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Nike's Mark Parker brings together extreme talents_ whether they

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Nike's Mark Parker brings together extreme talents_ whether they Powered By Docstoc
					 COVER STORY




 Artist.
  AthlEtE.
CEO.
                                                                              By Ellen McGirt
                                    Nike’s Mark Parker brings together        Photographs
                                           extreme talents, whether they’re   by Patrik Giardino
                                     basketball stars, tattooists,
                                      or designers obsessed with shoes.

66 fastcompany.com September 2010
                                               .
“It still
   has
  moon-
dust .
                                                                            he’s shod them all. Bryant, fresh from the Lakers’ play-off victory
                                                                            and his MVP award in June, describes meeting Parker, then Nike
                                                                            copresident, in 2003 and watching him whip out his notebook to




  on it.”
                                                                            sketch while they talked. “I knew right from that that we were on the
                                                                            same page,” Bryant says. “He’s not doing things just for innovation’s
                                                                            sake. He truly wants to optimize my performance.”
                                                                                Parker isn’t an attention-seeking sort of CEO, so until now it has
                                                                            been hard to get a sense of him. But the imprint he is making as CEO is
                                                                            turning out to be as meaningful as his design work. Putting his stamp
                                                                            on Nike as forcefully as the much splashier cofounder Phil Knight did,
                                                                            Parker has reorganized the company into units based on particular
                                                                            sports, “a conscious decision to sharpen each piece of the business so
Mark Parker sounds like a happy kid as he points to an astronaut            we’re not some big fat dumb company,” he says; reshuffled its regions to
manual from the Apollo mission inside his glass-topped desk at              put new emphasis on China and Japan; streamlined the reporting pro-
Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters. Over his shoulder, Keith            cess and removed regional middle management; handled a rare round
Richards, at least the version of the Rolling Stones guitarist by Ger-      of layoffs; and weathered yet another scandal involving a high-profile
man artist Sebastian Krüger, feigns a boozy disinterest. “And here,”        endorser. The company came out of the recent downturn with strong
says Parker, swinging around in his chair, “is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.”      revenue numbers and earnings up 53% for the most recent quarter.
    It is astonishing to see this shoe designer turned CEO in his natural       I met with Parker in Beaverton just a few weeks after he and his
habitat, surrounded by artwork he has commissioned or collected,            executive team impressed shareholders and analysts in their first
mixed in with bits of Nike history, such as the boots Michael Keaton        public investor meeting in three years. Parker used some big talk—
wore in the 1989 hit Batman. Next to Keith Richards is a bas-relief by
Missouri sculptor Kris Kuksi. Parker owns three of his pieces, one a
                                                                            “Nike’s infinite marketplace”—to set some big goals: increase sales
                                                                            by more than 40%, to $27 billion by 2015; meet a set of equally                                                                      Two Pages From Parker’s Sketchbook
blank-check commission. “He just said, ‘Do something huge,’ ” says          ambitious sustainability benchmarks; grow earnings 7% a year;                                                              “I recently wrote in my notebook all the things we must hold in balance,” Parker says, in CEO mode.
                                                                                                                                                                                                He always carries the book with him and often uses it to sketch shoes. Here, inspired by the World Cup, two shoes
Kuksi, who met Parker at a gallery show in Philadelphia.                    and keep 33,000 employees thinking as nimbly as possible. “It’s like
                                                                                                                                                                                                      that demonstrate the power of color on the field—the new Elite series, top, and the 1996 Jasari spike.
    “Being a designer,” says Parker, “a lot of the people I hang out with   a framework as opposed to a process. We need that organic-ness to
are creatives. I like the eccentricity, to be surprised.” Whether artists   be an innovative company that’s continually challenging itself,” he
or athletes, he says he’s attracted to people who are “intense, maybe       says. He characterizes his challenge as a struggle to mix his right-
even obsessed.” He regularly hosts dinners for about 25 artist friends      and left-brain strengths: “It’s about balance.”
to just talk and kick around ideas. One that emerged from a get-                But the sketchbook is never far away. “Always, always, the elite                          iterations are also where Parker spent most of his time before he               uppers. “I told you,” says Donaghu.
together at his friend Lance Armstrong’s house was “Stages,” a recent       athlete”—the Jordans, the Bryants, the Armstrongs, whose unparal-                             became CEO. “I think his heart is still here,” says Michael Donaghu,               Though Parker later tells us that not everything he saw at the
show of more than 20 commissioned artworks that he and Arm-                 leled abilities make them ideal lab rats for new products—“still leads                        director of footwear innovation. “He still likes to just pop in and start       meeting will get a green light, he’s careful not to shut people down
strong cocurated in Paris to benefit the Lance Armstrong Founda-            our design. What we learn from them is who we are,” he says. Mark                             talking to people about stuff that’s on their desks, particularly their         at meetings. “I prefer to let people share what they’re working on.
tion. Another friend, artist Tom Sachs, delighted the crowd with            Parker, collector, CEO, cobbler to the gods.                                                  side projects. He can’t help himself.”                                          And I don’t like to embarrass anyone.” He repeats a mantra I hear
“Lance’s Tequila Bike for Girls,” a modified Trek bike that dispensed                                                                                                         On the table in front of Parker is an abundant display of shoes,            early and often: Edit and amplify. “I’m trying to amplify the innova-
tequila in scatologically named shot glasses. “Irreverence inspires                                        •••••••                                                        sandals, gear, and what might be a digital Etch a Sketch that you stand         tion agenda further, and short-list the things that will make the big-
me,” smiles Parker, sounding decidedly un–CEO–like. And no, he                                                                                                            on; at the head of the room, under a drape, waits a shiny prototype of          gest difference. That’s an art and a science.”
doesn’t check Nike’s share price daily, fret about 10-Qs, or try to         Parker is sitting in on a product meeting in Nike’s secretive                                 a new image-transfer gizmo that will allow the swift customization of
game the news cycle, no matter what messes his athletes get into.           Innovation Kitchen, a think tank for designers where athletic ambi-                           shoes at retailers and special events. Unveiled, it lurches to life after a                                      •••••••
Obsessed people make messes. It goes with the territory.                    tion, art, and a bit of mad science are cooked into the stuff that has                        few false starts; a mildly acrid smell fills the room as the machine’s
    Obsession comes naturally to Parker. As a champion teenage              made Nike the dominant player in sport shoes and apparel. The                                 mother shyly explains the process and affixes some art to a sneaker.            Back in 2003, Phil Knight passed over Parker for the top spot,
marathoner, he routinely modified his own running shoes in search           Kitchen is a free-range creative playpen, with every type of tool,                            “It looks like the fortune-teller machine from Big,” someone jokes. It          bringing in an outsider, William Perez, from S.C. Johnson. It was a
of better performance. Now, the designs he once called his “delicate        material, machine, toy, instrument, software, game, and inspira-                              does. Parker and the team applaud good-naturedly when the demo                  move that was widely misread as a snub. “It didn’t upset me,” says
creations” are so deeply embedded in the success of the company that        tional image at the ready. Nike Free, the training shoe that mimics                           actually works. Although the alarm on his watch prompts him to leave            Parker, who was part of the team that vetted CEO candidates. “It
                                                                                                                                                       courtesy of Nike




