The Man Makes the Shoe

Merhawi Keflezighi was apprehensive as he walked out of the Fairmont Copley Hotel on April 21, 2014, toward the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The lead runners were in the final few miles of the race and officials, following their standard practice, brought the family and representatives of those runners to watch the end of the race.

Keflezighi, who goes by “Hawi,” fits both categories. His brother, Meb, was also his star client—and he was winning.

At the same time, Rick Higgins stood among his colleagues at Skechers' headquarters in Manhattan Beach, California, before normal business hours and spoke with his boss, Skechers' founder and CEO Robert Greenberg. Higgins put Greenberg on speakerphone.

Greenberg was at home, but he and Higgins and a couple dozen other colleagues who arrived early were all watching the same thing on television. A little more than 3,000 miles away, an almost impossible thing was happening—Meb Keflezighi, wearing a pair of Skechers shoes, was six miles away from winning the Boston Marathon, becoming the first American man to do so in more than three decades.

“Is it possible that he's going to win this?” Greenberg asked Higgins.

Meb turned onto Boylston Street for the final stretch. He'd led since the fifth mile and his comfortable lead was evaporating. Anyone watching on TV had the sense his nearest rival was about to overtake him. As Meb drew closer to downtown Boston, the thickening crowds showered him with “U–S–A” chants. He glanced down at his race number, which he annotated with the names of the victims of the previous year's finish-line bombings. As Keflezighi pushed to the finish, where a year earlier two bombs had killed four and injured dozens more, Greenberg kept calling Higgins back. Even as Keflezighi's lead shrank, Greenberg shifted from asking the question to stating it as fact: He's going to win this.

In the VIP stands, a small clutch of Skechers executives in Boston to tend to Meb and his shoes, screamed and clapped to the point of almost falling off the bleachers. As Keflezighi—who simply became Meb that day—crossed the finish line, the group at Skechers erupted in cheers, hugs, and tears. Almost two years later, Higgins has a hard time describing the scene, owing to the emotion.

The emotion that morning in Boston was raw and real. Meb stood on the starting line as McGillivray gave his simple instruction to reclaim Boylston Street.

The win lit up social media as the winner's @runmeb handle gained thousands of followers and congratulatory Tweets. Beyond the virtual world, the win went viral on the course, rippling through the waves of runners, aided by spectators along the route who'd gotten texts or news alerts. Near mile 17, an industrious fan broke the news to the runners streaming by with a hastily hand-drawn sign: “MEB WON.”

The days after the Boston win threw Meb and Skechers into an entirely different light. The significance of this guy winning this race this year was a story few outlets could ignore. Meb made the rounds of national television shows. Daily newspapers used to making passing mention of the Boston Marathon winner deep in the sports section, pulled him to the front of the section, if not the entire paper. He visited with the staff of the New York Road Runners, where he is an elite member, and watched a recap of the race with them, a surreal and delightful experience.

Part of the appeal of the storyline is Meb himself. He's a slight, gentle, gracious guy whose personal history resonates. Born in Eritrea, he immigrated with his family at a young age to Southern California, speaking virtually no English on arrival. One of 11 children, he fell into running by accident, as a way to fit in, and ultimately stand out. Running, he says, was more appealing than soccer, a naturally political sport, on the field and off. “I can control my own destiny,” he says of running. “When I don't win or finish in the top 10, there's no one else to blame.”

His prowess on the track and on the cross-country trail earned a scholarship to UCLA. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998, and earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

Just out of college, he signed with Nike, adding his name to a brand synonymous with global athletes, and deeply rooted in running, back to the legendary waffle iron-created running shoes. From the start, Meb was savvy about his brand, and ambitious. He wanted shoes, an energy bar, a drink, and a car. “Right out of college, it was a struggle,” he says.

The struggle became, and remains, part of his brand, both he and Hawi say. Meb gained stature by being incredibly consistent, but unable to win a big major race. But he kept showing up and benefited from a long-term relationship with New York Road Runners, widely considered the best-known club of its kind. He signed to run with the club as an elite athlete in 2002, and “I gave them all I had,” he says. When Mary Wittenberg took over the top job in 2005, Meb's long, steady ascent was accelerating. While the 2004 Olympic medal was an important moment, winning the New York Marathon in 2009, “that was when my brand started,” Meb says.

