Tag Archives: leaders to legends

Building a loved brand

Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks.The success of Brooks Running Company and their CEO Jim Weber is a classic underdog story, a come-from-behind victory that every sports enthusiast loves. When Weber joined Brooks in 2001—their fourth CEO in two years—the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Thanks to Weber’s tremendous leadership and insight, the company successfully rebooted, repositioning itself in the market, and has since experienced years of double-digit growth and industry recognition.

On March 5, as part of the Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, Weber came to the Foster School of Business and recounted the story of how he turned his company around. “I feel like I have the best job in Seattle,” he said. Weber’s passion for building brands and businesses is matched by a passion for athletics, reflected in his previous professional experience, which includes positions such as chairman and CEO of Sims Sports and vice president of The Coleman Company.

After his arrival at Brooks, Weber explained, the company made a major shift in its market focus. It’s common knowledge that many athletic shoes are never used for athletics, which Weber refers to as “BBQ shoes.” According to Weber, roughly half of their sales were in this “family footwear” category when the company made the bold decision to focus on a niche market and double down on technical performance running shoes. At the time, it was considered heresy for a company like Brooks to focus on just one sport. Conventional wisdom stated that a table “needs more than one leg to stand on,” as Weber put it. Now, after years of growth as a result of this decision, Weber looks like a visionary.

Part of Brooks’ strategy is to compete in a different way, Weber explained. True, there is good old-fashioned product leadership, the years of research and development in biomechanics that leads to a superior product. But Brooks also competes using its corporate culture, e.g. the way it “celebrates the run,” and invests in the sport that supports its business.  Weber said the Brooks recipe for success is combining an incredibly serious technical product with a brand known for its unique, fun-loving energy. Corporate culture is instrumental to this success— “Run Happy” is much more than a tag line. “Our brand is positioned in a very welcoming way,” he said.

An important aspect of leadership is knowing how to pick your battles. Weber mentioned that it was impossible for Brooks to compete on the “visual technology” front, i.e. improvements that make the product pop off the shelf. “Nike will spend more on marketing by noon than we will in the whole year,” he said. Instead, Brooks focuses on “runability” and servicing as a niche expert. Every brand has a center of gravity, Weber explained. For Brooks it’s the trail and the specialty running stores that are at the heart of the running community. By focusing on those retailers and developing relationships with key influencers like coaches, leading athletes, and sports medicine practitioners, Brooks works to win the trust of its customers. “We create trust every time someone has a good experience with our product,” he said.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session where students and faculty posed questions on topics like supply chain challenges and reactions to the barefoot running movement. On the subject of international expansion, Weber stated that his company is executing the same strategy, but still had much to learn. He explained that, thankfully, the brand ethos of “Run Happy” translates well across cultures and resonates with people around the globe.

Watch the full lecture below:

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When the path isn’t always clear: Congresswoman Suzan DelBene on leadership

“A key part of leading is deciding. Deciding with imperfect data. Deciding when there isn’t always a path that’s clear.”

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene says she came to this particularly astute conclusion while working as a youth football referee. Like her positions at Microsoft and Drugstore.com (she served as vice-president) it provided her with two essential lessons; 1) the importance of decision making when there are still unknowns and 2) a leader must always provide a vision and a path forward.  Further qualifying this belief, the congresswoman stated, “With any organization, people are most effective when they have that vision going forward and they know where they’re heading and they know why they’re heading in that direction.”

A Foster MBA Alum, Congresswoman DelBene says she was inspired to run for Congress during her time at Global Partnerships, a micro-finance non-profit that provides loans to small business owners in Latin America and the Caribbean. After her first run for Congress in 2010 (in which she was unsuccessful) she was appointed by then governor Christine Gregoire to serve as the Director of Washington state’s Department of Treasury. In 2012, she successfully ran for a congressional seat in the newly drawn 1st district. Sitting on the House Judiciary and House Agriculture Committees, DelBene now deals with issues such as copyright laws, biotechnology and more.

Using terminology such as ROI (return on investment), the congresswoman routinely uses her business experience when approaching policy-making. Pointing to the seemingly unending federal budget debate, DelBene believes that too many of her colleagues are plagued by short-term thinking. She argues that Congress should approach budgeting concerns like successful CEOS, focusing on investment and long-term strategy. She points to the indelible benefits and returns from federal programs that invest in early learning, unemployment insurance, research and infrastructure as examples.

During her time at the podium, the congresswoman also stressed the importance of being good stewards of policy and citizen engagement, urging audience members to work in conjunction with business and community leaders to pressure Congress in to action.