he’s lost track of the number of patents he holds. One is for Visible       the benefits of running barefoot, was born here. So was Flywire, the                          after an hour, Parker continues to listen raptly to each presenter, ask-        wouldn’t be honest to say that I didn’t think about it, though. I trust and
Air technology, which he created as a side project; it helped catapult      ultralight thread system inspired by a suspension bridge that has                             ing questions and studying their wares. Afterward, as I continue                respect Phil, so I decided to learn from it.” Knight explains that he
Nike out of the doldrums in the mid-’80s. John McEnroe, Kobe Bry-           changed the way shoes are constructed. The Kitchen is so secure that                          the Kitchen tour, I spot him, now very late, perched on the desk of a           thought it was time for an outside look. “I’d been CEO for almost 40
ant, Olympic athletes, and your high-school’s cross-country star—           most employees aren’t allowed in. The Kitchen and its earlier R&D                             designer, chatting happily and poking through a pile of midsoles and            years. The company worked around my idiosyncracies so much that

68 fastcompany.com September 2010                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  September 2010 fastcompany.com   69
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    2010 Revenue
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2006                                  $19 Billion
  they didn’t know that they were idiosyncracies anymore.” But Nike’s                         and experimenting with foam and homemade sock liners. He turned,               Hampshire, testing products and enjoying the brotherhood of
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Parker becomes CEO.
  unique culture chewed up Perez in less than 18 months. Sandy                                ironically, to sheets of Nike-made waffle-sole material that he got            athletes cum shoe dogs, trying to figure out what they and Nike were
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              He launches nike+ipod                                2010
  Bodecker, now VP of Nike global design, was so unhappy on Parker’s                          from local shoe-supply shops. “I might run in an Asics Tiger shoe and          going to be when they all grew up. Bodecker, the now legendary                   and designs the first                                Nike stock
  behalf that he says he “made a vow never to actually meet the guy.” They                    put a waff le bottom on it,” he says. “The cushioning was so much              codesigner of Flywire, was a broke ski racer in 1980 looking to get              Nike+ shoe.                                          closes at
  once presented on the same stage—Perez exiting left as Bodecker                             better.” He sounds wistful as he recalls his first pair of Nikes. He got       his hands on cutting-edge training shoes when he agreed to try the                                                                    a record
  entered right. They even stood shoulder to shoulder at the urinals in                       them by mail order. “Waffle trainers, red with the white swoosh. I             only pair available, two-and-a-half sizes too small, to get into Park-                                                                high
  the men’s room. “I chose not to introduce myself,” Bodecker smirks.                         put them on and . . .” he trails off.                                          er’s testing program. (“I had no idea the shoes didn’t fit,” says Parker.)                                                            in April.
  Ultimately, Knight says, “Yeah, it was a mistake. We’re not for everyone.”                      The fourth of seven kids, Parker grew up in a busy household in            Former pole vaulter Tinker Hatfield was working as an architect at
      Parker came by Nike honestly, the way that all the early employ-                        Stamford, Connecticut. His father was a lifelong IBM engineer, his             Nike when Parker spied some sketches of shoes on his desk and
  ees got there, as a “running puke”—“even more extreme than a run-                           mother a psychiatric nurse. “I was a pretty independent kid,” he says,         pointed him toward R&D. Hatfield is now the father of some of the
  ning geek,” he says—lured by the siren song of an unlimited supply                          but not particularly artistic. “I thought maybe I’d be a veterinarian          most iconic shoes ever made, including the Air Jordan.
  of revolutionary shoes. In the mid-’70s, he was a champion runner                           or an environmental lawyer.” After he graduated from Penn State in                 Parker’s own success at Nike has had much to do with his philo-
  for Penn State, part of what was then one of the most scientifically                        1977—he majored in political science because “I had to pick some-              sophical alignment with the company’s other cofounder, Bill Bower-
  managed track-and-field programs in the country. At 6-foot-4,                               thing”—he was hired by Jeff Johnson, Nike employee No. 1, and                  man, the very first cobbler to the gods. In 25 years as track coach at
  Parker brushed the scales at 130 pounds. “I looked like a praying                           “took what was basically an avocation, design, and turned it into my           the University of Oregon in Eugene, Bowerman had only one losing
  mantis,” he says. He customized his own shoes by cutting the soles                          life.” He worked in the company’s dusty R&D facility in Exeter, New            season and trained 31 Olympic athletes. Subjecting his athletes to
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              2004
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Parker oversees creation
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              of the yellow Livestrong
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              band for the Lance
                                                                                                                                                                            1998                                 1999                                                         armstrong Foundation.
                                                                                                                                                                            As general manager of global         Parker green-lights

          Nike’s All-star Designer                                                                                                                                          footwear, Parker drives Nike’s
                                                                                                                                                                            purchase of cole Haan, the first
                                                                                                                                                                            in a series of acquisitions that
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 the presto, an
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 ultralight running                                           2003
          How Mark Parker helped create Nike’s success                                                                                                                      includes Hurley and converse.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 shoe at less than
