ASICS in Canada: An interview with country president Richard Sullivan
Richard Sullivan realises what he’s about to say sounds counter-intuitive, but he is confident the logic behind it is sound. “The first part of our modernisation, and one of the platforms that we use to tell our story to the consumer, will be bricks-and-mortar retail.” The President of ASICS Canada – who, prior to joining at the footwear giant, spent the better part of two decades overseeing brands at the Adidas Group – is holding forth about the company’s new retail branch in Toronto, a sprawling 4,400 sq ft space on Queen Street West. If it all sounds a little ‘back to the future’, it really isn’t. This is a prime example of omnichannel retail, and ASICS’ maiden flagship store in Canada.
“I've been with the company for about 16 months now,” says Sullivan, “and we've gone through a bit of a transition – physical as well as mindset – within the company. Our commercial business was located in Sherbrooke, Quebec, based on the longstanding and successful history of the distributorship that we had there, and a corporate decision was made to transition that office to Toronto.
“We also grew by roughly 7% in 2017. We're very happy and positive on both the prospects of our brand in Canada and, back to the modernisation, we really feel that it's a new mindset – renewed focus and new investment in the brand in Canada – to share our message with consumers.”
ASICS (an acronym of the Latin phrase ‘anima sana in corpore sono’: a sound mind in a sound body) was founded in 1949, by Kihachiro Onitsuka. This tale of humble beginnings is well-known – Onitsuka manufacturing basketball shoes out of his living room in Kobe, Japan – yet there are lesser-known details that make it even more inspiring. “He didn’t do it for commercial or financial gain,” Sullivan assures me. “He did it literally to put the Japanese youth back to work after the war.”
Fast-forward to present day, and ASICS is a publicly-traded multinational, boasting $3.66bn in sales, upwards of 7,800 employees, and offices across six continents. For Richard Sullivan, his professional mandate is Canada-centric, although no less broad. “I oversee the entire operation,” he explains, “whether it’s sales, merchandising, marketing, direct to consumer, finance distribution.” There is also the small matter of 75 ASICS Canada employees, divided across the company’s main headquarters, distribution centre and five retail stores.
As a leader, he abides by three key tenets: to be honest, forward thinking and inspirational. Sullivan says: “I think that if you can put those three leadership characteristics in a pot, and mix them up, it leads to a really good culture for your company and you’ll have some long-term happy employees.” It seems to work. Although he naturally cannot shoulder full credit, Sullivan states there are “some 30-year employees, some 40-year employees, some 27-year employees,” at ASICS. “I think that’s a good testament that this is a great place to work.”
Circling back to ASICS’ continuing quest to modernise, Sullivan notes its recent global rebrand: I Move Me. Comprising digital videos and influencer partnerships, as well as in-store and offline activations, I Move Me launched in North America in Q4 2017, in partnership with Grammy-nominated DJ and noted fitness fanatic, Steve Aoki.
I Move Me will continue to roll out this year, with a Canada-specific campaign focused around the brand’s freshly-signed ambassador, Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Penny Oleksiak. Having captured the nation’s hearts at Rio 2016, aged just 16, the Toronto native was hot property – a fact not lost on Sullivan. “It was a big deal. She had opportunities to go to larger brands, if you will, but she felt at home with us,” he explains.
And yet, given that ASICS’ cap and trade ambassador had always previously been track and field-based, one might argue Oleksiak’s signing represented something of a risk. Of course, a quick consultation with a sporting calendar will reveal the masterstroke, as we head towards the 2020 Olympics in (where else) Tokyo. ASICS will be a gold sponsor for the Games. “We’re a Japanese based company, we’ve got a long heritage since 1949 and we’re held in really high regard in Japan. It’s on our home turf,” says Sullivan. “I think it’s a very proud moment for the company, and all of the employees globally.”
Still looking forward, Sullivan is keenly aware of developing consumer trends. “Globally, consumers are choosing to purchase on e-commerce, whether it’s Amazon or own-retail sites or Alibaba,” says Sullivan. He concedes ASICS is “playing catch-up” in terms of e-commerce, but notes it will bridge the gap quickly. “We are very, very bullish on what that can provide in the years to come. But I think overall, just the fact that e-commerce is a greater option for consumers today will probably be the largest trend that we see happening.”
The story of ASICS is a unique cocktail of old and new: past, present and indeed future. Are there any examples in which ASICS is outpacing its rivals, or driving industry modernisation? Sullivan laughs – “I can’t tell you all our secrets,” before adding: “I think the true answer to that is that all of our products are grounded in performance and innovation. We’ve got an institute for sports science, just outside of our head office in Kobe, that works feverishly daily to come up with new technologies to bring to market, and to have some type of an advantage for the athletes that use our products.
“I think that would probably be our advantage in the marketplace – whether it’s running or tennis, training or apparel, our performance-based products truly are engineered to help that athlete.” Kihachiro Onitsuka – the living room shoemaker, who simply wanted to provide jobs for war-surviving teens – would be proud.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.