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Converse CEO Talks Management

“We sell two and a half pairs of this product every second of the day,” Jim Calhoun said as he lifted up his foot and showed his black, high-top sneaker to the audience. The All-Star sneaker was an unexpected addition to Calhoun’s suit, but as he said, Chucks are infinitely versatile because they are more about the individual than they are about the statement they make.

Calhoun, who has been president and CEO of Converse since May 2011, spoke in Fulton 511 on March 19 at a Manager’s Studio event hosted by the Carroll School of Management. Before coming to Converse, Calhoun worked at Walt Disney, Nautica, Wilson Sporting Goods, and Nike. The 90-minute event was split into a 45-minute interview and a 45-minute question-and-answer period. Bob Radin, who teaches graduate courses in management, moderated the lecture.

The discussion started with a Converse promotional video. There was one phrase emblazoned on many walls and buildings in the loud, colorful video: “Shoes are boring. Wear sneakers.”

“We’re pretty marketing-friendly, so we usually try to start lots of our presentations with a video to cleanse the palate and get you into the Converse frame of mind, so I thought why not bring that same thing here?” Calhoun said, who owns about 40 pairs of Converse sneakers. “We also play it about 10 times louder.”

Calhoun first talked about what experiences he has had that led him in the direction of consumer products. He was in many organizations and played a lot of sports, but did not excel in one particular area. From basketball, he learned that the most important thing is to understand his own role and to get the ball to the best player so he could shoot.

“I learned how to be a really good teammate,” Calhoun said. “I think that got me really used to understanding organizations. As I look back on it, I think that’s the greatest lesson in terms of the formation of understanding that concept of team.”

In about a year, Converse Headquarters will relocate from North Andover, Mass. to Boston. Although the move out of the suburbs will only be about 28 miles, it will mean a big change for the employees. When thinking about the move, Calhoun thought about whether it would be convenient for both the current and future workforce, and how it will affect consumers. Calhoun predicts that this will be the biggest decision of his career.

“If we’re going to be a company whose values start with what the consumer decides, we better know what it is that consumer decides, we better know our consumers,” he said. “And you look around and you see trees and lakes, and you don’t see any consumers.”

Converse is a company that promotes pushing itself to the point of failure in order to learn from it. Calhoun learned the importance of failure after taking a job at Nautica that he hated. After quitting that job and spending some time unemployed, he learned what kind of jobs he should take. That moment of failure was the most valuable part of his career, he said.

“At Converse, we fail a lot-we actually celebrate it,” he said. “We talk about this concept of failing forward-failing and learning about it and encouraging people to push themselves to the point where you can fail.”

When Calhoun worked at Nike, he was unexpectedly promoted because the company was expanding so fast. He loved his job and did not want to move into the higher leadership role. He was like a player who did not want to retire, but then got forced into coaching, he said. But after he began to work in this new position, he found that he loved it.

“I found a passion for it,” he said. “I had way more passion to bring out the best in others and pull people together and create common goals and then achieve them-I got way more of a thrill out of that than I ever did being on the product piece.”

Converse’s forefront value is to the meet the demands of its consumers, which has rescued the brand from bankruptcy three times. People are very passionate about Converse-virtually everyone who works at Converse has been a consumer of the brand at one point, Calhoun said.

“Whether it was a cute little baby picture where their mother or father put them in Chucks, or whether they actually were Chuck kids, or punk, or creative, or just wore them for fashion, that’s a pretty powerful thing,” he said. “Not many brands can say that their employees were consumers. So, there’s a real passion that motivates people.”

Although the brand has nearly succumbed many times, it continues to survive. Calhoun describes the company as “a cockroach that never dies.” The consumer is the driving force behind its success-marketing has shifted away from athletics and more toward a youthful, alternative style in response to what the corporation saw the consumers wearing.

This shift was led by failure after Converse nearly went out of business in the early 2000s. Nike, of which Converse is currently a subsidiary, stepped in and bought the company in 2003. It was the punk-rock, Ramones fans and starving artists-“the folks that zigged when the culture zagged”-that kept the brand alive, Calhoun said. But the sneaker isn’t seen as retro, or vintage-wearers see them as an extension of themselves, Calhoun said.

“Nike is all about, ‘If you wear this, you’re going to be just like LeBron,'” he said. “We’re like, ‘If you wear this, you’re you.'”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this passage implied that Converse nearly went out of business after, rather than before, Nike had bought the company.

March 19, 2014

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