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 20 ounces.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Parker okays work
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              on nike free,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              which simulates
                                                                                                                                                       Mid-1990s                                                                                                              barefoot running.
                                                       1981                                                                                            Parker begins                                                                                  2002
                                                                                                                                                       commissioning                                                                                  Htm, an exclusive       Parker’s third year
                                                       Parker moves from
                                                                                                                                                       artists, such as                                                                               line of shoes           as copresident
                                                       the R&D facility in
                                                                                                                                                       Futura 2000,                                                                                   designed by             is marked by
                                                       New Hampshire to
                                                                                                                                                       mr cartoon, and                                                                                Parker, Tinker          multimillion-dollar
                                                       Oregon HQ as
                                                                                                                                                       Os Gêmeos,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                           2001                       Hatfield, and           endorsement
                                                       director of design                                                                                                                         2000 Revenue             Parker and Charlie         Hiroshi Fujiwara,
                                                       concepts and                                                                                    to create limited-                                                                                                     deals with LeBron
                                                       engineering.                                                                                    edition sneakers.
                                                                                                                                                                                                   $9 Billion              Denson become              launches.               James, Kobe
                                                                                                                                                                                                                           copresidents
                                                                                     1982                                                                                                                                  of the Nike brand.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Bryant, and
                                                       Parker designs                Parker’s pegasus                                                                                                                                                                         serena Williams.
  Parker in his college days: An elite                 the odyssey,                  hits the market.
  runner, he modified his own shoes.                                                                                                                                                                                       Parker helps
                                                       a running                     The line, including
                                                                                                                                                                                                                           recruit marathoner
                                                       shoe focused                  2009’s Air Pegasus       1988                                                                                                         paula Radcliffe.
    1979                                               on stability.                 26+, is still Nike’s     Parker becomes            1990 Revenue
    Mark Parker                    1980                                              most popular             VP of R&D. The
    joins Nike as a                Nike goes public.                                 running shoe.            first Visible air
                                                                                                                                        $2.2 Billion                        1996
    footwear                       B shares set                                                                                                                             Parker, now VP of
                                                                                                              shoe in the
    designer and                   at $22, close                                                                                                                            consumer product
                                                                                                              michael Jordan
    product tester.                at $23.                                                                                                                                  marketing, helps
                                                                                                              line is
                                                                                                                                                                            sign tiger Woods to
                                                                                                              released.
                                                                                                                                                                            a 20-year, $40 mil-
        nike’s                                                                                                                                                              lion endorsement
 1980 Revenue                                                                                                                                                               deal.
$270 Million