“New York made me famous,” he says. “Going on David Letterman, being in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.” Wittenberg and her organization embraced him, in part as a symbol of New York—a foreign-born American champion, achieving something no American man had done since the early 1980s.

The win seemingly only validated Nike's longstanding relationship with Meb, dating back to the late 1990s. As he was graduating from UCLA, Meb was courted by the legendary shoemaker, and wooed them back. He sent a letter to Alberto Salazar at Nike, writing: “I hope Nike can help me reach my goal of becoming one of the top distance runners in the world. I think I would be a great addition to your company because I have good character and versatile athletic ability. In the near future I am confident I will make a positive contribution to U.S. distance running in the 5,000m, 10,000m, road race and marathon.”1

For a decade the relationship worked, and Meb was a Nike athlete when he crossed the finish line first in New York. Without another major win over the next two years, and moving through the back half of his thirties, Meb's contract with Nike wasn't renewed. He was devastated, knowing he had more he wanted to, and could, achieve. He turned to his brother to help him work on his sponsorships.

Hawi, four years younger than Meb, became his agent a year after the 2004 Olympics. Meb decided then he needed U.S.-based representation, in part to cultivate American sponsorship opportunities as he became an increasingly important figure in an increasingly popular and lucrative sport.

At the time, Hawi was in his second year of law school at UCLA, working toward a career in sports management, but with an eye toward representing basketball players. As an undergraduate at the school, he was a student manager of the Bruins basketball team, assiduously developing relationships around the sport.

As a lawyer in training, and Meb's trusted confidant, he reviewed Meb's contracts and knew them intimately, a role that became more important as they searched for new, full-time representation. Talks with a potential agent stalled over financial terms, owing in part to the fact that Meb already had his key deal, with Nike, in place. Hawi offered his services to the agent, as an apprentice of sorts who would work on the Meb account and learn the business. The agent turned that idea down.

“At this point I said, ‘Meb, I see your Nike deal, I've seen your deal with NYRR. You're in the peak of your career. I think I could help you,'” Hawi says. “I wrote out a proposal to him in the middle of the night and sent it to him.”

Ever deliberate, Meb considered the proposal by making lists of pros and cons and seeking advice from third parties about hiring his brother. Weeks passed, during which Hawi assumed it was a no. Two months after Hawi's Jerry Maguire-esque, insomniac memo to his brother, Meb hired him. “I'm so glad it happened that way,” Hawi says of the long consideration period. “It was healthy.”

Timing was critical. Hawi says now that Meb's established brand made his hiring possible. “All I could give him was that he could trust me, and I'd have his best interest in mind,” he says. “Nike would have to deal with me, even though they didn't know who I was. If Meb was just starting his career, we probably wouldn't be working together. We would both be start-ups.”

Still in school, Hawi identified what he could and couldn't do. He linked up with a marketing agency to develop collateral for Meb, seizing on his post-Olympic notoriety. They identified 200 potential sponsors and sent out brochures touting Meb. One-hundred-ninety-nine of them went unnoticed, or unremarked upon. But one drew the attention of Mastercard's agency, which had considered another marathoner, then-world-record-holder Paul Tergat. Mastercard signed Meb.

The three-day shoot, Meb's first non-Nike national ad, earned him as much as the shoemaker paid him for a year. Six months in, Hawi was impressing his older brother.

When Nike ultimately opted out, Hawi had his biggest task yet. He had put together enough sponsorship revenue to keep Meb employed as a professional runner. They assembled a roster of sponsors ranging from the traditional (Powerbar) to the offbeat (Generation UCAN, a nutrition energy drink). But a runner's most important deal is for shoes.

Nothing emerged immediately. The traditional players, all with the caveat of how much they respected Meb, worried aloud about his age (mid-30s), and carrying the burden of a post-Nike athlete, in terms of the cost as well as the notion of rebranding an athlete long associated with the Swoosh.

Hawi turned again to his network of marketing agencies for help, and pulled an unlikely thread. An intern at one New York agency was the son of a senior Skechers executive in charge of what was then known as the Fitness division, and now called Performance. Once he learned about the familial connection, and lacking much traction with larger, better-known running shoe brands, Hawi said, “How about Skechers?” The California company was best known for a couple things that made them an unlikely backer—kids' shoes that lit up, and shoes that claimed to make your butt look better. The latter led to lawsuits and eventually a settlement.

