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The Fast Cat: Q&A With Puma's Jay Piccola

The president weighs in on his plans for the year.

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WESTFORD, Mass. — Puma likes to play.

But behind the quirky spirit is a company that has created a formidable position in the athletic market by combining equal parts technical innovation and marketing sizzle.

Take the brand’s spring ’11 Faas running launch. The lightweight trainer, worn by Olympic gold-medalist sprinter Usain Bolt, has the performance cred to have gained shelf space in some of the best running independents in the country. But the brand’s new ad campaign, which launched last month, shows the Faas in breezy ads celebrating Bolt’s home country of Jamaica and its lifestyle.

That’s how it should work, according to Jay Piccola, president and GM of Puma North America. “At the end of the day, we have to remain a performance brand [because] it opens us up to all the opportunities that exist on the lifestyle side,” he said in a recent interview here.

The formula is paying off: Sales in the Americas region increased 20 percent in 2010. Still, it hasn’t been smooth sailing.

During the height of the recession two years ago, the company scaled back expenses, shuttered about 10 percent of U.S. stores and stretched marketing dollars through cutting-edge — and cost-effective — social media campaigns. (Puma counts 4.2 million Facebook fans and more than 14,000 Twitter followers as of press time.)

“In 2009, we learned to live without a few things,” Piccola said. “And when things started to break and turn around in 2010, we were well positioned.”

Now the company is gearing up for a strong 2011 under new global management. Earlier this month, Franz Koch was tapped as CEO, succeeding Jochen Zeitz, who will focus his efforts on creating a sport and lifestyle division for parent company PPR.

“[Jochen] told me he’ll still take my phone calls, which is nice of him,” Piccola quipped. “Who better than Jochen to oversee the sport lifestyle portfolio when he helped create that category? We’re eager to see what else falls into this silo. Today it’s anchored by Puma, and we hope it’ll remain that way.”

As for his new boss, Piccola said he hasn’t met directly with Koch yet, but the two have been emailing. “Franz is an excellent choice,” Piccola said. “He is the right man at the right time to lead Puma in the next phase of growth and development.”

That next phase calls for increasing sales to $5 billion by 2015. Zeitz told Footwear News exceeding that target isn’t out of the realm of possibility, though he didn’t specify by how much. He noted the firm will “continue to screen the sport-lifestyle market” for potential acquisitions and cited the 2010 purchase of Cobra Golf as the model.

Zeitz wants to advance the company in other ways, too.

Over the next five years, Puma aims to slash its carbon emissions, waste, energy and water consumption by 25 percent. Their first eco effort is a high-profile gambit to replace its shoeboxes with the “Clever Little Bag,” a bright-red, reusable mesh bag designed by famed industrial designer Yves Behar. The CLB has a cardboard insert that gives it a box-like shape and allows it to be stacked in a traditional stockroom, but requires only 35 percent of the paper and 40 percent of the energy to produce, compared with a traditional box.

“We view sustainability as an imperative,” said Zeitz. “Ultimately, shareholders and consumers alike want to invest in brands that work in fair, sustainable and creative ways.”

Creativity is one of the reasons Puma thrives, Piccola said.

“It continues to amaze me how strong this brand is,” he said. “Long ago, we took the philosophy that whether it’s communicating or making product, we’d do it our own way.”

 

FN: The U.S. continues to be a bright spot for Puma. How do you plan to keep things rolling?
JP:
We want to invest more in marketing and speaking to our customer. Consumers are smarter and savvier these days, and yet more cautious than they have ever been. We are not anticipating that will change, particularly with social media growing, as well as the demand — rightfully so — for superior customer service. They are more vocal than ever. As a brand, we need to be prepared for that and work to engage with them quickly and accordingly. It’s a cluttered landscape and it’s a challenge to have one’s voice heard without the largest budget to do it. But that’s been a strength.

 

FN: What’s your outlook on the economy for the second half of the year?
JP:
Things are looking brighter for the economy right now. We’ve noticed an uptick with consumer spending at retail. We are hoping to see the market continue to be on the rise for the second half.

 

FN: How are the difficult sourcing situation in China and rising production costs affecting you? Specifically, what adjustments have you made?
JP:
The sourcing situation and rising production costs are affecting the entire industry; we are not exclusive to this challenge. Of course, we are addressing it in the most strategic way possible. Our retail partners certainly understand the issue and what we are all going through. So far, it has not affected our business in any dramatic way.

 

FN: What will you do to drive business this year?
JP:
We want to reinforce our performance positioning. At the end of the day we have to remain a performance brand [because] it opens us up to all the opportunities that exist on the lifestyle side. [We want to reinvigorate] lifestyle with interesting, fun initiatives. The first one this year is the relaunch of the Clyde with Undefeated in Las Vegas. We need to scream a little louder in the lifestyle arena and get [consumers] listening. [It’s] a big part of our business, and sometimes we have taken it for granted. We have to communicate a little bit more [newness there]. The third goal is the women’s category. We want to win that consumer through apparel and footwear for women of every age. Fashion trends can change, but what we’re seeing is women who are health conscious in all activities they do.

 

FN: What’s the breakdown between the performance and lifestyle businesses?
JP:
We don’t track it internally. For most of our performance shoes, the ultimate use is by a lifestyle consumer. Ninety percent of our Faas [running shoes] will be sold to lifestyle consumers. We never discuss how much performance we need to sell. But at the end of the day, we have to be successful in being a performance [brand] to create the bigger sport-lifestyle opportunity.

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