                                                                                                                 1987
                                                                                                                 The Visible air
                                                                                                                 technology, pat-
                                                                             1986                                ented in Parker’s
                                                                             Parker and tinker
                                                                                                                 name, debuts.
                                                                             Hatfield work on the
                                                                                                                 More than 600,000
                                                                             first cross-training shoe.
                                                                                                                 pairs of the Air Max
                                                                             John mcEnroe tries a
                                                                                                                 alone are sold.
                                                                             prototype and wears the
                                                                             cross-trainer for the rest
                                                                             of his career.

  Nike shoes pictured (clockwise from top left):
  odyssey, 1987; Air Pegasus 26+, 2009;
  mr cartoon AF1, 2009; Free, 2010; HTm2,
  2010; Air max, 1987 (Visible Air prototype)


  70 fastcompany.com September 2010
rigorous study in the service of making the perfect sneaker, he             debuted at a trade show to tremendous buzz. “Parker made a terrific
famously cooked up shoe soles using his wife’s waff le iron. His            product,” Knight says. That same year, Nike teamed with ad agency
sketches, brought to Japanese manufacturers by his new partner and          Wieden+Kennedy to make a splashy ad called “Revolution,” set to the
former student Phil “Buck” Knight, became the first Nikes. His              original Beatles song. The choppy, fast-cut black-and-white com-
quirky, bespoke creations were worn by Nike’s first famous elite ath-       mercial mixed images of everyday people and Nike athletes, and
lete, Steve Prefontaine, the explosive three miler who broke all exist-     outraged Beatles purists. “But it really made a complete campaign,”
ing records before he broke hearts with his early death in 1975.            says Knight. “Nike Air relaunched the whole brand. It was a huge
    Bowerman was famous for brutalizing young designers bearing             moment for the company and for Parker, too.”
prototypes, whipping out a scale and mocking the weight or construc-
tion. He greeted interlopers from Nike’s East Coast outpost with                                            •••••••
rugged bluntness. russia has siberia, nike has exeter read a sign
over his desk. Parker largely escaped Bowerman’s wrath, partly              at the same time,              an unexpected audience for Nike was
because he was an actual athlete, but mostly because he was that good.      developing. Hip-hop artists, DJs, designers, and other influentials
“I witnessed more of the brutality than felt it,” says Parker. “There was   were using the shoes that Parker and his team were creating to com-
no filter from his brain to his mouth. I found it really refreshing to      pete for nothing else than style points. The Air Force One, which
know what he was thinking.” Parker’s unusual ability to remain calm         arrived in 1982, turned the heads of uptown scenesters. “It looked
in the face of passionate exchanges has helped him thrive in an envi-       different from any other basketball shoe, white on white,” says Don
ronment filled with highly competitive people driven to succeed. But        Cherry, currently the managing partner and director of brand strat-
Bowerman’s coaching technique—he created personalized training              egy for the marketing firm Anomaly. (While at Wieden+Kennedy,
programs for each athlete, unusual back then—informs Parker’s man-          Cherry worked on the 25th anniversary of the iconic Air Force One.)
agement style to this day. “I spend a good deal of time coaching            Then came the Air Jordan series. In 1985, the shoes were such a color-
executives now,” he says. “Each person needs something different to         ful deviation from the basketball norm that Michael Jordan was fined
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Let’s shake on that
succeed. It’s a Bowerman approach.” He also mentions Margaret               $5,000 by the NBA for wearing them. A cult following was born,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Parker and Bryant
Wheatley, author of Leadership and the                                                                 expertly stoked through marketing. In 1988,                                                                                                                                 introduce the innovative
New Science, a meaty exploration of New-                                                               Mars Blackmon, director Spike Lee’s alter                                                                                                                                   Nike Hyperdunk,
tonian physics, chaos theory, and business:
“Her premise is that the energy in an orga-
                                                          “Parker made                                 ego, started appearing in a funny series of
                                                                                                       ads starring Michael Jordan and directed by
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   developed for the
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   2008 Olympics.                                                        Kobe talks shoes
nization is a product of the relationships
between people”—not creating an org chart           a terrific product,”                               Lee. The next year, Lee referenced the fierce
                                                                                                       earnestness of sneaker culture in Do the                                                                                                                                                                                                          “When you’re talking about           sole, rubber, kind of heavy,
and then putting people into the boxes,
which “I think is exactly backward.”                 says Phil Knight.                                 Right Thing when a character melts down
                                                                                                       after his spotless Air Jordan Cement IVs are                                                                                                                           apparel. “I used to fly to Japan in the ’90s to buy the Air Forces and
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         shoes, I start thinking about
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         the collaboration from a
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              foam inside, and a leather
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              upper,” Bryant explains. “Kind
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              of a lightweight hiking boot
    The ’80s were a mixed bag for Nike.
Parker describes the early ’80s as a frantic     “Nike Air relaunched                                  defiled by a clumsy Celtics fan. By the time
                                                                                                       Jordan dazzled on the 1992 Olympic Dream
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Jordans you couldn’t get here,” says ’Toon, who has inked Eminem,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              50 Cent, and Christina Aguilera. “And now I make them.” Nike has
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         performance angle,” says
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Kobe Bryant of the Los Ange-         with a flat bottom.” Bryant
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         les Lakers. “You know, I’m           wanted his shoe to be as light
time, with the company going through
“some choppy water within a general indus-         the whole brand. It                                 Team, the world wanted to be like Mike.
                                                                                                           There was no one better poised to
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              allowed him to create a platform, holding specialty events in the
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              United States that advocate design and self-discovery to Latino            cutting, changing directions,        as possible without sacrificing
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         jumping. Performance is              cushioning or strength. “I
try malaise.” Knight puts it more starkly.
With net income down 75% year over year           was a huge moment                                    amplify the sneaker’s aesthetic appeal than
                                                                                                       Parker. “That was part of Mark’s genius,”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              youth. “We did 50 last year alone,” he says. Os Gêmeos, twin Brazil-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              ian street artists, painted huge murals in Europe for the 2006 World       priority No. 1.” But he also         wanted to break out of the sea
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         draws from another play-             of sameness,” he says.




