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RBR Interview: Kevin Paulk, Nike Global Director of RSG Accounts, by Larry Eder

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12/23/2008 - 04:03

runblogrunlogo.jpg December 23, 2008 from By Larry Eder I have observed Nike, as a brand and a company, for thirty-five years now. I purchased my first pair of Nike shoes, Nike waffle racers in the Fall of 1975. I worked at Runners' World from 1981-1986, and have published my own publications since 1987. During that entire time, Nike has had a strong influence on our sport and my business. If one considers that the company has had significant influence from Eastern Philosophy, then the reader will be able to understand my allusions to Nike as a corporation and the current Chinese political system.

It seems to me that Nike, like China, has gone through several very difficult phases, what I will call here, Cultural Revolutions. The first happened for NIke in the 1984-86 period, when many of the original folks left, as Nike hit the billion mark for the first time. The second was in the last nineties, when Nike was growing, but some wondered at what cost. The third, over the past five years, was a phase that I would call, Does specialty running really matter or how can a business that only brings in $100 million in a $17 billion company mean squat?

Cultural revolutions are good for the soul, as long as one does not recast the intellectuals into farmers, then the whole company starves. Nike's cultural revolutions happen every decade or so, and in the process, good people are found and some are lost. However, some are freed, to do what they were meant to do. Such is the case of Kevin Paulk.

Kevin Paulk is known to his friends as KP. He has been a shoe guy for nearly twenty-five years, first at Reebok, and for most of the past two decades at Nike. One of the most well-liked guys in the shoe geek fraternity, KP was, for several years, one of the lone voices in the desert as Nike went though one of its cyclical, what does running mean in the big picture, phases.

During the past two decades, KP has created some superb shoes. He has always been honest about the product, and is one of the guys who survived the cross examinations of the late Bill Bowerman during shoe development. Observers of that particularly painful practice have suggested to me that having one's teeth pulled without any painkiller, using a pair of old pliers might be a more palatable option. But as Mr. Nietzche noted, what does not kill us makes us stronger.

About five years ago, questions started to get asked again about the value of specialty running. It was at a time, when Nike had lost much of its support from specialty. KP was one of the guys asking the hard questions-in fact, to be brutally honest, he was one of the guys who had not stopped asking the right questions.

What a difference five years makes. The question remains, even with the support of Mark Parker, CEO of Nike, just how important $100 million in specialty running business is to a $17 billion company. It seems that Nike realizes that their $two billion plus worth of running footwear sales all stems from the top of the pyramid-the specialty running business. That is truer today than ever before in running footwear history.

Kevin Paulk was taken off product last spring to become the Global Director of RSG Acounts. Paulk is the man who has day to day interaction with the local running stores. I saw him with a half dozen RSG store owners at the NXN championships.

Kevin was in his own element, chatting with the store owners, and then, Paulk took the RSG owners to meet the CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, and introduced them. Parker spoke to the assembled owners and it was several points were clearly made: Paulk has access to Parker and Parker considers running important. It was obvious that Mark Parker was having a good time as he was in the midst of spending a Saturday morning giving out awards at the Nike sponsored NXN championships. Message to retailers-Nike is serious about you. That is Paulk's job, and he does it well, because, it ismore than in his DNA, it is in his soul. Those messages and photo moments mean a lot-it is again, part of the intangibles that an owner considers when he or she is putting a new shoe on the shoe wall. First rule, shoe must help pay the rent, second rule, remember the first rule, third rule, the brand better support the product.

KP has been, for thirty four years, a competitive runner. A world Master champion indoors and medalist outdoors, he is coached by former swoosher Tom Carloe, now General manager of New Balance. Kevin Paulk lives and breathes the sport.

I asked KP to answer a few questions about a week ago and he sent off his answers this past weekend. You can feel his enthusiasm, and his love of his work. KP represents to me, the developers and the shoe guys everywhere. Without the love of their sport, and the love of their business, they would not be there...