As a Southern Californian for most of his life—Meb grew up there and did his collegiate running at UCLA—paying a visit to the Manhattan Beach headquarters was not a big ask, but it was all Skechers needed in early 2011. “Half the battle was getting someone to come in,” Higgins says. “Here's Skechers, this lifestyle brand. And we're talking to an elite Olympic medalist. We needed to get him through the front door. That was the power of him seeing what we do.”

Meb is hands-on and reacted immediately to the intimacy of the Skechers team and not only their willingness, but insistence, that he create something of a feedback loop for their shoe development. “We all just hit it off,” Higgins says. Even before signing, Meb ran hundreds of miles in existing and prototype shoes. “I would call up and say, ‘I ran 20 miles in these shoes, and this is what I think,'” Meb says. “We put all of our brains together.”

The courtship lasted for much of 2011, as the Skechers team built shoes based in part on his feedback. “I was a guinea pig,” Meb says. By August of that year, he was sold and signed with Skechers. The company best known for light-up shoes had a marquee marathon spokesman. Higgins says both sides took a calculated risk, Skechers on an athlete who was at best pushing up against the back end of his career, and Meb on a brand that had effectively zero association with high performance of any sort.

“Meb took a lot of ridicule, that he was just coming here for the money,” Higgins says. “We're kind of used to ridicule. But both of us took a lot of risk.”

The risk was calculated. During the talks, Meb told Skechers he was certain he had another personal best in him, in both the half marathon and marathon, times that would be fast enough to win major titles.

The only problem with the timing was New York. Meb was scheduled to run the New York City Marathon—the premier marathon, in the world's most important media market, 12 weeks after signing.

Skechers scrambled to create, tweak, and finalize a custom shoe. Meb, at age 36, posted his fastest marathon ever.

The concept proven, Skechers took the winter to spend even more time with Meb and develop shoes just for him, all the while learning what it took for a high-performance shoe. Meb posted two more personal bests, including at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which he won, earning a trip to the London games. There, he finished fourth in a gutsy effort, moving up from seventeenth place at the halfway mark. He spoke openly at that point of retiring.

Meb and Hawi used the success to their business advantage. As part of the reported mid-six-figure annual deal, they pressed for, and got, a more favorable arrangement than the typical endorsement. Skechers agreed that Meb could wear corporate logos beyond Skechers. The company also agreed to pay the full fee, regardless of performance; traditionally, sponsors were able to cut payments if athletes didn't achieve certain results.2

The latter proved unnecessary, given Meb's performance, which kept improving. Skechers developed a wide-ranging marketing campaign using Meb as its spokesman. Higgins and his team also used less traditional means, sending samples to running bloggers. The hope was to get some good word of mouth going among running groups, who tend to talk among themselves—often obsessively—about their gear.

With Meb in the family, Higgins began courting another elite runner, Kara Goucher, who had emerged as the best known American woman runner. She also recently ended her association with Nike, and was looking for something different. Like Meb, the wooing was a long process. Goucher's husband, Adam, a former elite runner in his own right, is also her manager.

The discussions with the Gouchers ramped up in the months leading up to the 2014 Boston race, where Kara Goucher also was competing. During that time, she remained interested, but uncommitted. Hours after Meb won, Higgins texted Adam Goucher: “Convinced yet? Let's announce today.” Later, Kara Goucher admitted the win was the deciding factor, but she was hesitant to do anything that detracted from Meb's post-race glow.

Within two months, Goucher signed. Higgins extended his custom approach from the shoes to the deal. Kara Goucher had already agreed to an apparel sponsorship with Oiselle, a start-up clothing company founded by a friend. Unlike Meb, who agreed to a so-called head-to-toe contract, Goucher just wanted the shoes.

Now Skechers had, by most accounts, the best-known male and female marathon runners wearing its new line of shoes.

Such high-profile endorsements, coupled with Meb's win, validated those scores of runners who'd taken a chance and bought a pair of Skechers, Higgins says. Rather suddenly, Skechers were legitimate in the eyes of a notably discerning crowd. Higgins points to Meb's Boston win as critical to his piece of Skechers. “That day is the tipping point for the Performance division,” he says.

A year after the Meb victory and the Goucher signing, I met Higgins in person during a trip to New York where he was entertaining buyers in a sprawling series of rooms Skechers keeps in Manhattan for just this purpose. The crowd was in town for an annual sportswear convention. Offering high-end food and drink in one area, Skechers executives mingled and chatted across the various lines of its products.