                                                                                                                                                          Previous spread: courtesy of Nike (Parker, all sneakers); manny millan/Icon SmI (mcEnroe); Ray Grabowski/Icon SmI
in 1985, “Reebok had just gone by us in
                                                       for the company                                 says Cherry. Parker found a natural source                                                                                                                             Cup for Nike and created limited runs of shoes. Their work appeals
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         book. “I get design inspira-             With biomechanical insights




                                                                                                                                                          (Jordan); Lc Lambrecht/Icon SmI (Woods); Julian Finney/Getty Images (Radcliffe); Antoine couverelle/Icon SmI
a fairly big way,” he says. “It was serious.                                                           of inspiration in his artist network, includ-                                                                                                                          to the very crowd Nike is trying to impress. No overpriced marketing
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         tion from a myriad of things,”       from the Nike Sports Research
                                                  and for Parker, too.”
We didn’t like that.” And Nike wasn’t the                                                              ing graffiti artists Stash and Futura 2000,                                                                                                                            grunt could pull off this kind of authenticity. “It’s not the kind of
high-tech R&D emporium it is now. When                                                                 artist and toy designer Kaws, and even rap-                                                                                                                            thing where you say, ‘Get me something cool to debut for the tattoo        he says. “People, animals,           Lab, the team developed a
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         weather.” For his first shoe         hybrid between a running and




