A Light Step

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Photograph by Hayley Young

Making high performance running gear is serious business, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from Brooks Sports’ zany promotions. The Bothell-based company has a double-decker British bus that features running-themed carnival games, an Arcade of Oddities and the world’s biggest shoe as it travels to 150 running events a year. The company is also the official footwear and apparel sponsor of the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, a series of races held in 19 cities this year featuring live entertainment and festival-style weekend events as well as running. And Brooks Sports blasts out wacky web videos that go viral on college campuses. Along the way, this 200-employee unit of investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is riding the latest health and fitness wave.

“We are having a blast right now,” says Jim Weber, Brooks Sports’ CEO. “We are in a great category. It’s very healthy. It’s not just countercyclical in a recession. The trends that are driving running have been in place for awhile.”

People notice and remember the company’s entertaining campaigns that call out the excitement of running, says Larry Eder, president of Running Network.

“It’s Barnum & Bailey meets the Suicide Girls. It’s voyeuristic and a way to have fun with your activity,” adds Eder, who also tracks the running business daily at RunBlogRun.com. “With limited marketing dollars, they get way more value than bigger companies.”

For example, to entice Chicago Marathon runners in 2009 to undergo a gait analysis, Brooks employees set up a B*R*A*S*H tent, which stands for Brooks Running Athlete Support Hospital, as a takeoff of the M*A*S*H television series, in which staff wheeled runners around in gurneys, gave runners dog tags and prizes, and even had a cross-dressing Klinger character on the microphone.

After nearly a century of making athletic footwear, Brooks is laser-focused on being the No. 1 brand in the specialty running channel, Weber says. Asics currently holds first place with 25 percent of the market. Brooks is No. 2 with 21 percent. And Brooks also ranks seventh in market share for all running brands among national accounts—retailers that sell sports shoes, ranging from Foot Locker to Nordstrom—where the leader is Nike.

Brooks is executing a classic niche strategy, says footwear industry veteran Mark Sullivan. He edits Running Insight, an e-mail newsletter targeting specialty running retailers.

“It’s amazing how their business has transformed,” Sullivan says. “Maybe they’re smart or lucky or a combination of both, but their timing could not have been better. Brooks made the right decision to focus on running and running specialty stores.”

At Brooks’ headquarters, visitors quickly sense the competitive, upbeat focus on fitness. From the brightly colored “Run Happy” banner to the elite runners’ trophies in the lobby to the biomechanics research lab, the all-company runs and the giant exercise area for employees, it’s all about running—serious running sold with a light touch.

Brooks refocused about 10 years ago by shedding its non-running product lines—about half of its business. Brooks stopped making basketball shoes and baseball spikes. It pulled mass-marketed sneakers out of large chain stores like Big 5 and Fred Meyer. Now, Brooks makes only running shoes (which retail for $85 to $140), apparel and accessories, selling primarily through the specialty retail channel.

“Everybody was zigging; we zagged,” Weber says.

Brooks funneled all the investments it made in its broad product line into technical running shoes. The company created a high-tech testing lab, expanded shoe trial programs and focused design and development on technical running.

“Running shoes happen to be 28 percent of all athletic footwear sales,” Weber says. “We think by focusing on it incredibly intensively we can build a better product than anyone else.”

In running circles, specialty running stores have huge influence on many customers, says Dave Larsen, Brooks’ vice president of marketing. Brooks cultivates that specialty channel and dispatches legions of technical field representatives to see to their needs. “We have to rely on these influencers,” he says. “They are extremely important to us.”

Brooks was founded in 1914 and has undergone several ownership changes. In 1998, private equity firm J.H. Whitney acquired Brooks and then, in 2004, sold it to Russell Athletic. Russell became part of Berkshire Hathaway in 2006. Brooks now operates as a private, independent unit of Berkshire’s Fruit of the Loom brand. About 150 Brooks employees work in Bothell, and there’s a distribution center in Sumner. Manufacturing is done overseas.

Weber describes his industry as “recession-resistant.” For instance, Brooks footwear sales in 2009 grew 8 percent.

“Running is absolutely the most convenient, least costly form of exercise you can do,” Weber says. “You don’t need a health club or gym. You don’t need equipment in your garage or basement. All you need, literally, is a good pair of shoes.”

Nearly 44 million people ran at least once in 2009, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association has reported. That’s up 40 percent from 31.4 million in 2000. The nonprofit group Running USA has also tracked marathon participation as more than doubling from 1990 to 2009—rising to 467,000 runners from 224,000. Women accounted for 10 percent of marathon runners in 1980 and 41 percent today. Also, the number of half-marathon finishers jumped 24 percent in 2009 from 2008.

“More people are running than ever,” Weber says. “We are having a breakout year.”

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