One of the larger rooms had a wall devoted to the Performance division, and separate life-sized grinning cutouts of Meb and Goucher clad in their respective Skechers gear.

The mood was ebullient, reflecting the general consensus around Skechers. The Meb boost was one part of a tailwind benefiting the entire company. Higgins had also nabbed a high-profile golfer—Matt Kuchar—for his own line of shoes. Kuchar, a Georgia Tech-educated member of the PGA Tour, was engaged in his product in a Meb-like way, offering feedback and suggestions. The golf line proved a near-immediate hit, especially with older golfers already familiar with the Skechers brand. Higgins seized on that, signing up Champions Tour golfers Colin Montgomerie and Billy Andrade to endorse Skechers Performance.

Skechers Performance's success came as Skechers overall was enjoying broader success. The company in 2011 endured a business and public relations debacle around its Shape-up shoes, which promised to help users stay trim and tone their backsides. Skechers ended up with excess inventory of the shoes, and ultimately paid the U.S. Federal Trade Commission $40 million to settle charges it misled customers.

The company has since seen sales grow for its shoes aimed at walking, kids, and even work shoes, as well as the Performance unit. Skechers saw its market cap increase to more than $8 billion, from less than $600 million at the end of 2011 as it retooled its processes to avoid another Shape-up disaster.3 After achieving those new heights, the stock tumbled again in late 2015, as quarterly sales missed analysts' estimates for the first time in two years. Still, the market cap remained around $4 billion in early 2016.

The world of running shoes is a complicated one. A full history would comprise an entire book of its own. Shoes are, after all, the only real piece of specialized equipment a runner needs. Given that prominence, magazines devote pages and pages to reviews and ads of the newest shoes. Runners tend to experiment with the latest and greatest model, constantly seeking an edge or a way to fend off running injuries.

Fueled largely by the 2009 breakaway bestseller Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall, the market for minimal shoes—meant to mimic barefoot running—boomed. A former war correspondent, MacDougall told the amazing true story of a Mexican tribe who mastered the art of running incredible distances with little more than pieces of rubber strapped crudely to their feet.

In the course of the book, MacDougall took dead aim on the modern shoe industry, outlining a strong, coherent argument that companies like Nike and others actually caused running injuries by outfitting us with shoes that made us run in a less-than-natural way. “[B]y arguing that the human body is in fact evolutionarily designed for long-distance running—i.e., we are ‘born to run,' not ‘born to have plantar fasciitis' or ‘born to develop knee problems'—McDougall shook up the entire running shoe industry,” Trail Runner magazine wrote in a story catching up with the characters in the book.4

(As of early 2015, a movie version of Born to Run was reportedly in development, with Matthew McConaughey playing a starring role.)

The minimal shoe craze, at least on a widespread basis, was short-lived.

The boom (and bust) was best characterized by Vibram, maker of the Five Fingers shoe, which slid onto one's feet like a tight rubber glove, with individual spaces for each toe. They looked and felt about as weird as you'd imagine. Having struggled with occasional but annoying plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis, I got a pair one year for Christmas and ran in them a total of three times. My wife, likely with my public reputation, and hers, in mind, sold them on eBay.

For a short period, some especially bold souls (always men) would show up in public with them—I saw one gentleman walking around Walt Disney World in a pair.

Despite MacDougall's solid evidence that perhaps some or all of us might benefit from losing all the padding in modern shoes, many people weren't willing to take the time to break in their feet. Running barefoot, or close to it, requires a dramatic change in form. Those who didn't follow Vibram's pretty clear instructions to ease very slowly into minimalist running, ran the risk of seriously injuring themselves. Broadcaster Keith Olbermann suffered a stress fracture and publicly chalked it up to running in Vibram shoes.

Vibram's reversal of fortune was swift. Disgruntled customers in 2012 filed a class action lawsuit, claiming that the shoes didn't in fact have the health benefits they claimed to. The company settled the case in 2014, agreeing to pay $3.75 million.

Other companies have more nimbly navigated the need for a new type of shoe that hews to one of MacDougall's key tenets—that many running shoes encourage heel striking (that is, landing first on the back of the foot), which leads to the most common running injuries in the heel and foot.