                                                                                                                                                          (Williams); Boyd Ivey/Icon SmI (James); DPPI/Icon SmI (Armstrong). This spread: courtesy of Nike
Parker arrived from Exeter’s Siberia in                                                                per Kanye West. The company began churn-                                                                                                                               community in the third quarter,’ ” says Cherry. “Mark gets the
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         with Nike, the 2K4, Bryant’s         a basketball shoe. Later mod-
1981, it was more of a shoe shop. Donaghu,                                                             ing out artist retakes of classic Nike shoes,                                                                                                                          irreverent beauty of real artists and real subcultures.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         concept was the great white          els use Flywire construction.
then a college runner, interned for Nike                                                               all highly collectible, deftly creating scarcity                                                                                                                           Parker refuses to take credit for Nike’s hipster appeal. “I think it
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         shark. “I was attracted to it        “With Kobe, we proved that
in 1988. He remembers joining a small team that relied on mimeo-            by meting out limited supply to small specialty stores and ultrahip                                                                                                                               goes back to Hayward Field,” he says, referring to the early days
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         for its simplicity and sleek         you don’t have to have some-
graph machines and still telexed handwritten instructions to the            fashion retailers. Parker’s own top-shelf designs for HTM, a collabora-                                                                                                                           when Bowerman’s home track at the university was the best R&D
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         aggressiveness.”                     thing big and bulky to be
factories in Asia. “I finally brought my little Apple that I used in col-   tion with Hatfield and Japanese designer Hiroshi Fujiwara, can sell                                                                                                                               lab Nike had. “We used to make the wildest-looking shoes that you
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Nike CEO Mark Parker was         supportive,” Parker says.
lege just for documents,” he says. “It was the first computer in the        to collectors for as much as $1,000 a pair. As the rich, famous, and                                                                                                                              couldn’t buy,” he recalls, and people would crowd around the athletes
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         receptive. “Aesthetics matter            “The shoe is becoming one
design part of Nike.”                                                       fashionable began to sport colorful Nikes, clothing designers began to                                                                                                                            as they queued up for a race to ask about their shoes. To this day, he
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         greatly to an athlete,” he says.     with the foot,” says Bryant,
    With Reebok breathing down the the company’s neck, Darwinian            retool their collections to accommodate the sneaker-head lifestyle.                                                                                                                               says, athletes understand the psychological advantage of the aesthet-      “It’s a huge psychological           who meets with the designers
battles were waged for resources and support. While the company cast        Fashion designer Alexander McQueen owned 150 pairs.                                                                                                                                               ics of what they wear. “It’s what people wanted then—to feel like they     component.” But as he and            three to four times a year.
about for ideas, Parker, Hatfield, Bodecker, and a few others hunkered          The relationships with artists that Parker has built as a collector                                                                                                                           were special. And that’s grown into a whole global culture.”               designers Tinker Hatfield and        Parker is coy about what
down to skunk-work a new generation of shoes. Their nickname inside         and fan have had an added benefit. For the better part of this decade,                                                                                                                                                                                                       Eric Avar worked with Bryant,        comes next. “We talked about
Nike was the “Speed Group,” but Parker recalls, “We also called our-        Nike had been trying to make inroads into action sports, particu-                                                                                                                                                                 •••••••                                    they also saw an opportunity         being able to change his shoe
selves the SWAT Team.” Working under spartan conditions, Parker             larly the highly insular skate market. “Our reps, especially, kept                                                                                                                                                                                                           to change basketball forever.        from game to game,” he says.
pulled off a miracle—a technology called Visible Air. The concept was       hearing from people that we couldn’t be relevant here,” admits                                                                                                                                    For all the hush-hush design thinking and fashion lust                     Traditionally, basketball shoes      “But also to be able to change
simple on paper: Take the cushioning element embedded in Nike’s             Parker. Acquisitions—Hurley for surfing in 2002 and Savier for                                                                                                                                    its products generate, Nike has had some not-so-secret problems,           were heavy, to protect the           the shoe within a game.”
existing Air series and cut a window in the sole so that people could       skateboarding in 2004—were not enough. “The mom-and-pop spe-                                                                                                                                      among them disgraceful working conditions, including child labor,          thundering giants from               When will we see this shape-
actually understand the effect. The trouble is, the window kept pop-        cialty shops in particular had a tough time believing a big corpora-                                                                                                                              in the Asian factories that produce the goods. Add on energy use and       g-forces and ankle injuries.         shifting beast? Parker smiles
ping. “I was working on it as a side project,” says Parker, along with      tion had any business there. And we struggled, and it embarrassed                                                                                                                                 carbon inefficiency, and the need for innovation is clear. Parker ticks    “They used to be on a big cup        and shrugs. “Soon.”
developing a cross-training shoe with Hatfield.                             me. We weren’t authentic.”                                                                                                                                                                        off a laundry list of opportunities, all related to design: “Materials,
    By 1986, Parker had a prototype ready, and Knight let him show              To build credibility with skaters, Bodecker and Parker tapped                                                                                                                                 componentry, construction methods, manufacturing methods, the
it to the board. In 1987, a suite of shoes called Air Max—running and       artists such as the Los Angeles graffiti-and-tattoo-design star                                                                                                                                   whole digital revolution. Knitting technology that allows you to
basketball models and Parker and Hatfield’s cross-training shoe—            known as Mr Cartoon to design limited-edition shoes, logos, and                                                                                                                                   make completely sustainable design and footwear without any cut-

72 fastcompany.com September 2010                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           September 2010 fastcompany.com   73
Biomechanists at Play                                                  ting and stitching, without any archaic manufacturing processes.
                                                                       We’re embedding all that thinking into the product.” But never at the
                                                                       expense of performance. “The entire process becomes sustainable;
Nike’s research lab has sensors                                        it’s not just a ‘green’ footwear line.”
                                                                            Hannah Jones, Nike’s vice president of corporate responsibility,
under the running track, a gym                                         is Parker’s frontline commander, sitting a few doors away and report-