Kevin Paulk, Global director of RSG Accounts for Nike Running

RBR: Tell us about your new job?
KP: Last spring I was asked by our vice president of global running to focus on growing our running business with independent running specialty retailers around the world, in a newly created position called Global RSG (running specialty group) Director. It’s been a natural expansion of my previous role as the Nike Bowerman Series Footwear Director—a continuation of our commitment to represent the voice of the running shop here at Nike WHQ, and the voice of Nike running at RSG. And I do mean to say so in that order of priority.

RBR: Describe your new responsibilities?
KP: If you asked me to summarize my new responsibilities I'd say... Deliver the RSG consistent product, consistent service and consistent people, every day of the year. For Nike running that product means consistent franchise product and relevant innovation. Two good examples are our Nike Zoom Vomero+ 3 and the Nike LunaRacer and Lunar Trainer--they compliment one another. By consistent service, we mean supporting the RSG with better, easier, more profitable operations to earn the confidence of the clerk on the shop floor as well as the buyer and the owner. And with consistent people, it’s all about great customer relations. I believe our RSG reps are the finest in the land. An old friend once told me "KP, good customer relations and the RSG business are like coffee and donuts. They go well together. If you aren't sure what to do, go to that shop and start making the coffee and serving the donuts." This is what my job is all about.

RBR: I saw you with some of the running store guys at NXN, they had cool RSG jackets-what was that?
KP: We asked a few RSGs to spend some time with us at WHQ to share good business practices. We had one rule-no PowerPoint presentations. Seriously, it was just a simple customer relations reminder for us to always listen and pay attention to a few tactical ways to help grow the RSG business. We gave everyone a Nike jacket with our RSG logo. I wore mine in London a couple of weeks ago when I spent a few days with 55 RSGs representing the UK. I wore it proudly and with confidence. It’s a badge that says we really mean it: we aim to win at RSG. By the way, the coffee and donuts taste good here, too.

RBR: What is your best shoe?
KP: Our best running shoe is the one that satisfies a runner so much that she or he goes back to that running shop to ask for another and it’s there in the size they need. But if I had to pick just one, I'd have to say one of these four go-to's: the Nike Zoom Vomero+ 3, the Nike Zoom Equalon+ 3, Nike Zoom Structure Triax+ 12 and the Air Pegasus+ 25.

RBR: What is the biggest lesson you have learnt about running store biz?
KP: Say what you mean, mean what you say. Consistency means follow through. It means frequent visits to that same store, not blowing through town with a bag of promises only to never return. Confidence is earned through the same hard work I apply to my personal running. Respect the discipline of getting your base miles in first. Then add strength work, speed work and race day. There are no shortcuts. There is no magic or luck.

RBR: You tell it like it is, so tell us about your personal running? Who is your coach?
KP: I have been blessed by a good friend and personal coach in Tom Carleo. He has enhanced my competitive Masters Track running for the last eight years now. Tom helped me to become World Masters Indoor Champ in the 800, and World Masters Outdoor silver and bronze medalist in the 800 and 1500. I've been a competitive runner for 34 years and there is no better example for what motivates me to run than the selfish thrill of running prelims, semi-finals, and finals on a world stage with brothers for life. Coach Carleo has taught me how to race and how to win.

RBR: What was your favorite part of NXN?
KP: Standing on the ropes and studying the faces of the runners. I understand their determination. I respect their pain. These young athletes are a fine example for what all us who are parents should wish for in our children and the youth of this world. I’ll bet each and every one of them will persevere in life. I know I would hire them to be on my team any day.

RBR: Do you miss developing product?
KP: Yep. There's no better job than the satisfaction of building the dream of a designer's idea. The product developer is the unsung hero of our industry they ensure a shoe succeeds.