Newton Running was started in Boulder, Colorado, and managed to break out of the proverbial pack with a blend of science and clever marketing. The company anticipated, and helped propel, one seemingly simple tweak—that runners don't mind their shoes being visually loud. Newtons come in bold colors; the model I ran in for several years had black, orange, and green versions.

My introduction to Newton was born on the trails, through the recommendation from a fellow runner of similar build and pace who suffered some similar overuse injuries. He was running in bright blue and green Newtons—their loudness and his enthusiasm started a conversation that stretched across several weekend runs. I found at the time one of the only retailers in the greater New York area that carried the shoes: Paragon Sports, a Mecca for the sporty crammed into several stories of a building near Union Square in Manhattan.

Newton comes with written instructions and also requires a little bit of care and feeding from a salesperson on the front end. While moving to them from traditional running shoes isn't as extreme as going barefoot, any sort of meaningful change in footfall requires a period of adjustment to avoid injury. Newtons are designed to effectively force the runner to run so that the foot touches first near the front, rather than the heel.

I followed the instructions and, like my running buddy, became a convert. This is what companies like Newton not only want, but need in order to achieve anything resembling success. It's a variation on the same challenge Skechers faced. Unlike Skechers, which some had likely heard of, but not in the context the company wanted, Newton had to start from scratch. No one knew the shoes even existed. (There is a benefit to having that blank slate. Newton had no Skechers-esque brand baggage to explain and could focus squarely on a pure segment of the market.)

Shoes are a segment where technology has fundamentally changed the market. Runners once relied on retail stores to buy shoes. Serious runners favored independent specialty shops where knowledgeable salespeople (usually young runners funding their nascent careers at a place that gave them discounts and an excuse to talk about running all the time) could guide the customer through the various options.

Then came the Internet. The web allowed for a number of innovations. One was simply access to products beyond what local stores or mail-order catalogs could offer. Once you identified a shoe you liked, you could find the best price with amazing efficiency. The Internet also created a platform for seemingly endless numbers of detailed product reviews, for an audience that welcomed the opportunity to give its opinion. While it sometimes took work to sift through all the picks and pans, the expertise of the local running shop was at your fingertips.

With all those people online and active, the smart shoe and apparel companies seized on the opportunity. Now Newton was on something a lot closer to parity with a giant competitor like Nike or Asics in a customer's email box.

Newton wasn't alone. Hoka One One has won its own following, by counterprogramming heavily against the minimalist movement. Hoka One One's shoes are maximalist, providing a level of support that gives them what's been called a “clown shoe” look. Like Newton and Skechers, Hoka One One has sought the blessing of both notable and famous runners, and found its tribe among the ultramarathon set.

Both Newton and Hoka One One have leaned into their alternative status, working the race expo circuit, where runners show up ready to spend money. They played on runners' aforementioned chattiness with fellow amateur athletes, and a collective desire to brag about the latest thing that hopefully no one else had heard of. In an age of plenty, being first to adopt the next big thing carries a lot of credibility. Buying a cool new shoe that makes it big is the equivalent of being able to say you saw the band REM thirty years ago at a tiny club in Athens, Georgia.

Skechers Performance, too, hit the race and expo circuit, especially when its stars were scheduled to appear. A week before the 2015 New York marathon, a Skechers billboard featuring Meb loomed over West 34th Street leading to the Jacob Javits Center, where tens of thousands would descend to pick up their race numbers and buy all matter of race gear. He went on to finish seventh in that race, the top American, and, at 40 years old, set a new American record in the master's category.

Even as he enjoyed a return to winning, Meb and his team were thinking about his post-running future. He gravitated to another Southern California company, Competitor Group, where he also had a history dating back to when it was Elite Racing.

The organizer of the Rock ‘n' Roll Marathon series saw an opportunity to bring Meb into its ranks and leverage both his cache and goodwill within the running community. For Meb—the only man in history to win the New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon, and an Olympic medal—it was a way to extend his brand in an authentic way.

Weeks after his Boston win, as his popularity soared, he agreed to run in the pack rather than the front, providing truly amateur runners with a chance to say they ran with Meb. Those bragging rights are more widespread than one might think, his brother says. Meb—slight and graceful—is hard to miss on the trails. He regularly encounters civilians on training runs and, if he's cooling down or warming up, welcomes them to join him.

“They say, ‘Are you Meb?' and I point to my shoes,” he tells me, laughing. “Since 2011, I've never worn anything but Skechers. I'm in 110 percent.”


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