in a freezer, and elite lab rats.                                      ing directly to him. Her first audit discovered some $800 million a
                                                                       year in wasted materials. Working with Parker and product design-
                                                                       ers, Jones and her team—which now numbers some 130—examined
the innovation kitchen shares       gym where shoes and apparel        all processes for efficiency, toxicity, energy impact, and safety. What
the Mia Hamm Building with          are tested completes the lab.      has emerged is an evolving series of metrics, the Considered Index,
the Nike Sports Research Lab,           When Pisciotta heard that      that helps determine the environmental impact of each item Nike
a place where biomechanics          designers Eric Avar and Toby       makes. The company is now focusing on the supply-chain and man-
experts test people and prod-       Hatfield (Tinker’s brother) had    ufacturing elements that impact working conditions in the 20% of
ucts to better understand           seen the Stanford University       its contractors’ factories that produce 80% of its goods. By 2011,
what athletes need to enhance       track team work out barefoot,      Parker has promised, all shoes will meet a minimum standard. “But
performance and prevent             he wanted to find out why no       it’s a never-ending challenge,” he says. “There’s no finish line.”
injuries. This is also where        shoes were preferable to free           Nevertheless, he is delighted that the index has inspired a new
elite athletes come to be           ones. “Their coach told me, ‘I     creative tension inside Nike. A software tool based on the index
studied for their specialty         can’t prove it, but I think that   allows designers to see the environmental impact of their design
shoes. What the experts learn       the athletes who run barefoot      choices and gives them a benchmark to shoot for. They compete with
here trickles down to the rest      have fewer injuries and per-       one another as they work. “We’re not creating a green product for the
of us. The lab was run, until       form better,’ ” Pisciotta says.    sake of doing it,” he says. “We’re creating a whole new way of design.”
recently, by Mario Lafortune.       He wired up 20 runners and         And the company is sharing what it is learning. In 2005, Nike
As a Penn State grad student,       set them loose on the com-         debuted a sneaker without the toxic solvents long used to bind the
he helped conduct the first         pany’s Ronaldo soccer field. “I    sole to the shoe; the formula for the new adhesive is now available
big biomechanical study of          was able to pick out five          through the Green Exchange that Parker announced at the World
running in the 1970s. Both          pressure and four motion           Economic Forum in Davos this year. And in 2006, after a decade and
Mark Parker and his future          variables—a very significant       a half of research and millions of research dollars, the company
wife, Kathy, also a champion        difference on grass.” One year     removed a greenhouse gas known as SF6 from its famous Air pock-
runner, were test subjects—         and 12 prototypes later, those     ets. There was no announcement.
an experience that led Parker       insights helped Hatfield                Parker has become a visible champion for sustainable thinking
to help establish Nike’s first      design a very light shoe with      and a quiet star at Davos, leading conversations with CEOs from
sports research lab in 1980.        flex grooves cut throughout        giants such as General Mills, Kaiser Permanente, Renault-Nissan,
    For senior reseacher Jeff       the midsole, allowing the shoe     Swiss Re, Telstra—even Facebook and Hunch. “Populations are
Pisciotta, the lab is a bio-        to bend freely in all the ways a   exploding. Emerging markets are getting more power,” says Parker.
mechanist’s playground with         foot would if it were touching     Disruptive change is on everyone’s mind. “There’s this internaliza-
a running track and basket-         nothing but grass. It was the      tion of how critical it is to deal with sustainability. As we’re out here
ball courts. “Hollywood             birth of the Free, a shoe line     trying to wave the flag, it’s very satisfying to see that.”
borrowed our technology,” he        that mimics the benefits of
says of the elaborate motion-       barefoot training.
                                                                                                      •••••••
analysis systems that capture           The lab occasionally cre-
an athlete’s movements              ates shoes for a different kind
240 times a second, 10 times        of consumer. “Sometimes Phil
                                                                       “and Why the Blankety-Blank are you now in the
                                                                       MP3 business?” Parker is telling stories at dinner, this one about a
faster than the human eye.          [Knight] or Mark would ask us
                                                                       call he got from Apple’s Steve Jobs. We are in a private dining room
“The capture part is easy. No       to work with amputees, or
                                                                       at one of Parker’s favorite Portland restaurants. The waiter, also a bit
one cares if a computer-            kids with really strange syn-
                                    dromes and giant feet or
                                                                       of a pal, pops in periodically to check on us. And to chat up Parker.
generated character like Gol-
lum turns his ankle. The analy-     something,” says Pisciotta.        The waiter has six marathons under his belt, and he’s feeling hinky
sis is the hard part.” The          “We call a couple of people        about the seventh. “San Francisco next month,” he pauses. “Hills.”
perimeter of the lab is a track     from the Kitchen over and          He feigns a shudder. Parker smiles. That his world shifts easily from
with sensors that measure           look into it.” Technically, all    waiters to Mr Cartoon to Lance Armstrong and back says a lot about
ground reaction forces. A           insights are valuable to a         the man. He is open, curious, and wanting to connect with people
16-camera system and ceiling        scientist. But Pisciotta recog-    doing their thing. “You’ll do great,” he says. They talk strategy.
grid allows for full-body           nizes the unique value of a fan        Facing Jobs, however, Parker conceded defeat. Nike had part-
studies, and a high-speed           base of one. “I still have a       nered with Phillips in 2003 to make an MP3 player that would help
video system captures motion        picture on my desk of a            connect a runner with music and his or her own workout stats—
to be turned into super-            13-year-old girl who couldn’t      distance, speed, calories, and so on. “Nobody remembers it, but it
slo-mo videos for the design        wear shoes,” he says. “Well,       was a best seller at the time,” says Parker. (One look back at the on-
team and data for the scien-        she’s got Nikes now, just like     line reviews explains why nobody remembers it.) Jobs called Parker
tists. A walk-in freezer with a     the cool kids.”                    and didn’t mince words: “Why are you doing this? It’s not your core
                                                                       business!” Parker f lew down to Cupertino for a face to face; what
                                                                       resulted from the meeting was Nike+, a nifty sensor that goes in the
                                                                       bottom of a running shoe and feeds workout stats to an iPhone or
                                                                                                                        continued on page 114

