sales support, your credit dept, and how well you ship. All of those together are your product.” With running being such a growth area for the last 8-9 years it has become hugely competitive with over 25 footwear manufacturers wanting a piece of the running pie. Ten years ago a manufacturer could get by with strong product and mediocre service or marketing. Today you can’t afford to miss a beat. If we want our product to stand out in the retailers mind we have to offer great product, superior service, support, shipping and all the rest of the package. There are some stores around the country where we are #2 and threatening to be #1. When I ask those store owners why we do so well there, I get almost identical answers: “It feels like you guys know our business as well as we do.” That’s a huge compliment that we would like to get from all our retail partners.

RBR, #7: You are at Mizuno now, and you have told me that you are enjoying the GM role, overseeing the brand of Mizuno running. What types of changes are you doing at Mizuno?

Fritz Taylor: Right now we are very focused on making sure we have the “complete product package” I spoke about. We are in the midst of evolving our service model to running specialty and we are working closely with our Customer Support, Credit and Shipping departments to introduce some new ways to provide support to our customers and to our sales team in the field. We are also completely revamping our marketing strategies. We’ve always been a grass-roots focused company on the marketing side and we’ll keep that focus…but you’ll see some unexpected things from us in the next year that should be fun.

RBR, #8: Mizuno has been a sleeping giant for years. Great product, amazingly loyal consumer base, and strong support at running retail. How do you grow your business?

Fritz Taylor: One of the strengths of this brand is that we have a pretty devoted following with a core group of runners who love our stuff. So our challenge is, how do we get more runners interested in giving us a try? Our Run With Us vans have been a huge success for us and for our retailers. We get about a 40 – 50% immediate conversion rate at Run With Us events which is a remarkable figure. We’ve been thinking about how we can scale-up what’s happening at these events without the cost or limitations of a big van. That’s where our re-vamped marketing strategies have been focused. Our goal is to get more people to want to head out to their local running store to give Mizuno shoes a try…and as I mentioned, I think you will see something a bit different and unexpected from us that will come to life in our new marketing strategies in that regard.

RBR, #9: Tell us about Mizuno product? Where do you see it going? You had one of the best cross country shoes in the 90s, will that return? Your track spikes were cult favorites, how about that line? Your team apparel is well done, will we see that on teams in US?

Fritz Taylor: One of my core beliefs after having spent time at 3 different running brands is that each company has their own strengths and trying to do a Nike or a Brooks – type product here would be fruitless. We’ve got incredible talent and capabilities on the engineering and science side and we’ve got some very, very good shoe makers. And in Rod (Footwear Dir.) and Janice (Apparel Dir.) we’ve got two of the best product visionaries I’ve worked with. A big part of the appeal of running in Mizuno shoes is that they seem to just fit and move with your foot so well and we are finding break-through ways to make that experience more notable. We love hearing runners say things like “When I run in Mizuno I don’t even think about what I’m wearing on my feet” or “When I run in Mizuno shoes they feel like a natural extension of my body.” You can expect that our innovation focus is going to be around things like improving running efficiency, creating a seemless foot-shoe interface, and developing shoes with the smoothest transition in the business.

RBR, #10: Last but not least, you are making some changes at Mizuno, can you tell us what to expect from your brand in the future?

Fritz Taylor: I’ll just say this – if you haven’t tried a Mizuno shoe or piece of apparel in the past then I think we are going to be a brand you are going to want to check out in the near future. Stay tuned….

Special thanks to Fritz Taylor for his time and thoughtfulness.

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