• CEO of the Month

Reebok's Uli Becker Jumpstarts the Shaping Up of America

JANUARY 2012 CEO OF THE MONTH: REEBOK’S ULI BECKER

By Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher/founder
Be Inkandescent and
Inkandescent PR

“I do and say what I believe in,” Uli Becker told me when we met in his office at Reebok’s corporate headquarters in Canton, Mass., in December.

That attitude undoubtedly has helped the current president of Reebok International chart new territory for the firm that he says was in the hospital, on life-support, when the new parent company, the Adidas Group, bought it in 2006.

The German-born Becker, who has worked for the Adidas Group since 1990, explains: “We found that Reebok was not in its best shape based on lowering of price points, and distribution channel dilution. The brand itself also wasn’t a high flier, because it was at the border of being a branded but unbranded business, in terms of how the public perceived it.”

If American consumers were confused, Reebok’s reputation was even muddier abroad. Despite pro-basketball player Shaquille O’Neal saying: “I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok,” it wasn’t enough to keep Reebok a front-runner.

The financials for the company remained rocky until 2010.

That was partly due to the recession, Becker believes, but he also attributes the downslide to the fact that the brand—which hit the ground running in the ’80s with the classic Freestyle Hi and Princess aerobics shoe—had lost its way.

“Reebok’s previous leaders made headway as a licensing business, working closely with the NBA, NFL, and NHL, but there was a lack of consistency and congruity among the different departments,” Becker explains. “There was a great idea here, but six months later it was not connected to what’s going on over there. Over time, that proved to be a real problem, because eventually the consumer didn’t know what Reebok stood for.

“So we had to clean up the business, and then we began to build it back up by creating a clear strategy, which is the prerequisite of any strong business,” he insists. “If you work with a good strategy, and you are consistent, the chances of success are much higher.”

Adidas Chairman and CEO Herbert Hainer knew that when his company bought Reebok for $3.8 billion. The purchase gave Adidas about 20 percent of the U.S. sportswear market, and the potential to better challenge leader Nike, Inc. Under the terms of the deal, Adidas-Salomon AG paid $59 per share for all of Reebok’s outstanding stock.

Becker seems to be the perfect man to breathe life back into Reebok.

In his 22-year-career at Adidas, he held a variety of positions in the company’s U.S. and European offices.

Most recently, Becker oversaw the Reebok Global Marketing Group, which included product, sports, and entertainment marketing, brand marketing, and PR. Under his leadership, Adidas launched the campaign, “Impossible Is Nothing,” which was met with acclaim.

One look around his giant sun-drenched office, and it’s clear that Becker loves what he does. Strewn about are piles of prototypes for new sneakers, samples of future clothing lines, a couple of high-speed Reebok bikes, and other products that he is assessing. “My job is my hobby,” Becker insists. “I come to work to play.”

Play is most definitely the name of the game at Reebok.

In the last 18 months, it has been even more of a focus since Becker and the other leaders of the organization began encouraging Reebok’s 1,100 employees to work out regularly. According to Becker, more than 700 do.

He says that the objective has been easier to accomplish thanks to the company’s new CrossFit Box, a large, open gym that is stocked with free weights, kettlebells, and medicine balls. Skilled trainers are on staff to assist with daily workouts.

The Box stands on the Reebok campus adjacent to the architecturally noteworthy 500,000-square-foot world headquarters.

Inside the massive glass building is a much used basketball court, studios where yoga and workout classes are held daily, and an equipment-filled gym.

There’s also a full-service cafeteria, which emphasizes healthy choices—including a well-stocked salad bar, grilled panini sandwiches, and big bowls of stir-fried vegetables, meat, and rice. Tacked to the elevator is a sign that gently suggests that employees take the stairs instead. And circling the building is a running track.

This full-throttle approach to work and fitness, and fitness at work, is Becker’s way of testing what he hopes many Americans—and American companies—will embrace in the coming years.

“We have a company-wide focus on fitness that takes us back to our roots,” he says. “Reebok shoes got so popular in the 80s, when women turned out by the millions to do aerobics wearing our sneakers and clothes. Fitness in 2012 has changed, and we have adjusted our product initiatives and again are determined to be an innovator in our field.”

The impetus for innovation led Reebok to discover CrossFit.

The strength and conditioning brand, founded in 1995 by former high-school gymnast Greg Glassman (pictured far right) and his then-wife Lauren Jena, combines weightlifting, sprinting, gymnastics, power-lifting, plyometrics, rowing, and kettlebell and medicine-ball training.

Glassman—who Becker says “lives and breathes the fact that he wants to change the world by making people more fit“—contends that being healthy and fit requires proficiency in 10 physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.

Glassman actually started marketing his workout program by training the Santa Cruz police department in the 90s. Today, CrossFit has a presence in more than 1,700 gyms nationwide.

The CrossFit find is attributed to Reebok’s chief marketing officer, Matt O’Toole.

“Matt discovered the program in 2010 when he joined a CrossFit gym near his home—and loved it,” Becker explains.

“It was perfect timing, because we were searching for the next big fitness trend. We had the fundamentals in place, and knew that if we really wanted to be innovative, we had to create our worth with a company that was in a niche that will enable consumers to create a healthier, fitter lifestyle.”

“I believe this is a micro-trend in the world, and it is driven by the need to reverse the things that we have done wrong as societies—lifestyle choices that have made so many of us obese, diabetic, and sick. Around the world, our modern conveniences and sedentary lifestyles need to change. If people are open to making this shift in their lifestyles, we want to help drive them toward that goal.”

When Becker and O’Toole met with Glassman, they knew Reebok and CrossFit were ideal partners.

“This is a love relationship,” says Becker. “We have the same DNA when it comes to our thoughts and ideas on the future of fitness.

“We have such a deeply overlapping approach. Like Greg Glassman, we want to help people learn to be fit for life. Certainly, we want them to buy Reebok shoes and apparel. Not from a crass marketing standpoint, but in an authentic way.”

That’s why the two companies signed a long-term deal for a partnership that Becker says Reebok is determined to continue for years to come. Reebok also sponsors the annual CrossFit Games, which is quickly becoming the Olympics of fitness.

Becker is also hoping that other companies will build a CrossFit Box at their corporate headquarters.

“Exercising regularly encourages employees to push themselves further, and bond as co-workers,” Becker says. “When people are fit, and healthy, it increases productivity and decreases health care costs. Plus, exercising just makes you feel good. I am the perfect example of CrossFit’s success. In the last year I lost 40 pounds, and haven’t felt this good in years. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Click here to read Becker’s Five Steps to Success in 2012.

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