74 fastcompany.com September 2010
                                                                                                       likes him. “He sat right there,” Parker says,     going wild, and they seemed to know every-
                                                                                                       pointing to my chair. “I knew his dad.” Still,    one by name,” says Radcliffe. “They were as
  COVER STORY




                                                                                                       when the news broke, Parker trod lightly. “We     inspired by the kids as they were by any of us.”
                                                                                                       made efforts to connect with him. He went             “There’s a certain energy and purity and
                                                                                                       really quiet, shut himself off from everybody;    passion in the relationships between the
  ARTIST.                                                                                              so it was difficult.”                             parents, kids, and coaches, and the love of
   ATHLETE.                                                                                                Ultimately, he says, Nike handles issues      team,” Parker says. In their way, these folks
 CEO.
                                                                                  By Ellen McGirt
                                            Nike’s Mark Parker, brings            Photographs



                                                                                                       like this on a case-by-case basis. “What does     are as obsessed as a Kobe, or a Radcliffe.
                                        together extreme talents, whether         by Patrik Giardino
                                          they’re basketball stars, tattooists,
                                     or designers obsessed with shoes.




                                                                                                       what’s happening mean to what we should           “It’s as important for me to be there as with
 66 FASTCOMPANY.COM September 2010




Parker                                                                                                 be doing? And, yes, character also matters.”      record holders and Olympians. These are
continued from page 74                                                                                 But, he says, “we didn’t want to convict him      the people we’re serving.”
                                                                                                       through the med ia .” A nd a s Wood s                 Parker has made sure that everyone
iPod and through social networks. Today,                                                               reemerged into his professional life, Parker      knows that. Nine years ago, he recalls, “Phil
says Trevor Edwards, Nike’s VP of market-                                                              didn’t shy away. Nike released an ad with a       wanted us to work on a new mission state-
ing, social features allow millions of people                                                          silent and contemplative Tiger and a voice-       ment.” The previous one—“To be the No. 1
to feel they’re part of the planet’s largest                                                           over from his now-deceased father. It was         sports-and-fitness company in the world”—
running club. “We now have 3 million mem-                                                              instantly polarizing. “I knew that it would be    was old news. Parker’s choice: “To bring inno-
bers who have run 182 million miles,” he says.                                                         controversial. Some people thought it was         vation and inspiration to every athlete in the
It took 18 months, and Nike spent a rumored                                                            creepy,” he says. “It was the voice of the ath-   world. (And if you have a body, you’re an ath-
$1.6 billion on the launch.                                                                            lete, and we’re committed to that.”               lete.)” He also put together nine maxims,
    But Parker saves the best part of the story                                                            For Parker, the elite superstar may be the    quirky guiding principles for Nike. The one
for last. Jobs—a New Balance wearer who                                                                lab rat of choice to start the design process,    he thinks about most is No. 6, “Be a sponge.
typically shows up for only his own product                                                            but his heart remains with the everyathlete.      Curiosity is life. Assumption is death. Look
extravaganzas—joined Parker onstage for the                                                            Paula Radcliffe, the British marathon star,       around.” It’s a nod to his grandmother Helen
Nike+ debut in 2006. “Oh, he wore Nikes,”                                                              describes watching the CEO and his wife, a        Parker, who spent hour upon hour with her
says Parker. He smiles.                                                                                world-class runner who is now a high-school       quiet grandson, walking in the woods, shar-
    When the conversation turns to Tiger                                                               track coach, at the national high-school          ing her observations about the world. “She
Woods, though, Parker gets serious. “I learned                                                         cross-country championships that Nike hosts       was engaged and learning new things until
about it the way everyone else did,” he says of                                                        every year. Elite athletes are invited to race    she passed,” Parker says. “That was always
the messy swirl that became Woods’s down-                                                              with the kids and spend the day mingling          her advice to me. And it really worked.”
fall. Parker, part of the Nike full-court press                                                        with them. Despite the rainy Oregon day, the
that recruited Woods as he turned pro, clearly                                                         Parkers eschewed the VIP tent. “They were           mcgirt@fastcompany.com




114 fastcompany.com September 2010

				
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