May 10, 2019
By Jonathan Stempel
OMAHA, Neb. (Reuters) – Preventing injuries from running shoes is a science for Jim Weber, the chief executive of Brooks Running, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
“The worst nightmare is to get injured,” Weber said in an interview during Berkshire’s recent annual shareholder weekend.
“You can’t run the marathon you signed up for, or you take away the thing that makes you sane, that makes your day better,” he said. “We’ve always been based on the biomechanics of your body, and building shoes around that.”
Weber, 59, became chief executive of the then money-losing Brooks in 2001, and quickly scrapped almost its entire product line, to focus only on running.
Berkshire’s Fruit of the Loom unit bought Brooks’ parent Russell Corp in 2006, and Seattle-based Brooks was spun out as a separate company in March 2012.
That left Weber reporting to Buffett, who could also call on guidance from the billionaire’s portfolio managers Todd Combs, a triathlete, and Ted Weschler, a marathoner.
“Having his ear to talk about your brand and business is pretty powerful,” Weber said, referring to Buffett. “We had our 100th anniversary in 2014, and he came out to Brooks and did a town hall with 600 people. He got it. He just totally got it.”
Weber said Brooks’ success stems in part from its willingness to buck trends.
He pointed to 2009, when a book called “Born to Run” sparked a “barefoot running” frenzy where minimalist, slipper-like shoes weighing a few ounces began capturing market share.
“It blamed Nike for creating that 12-millimeter heel, and said everyone should be running barefoot and that injuries should come from shoes,” Weber said. “There was no research on any of that, but it created a big conversation.”
“In the 2008 financial crisis and recession that followed, we saw that people were still running,” Weber said. “Unemployment was booming in Europe, but running made the cut. What we did in a flattish year in a tough economy was double our investments.”
Brooks’ next big contrarian move was in 2015 and 2016, as consumers began shopping more online and became more price-conscious. Eight hundred stores that sold Brooks shoes, including the Sports Authority chain, closed.
“We doubled down on performance, we doubled down on premium price, and we invested in R&D,” Weber said. “That reset was huge for us.”
Revenue, including apparel, rose 26% last year to $644 million, and Weber said it could near $750 million this year and $1 billion in 2021.
Many Brooks customers are now also seeing a big change in what they buy.
Pronation is the natural tendency of a foot to roll inward as it strikes the ground.
Brooks, like many rivals, long addressed this by putting firmer wedges on the medial side of many shoes’ midsoles, using a “progressive diagonal rollbar” on its flagship Adrenaline.
Five years of research after the barefoot phenomenon has changed that thinking, Weber said.
“The No. 1 injury related to running is your knee,” he said. “If you deviate a lot when you put two or three times your body weight down, you need some support.”
Brooks’ Adrenaline now addresses this with external supports, called GuideRails, to control excess movement. The Beast, among Brooks’ most stable shoes, will get them later.
“All that research has led us to reinvent how we’re building the geometry of the shoe,” Weber said. “GuideRails works better for that severe foot movement that causes knee torque than the rollbar did. GuideRails is a better system for running.”
Though recently injured, Weber normally runs 15 to 18 miles a week – “I think I’m the slowest guy at Brooks” – and has a common way to fuel up, though perhaps not wind down.
“Before and after, I love coffee,” he said. “Especially in the morning. And after, you’ve got to have a banana.”
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in Omaha, Nebraska; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and Nick Zieminski)