RBR: What is your favorite shoe of all times?
KP: I'm going to take the road less traveled and not pick a training shoe. I choose the Zoom Miler. I am sure Bill Bowerman would have been proud of the glove-like fit of this one. It has to be something like what the legends Santee and Bannister wore. When I lace up the Miler that voice in my head says over and over... "Race With Confidence" and carries me swiftly around the track.

RBR: What would you tell retailers about Nike, if you have all 728 running store owners in one room?
KP: I would tell them that all of us at Nike care deeply for them and respect their business model from 1968 to now and forever. I would also tell them that Nike believes there is no better time in history than now to get your run in. The RSG will continue to succeed. An excellent example of Just Do It. And lastly, I would tell them that my job is to help them realize that There Is No Finish Line.

Editor's Final comments:
Nike has changed and evolved over the past two decades, no different than any company that has gone from two billion in sales to $17 billion. Many of the people that influenced KP are no longer at Nike. In fact, his generation of developers, managers and directors, people who made huge contributions at Nike are now influencing Saucony, New Balance, Columbia, Spira, adidas, Brooks, PUMA, KSWISS, and Mizuno, at this moment in time. Others stayed at Nike, but left running. This began to take a toll on Nike running five years ago. The whispers began. Nike was having a human capital drain. Running at Nike has always been the proverbial hot seat. Some people thrive in that type of environment, some do not.

Mark Parker's awareness of this brain and talent drain seems obvious, as his comments over the past two years have always spoken about Nike's committment to running. He made a point of pushing product, pushing running, whether it be in an conference call with the business media or at a press conference launching Parker was on message.

For example, three years ago, at the Running Event, Nike was virtually laughed out of the room as a VP got up and told the retailers that they had Nike support. Fred Doyle, a Nike lifer, who was leaving Nike after twenty some odd years, saved the day and spoke to the retailers and asked that they give Nike a chance.

The next year, KP and the new team showed up and worked hard to develop relationships with grass roots running stores, the same stores that had purchased Nike running in 1974-75 and had helped build the brand. There were some difficult feelings, and KP, in his own unique way, spoke to the stores, as did the Nike team of Eric Merck and Kate Delhagen.

One store at a time. One shoe at a time. Nike's presence at the show was strong in 2008 at the Running Event in Dallas, as they have moved into the top five footwear brands in performance running. At this part of the world, ASICS and Brooks are king, with Brooks taking the accolades at the show for Best shoe and Best supplier once again. The truth be told, Nike has had some hard won victories on the specialty front, and their support of this channel is key to their overall success in the running business. One real runner or core runner influences many. A happy runner in a good pair of shoes does more to sell the next hundred pair than anything anyone can do. That is why core runners are key for all running footwear brands.

For Nike running to succeed, Nike running has to have champions within the berm who can stand up in the confrontational atmosphere that Nike has thrived on for the past three decades. Even as Nike strives for that $25 billion goal, the fact that the brand's soul or DNA is running must be considered on a daily basis.

KP's move to Director of RSG is how Nike execs see as a daily affirmation of their committment to specialty. However, without the continued commitment to great product in both footwear and apparel, Nike will continue to have bumps in the road.

Kevin Paulk's job is to make those bumps less of a problem than they have been in the past. They have picked the right man. KP will be the first to remind you that Nike sells shoes one pair at a time, and that is key to their success. In this economy, that is the key to business survival. Good shoes no longer make it. And since running is the only part of the footwear business that is doing well, the glut of product is everywhere.

However, the key point to remember is that ONLY great product will make it in this market. Good product will most likely not even make the shoe wall. And if the store owner does not believe that the brand stands behind its product, that good shoe will end up on the discount rack, as one lyricist noted, "like another can of beans."

Kevin Paulk's job is to convince RSG accounts that Nike stands behind its product, and will provide consistent improvements to said product, and keep that relationship between specialty retailer and Nike on the front burner.

KP thrives on competition. This may be his perfect job.

Special thanks to Kevin Paulk, Jacie Prieto and Jill Zanger for their assistance.
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