On Reflection: Brooks' Running Start

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Brooks Sports, the running-shoe company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has moved from suburban Bothell into the new Stone34 building in Seattle’s Fremont/Wallingford neighborhood. Its new headquarters, which has a view of Lake Union and the downtown Seattle skyline beyond, also features the company’s first-ever retail store. 

Century-old Brooks is only the latest company to move its headquarters into Seattle. In 2010, Russell Investments left Tacoma to move into the downtown Seattle building left empty by the collapse of Washington Mutual. Recently, Weyerhaeuser Company, whose iconic Federal Way headquarters is visible from I-5, announced it will move into a new Pioneer Square building to be completed in 2016.

At a time when housing costs in Seattle are soaring and traffic continues to worsen, the appeal of moving into the city seems almost counterintuitive. But for Brooks CEO Jim Weber, who runs three to five days a week and participates in Brooks-sponsored races such as the Seattle Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, the move is about being closer to the kind of consumers who buy Brooks’ products. The new headquarters is right on the 27-mile-long Burke-Gilman Trail, which extends along Lake Union and Lake Washington out to Woodinville, putting the company in the heart of the city’s running community.

Weber says employees were generally supportive of the move. “There are more people who want to live in the city,” he asserts. “It’s so expensive and time-consuming to commute [to the suburbs].” 

The new headquarters, which houses 300 employees, also helps reinforce the company’s brand image, which used to be all shoes for all people but now centers on sustainability and healthy living exclusively for runners. Working with Skanska USA, the company designed a “deep green” building that uses less than 25 percent of the water and energy consumed by comparable buildings and captures at least 50 percent of storm water on the site to flush toilets and water plants.

There are showers for the employees who choose to walk, bike or run to work; the showers have timers to prevent too much water use. “Runners care about sustainability because they run outdoors,” says Weber

Having a retail space on the ground floor helps the company get quick feedback from its customers. The store offers Brooks’ entire product line and uses advanced video technology to help runners determine the size, shape and range of motion of their feet. Retail associates are able to relay this information upstairs, where researchers can improve the design of the shoes. “The idea of having a store where we’re interacting with runners every day is crucial to understanding their needs,” Weber says.

During the recession, Weber focused on doing a better job of figuring out what runners want, increased Brooks’ investment in research and development to design better shoes, and then began marketing the products more aggressively. Now it’s seeing returns from those investments. This year, Weber says sales will reach about $540 million, nearly triple its sales in 2009. 

Weber figures being associated with a city known for healthy living can only be a plus for the brand. “We’re really opening our doors to the Seattle running community,” he notes. “Hopefully, Brooks becomes part of Seattle, and I know Seattle will become part of Brooks.” 

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