Watch some highlights below:

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.

Men in cheaply made gorilla suits: How Avvo used the internet to disrupt the legal business

Mark BrittonDuring his introduction at the November Leaders to Legends Breakfast Series, Dean Jiambalvo jokingly referred to Mark Britton as having “the most dangerous job in the world.” Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a lawyer rating and legal Q&A forum website founded in 2006.

A lawyer with the firm Preston Gates & Ellis, Britton began working with major area clients like Microsoft and its then budding travel spinoff, Expedia. After experiencing what he dubbed the “meteoric growth” of Expedia while serving as their executive vice president of Worldwide Corporate Affairs, Britton decided the travel associated with the position was too much and moved to Italy with his family to teach finance for his undergrad alma matter, Gonzaga. Interestingly, he found that even though he was no longer practicing law, friends and family were still calling him for legal advice. It made him wonder, “Why are all of these smart people lost when it comes to the legal system?” At that time, Britton notes, there was no “Expedia like resource where people could go to get their questions answered.” Thus, Avvo–short for avoocato, the Italian word for lawyer–was born.

Like EBay, Amazon and TripAdvisor, Avvo is rooted in an internet culture where the “expectation has been built where you can converse with your friends [online] about a product and rate it.” And with the advent of Google, Britton adds, we have become accustomed to asking for, receiving and discussing information with zero cost to the consumer. A practice Avvo continues, providing their rating system and Q&A forum to customers for free.

Besides ratings and forums, Avvo provides advertising for lawyers. During his presentation, Britton referred to the “yellow page mode” of advertising. He found that even as recently as nine years ago, lawyers were spending $1 billion dollars in outdated phone book advertising. And to add insult to injury, the advertisements themselves were not good. To the amusement of the audience, Britton included some of the worst offenders, including ads that featured scantily-clad women, men in cheaply made gorilla suits and tricked out cars straight from a ‘Pimp my Ride’ rerun. Jokes aside, Avvo definitely hasn’t gone without controversy.

Towards the end of the lecture, Britton touched on some of the challenges Avvo has faced, including a lawsuit filed against Britton and Avvo a mere nine days after the company launch. Although it was later thrown out, the suit, paired with a year-long stagnation in online traffic and negative press, took a toll on the young CEO. However, Britton believes that the uphill battles built mental fortitude, stating, “The risk of failure, when you’re trying to cut something out of nothing, is approximate.” He also reiterated the importance of self-assurance and steadfastness, saying, “You need to believe and that’s the key. You have to be obsessed with something.”

Avvo currently has six million monthly visits, 160,000 lawyers listed, 10,000 advertisers and 117 employees. When asked about Avvo’s future, Britton stated, “We have a company trying to buy us but we’re not spending a lot time thinking about it…we know we can double our business.”

Mark Britton was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.

Investing in life

Gary Furukawa (BA 1981) is the chief investment officer for Freestone Capital Management, a wealth management firm. Recently, he spoke at the Foster School about his career path, gave an overview of the financial markets and shared his personal insights on a range of topics, including what Freestone looks for in potential employees, books to help you develop your own investing framework and more.

Furukawa started his career with Deloitte & Touche in Seattle as a Certified Public Accountant. In 1982, he joined Smith Barney as a financial consultant, eventually rising to senior vice president. In 1999, he founded Freestone. He has been a highly successful investor along the way, investing in a wide variety of asset classes: distressed real estate (1980s and again after 2008 crisis), private equity (early 1990s) and thrift conversions (1988-present). He was also an original angel investor in Amazon.com and aQuantive.

Top insights from Furukawa’s talk:

  • Most useful courses he took at the University of Washington: English/writing courses, sociology and psychology courses and behavioral finance courses. Furukawa said, “Learning about the flaws in the way you think is very powerful and will help you make better decisions.”
  • Your life = the sum of your decisions.
  • Through your education, you should try different things until you find something you really like. It should be something you have the potential to be good at.
  • Self-knowledge, obtained through reading, thinking and life, is the most important knowledge. Learning really starts after you graduate from college.
  • Wealth is primarily created three ways (in the U.S.): owning a business or owning stock in a successful business, owning real estate for a long time or inheriting money.
  • Your pay check funds your lifestyle, but in order to build wealth you have to save and invest your money.

Watch video highlights, which include his ideal employee traits, investment lessons, recommended reading and life insights.

Gary Furukawa was one of UW Foster School of Business Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the annual Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.