This running shoe industry veteran with some fast track PRs offers some unique inisghts.
A year ago, Gene McCarthy took over as president of Merrell and has since helped that brand expand its running shoe lines beyond the minimalist trail shoes for which it has become known. McCarthy formerly led the running footwear division at Under Armour and served as co-president of Timberland. Previous to that, he was the global footwear boss at Reebok and worked in several roles at Nike when he started his career in the early 1980s. But before he got into the running shoe industry, he was a competitive track athlete at Fordham University and ran the equivalent of a sub-4-minute mile (3:42:06 for 1,500 meters in 1980) and competed in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials. We caught up with McCarthy recently to talk about Merrell and how running has evolved.
Start by telling us where Merrell is in terms of running footwear. How much of an initiative is running?
Merrell started on a trail and that was the birth of the brand. Of course it evolved into hiking because, when the brand started in 1981, trail running was not as important as it may be now. So, running is important for couple of reasons: first of all, because there are people who run that also like to hike and there are people that hike who also like to run; they are not mutually exclusive. It is also important because, as we try to make this brand younger, faster and fresher, hiking is going to become more athletic so there is going to be this blend of pure trail running and athletic hiking. So it definitely is going to be at the core of what we do.
How difficult is it for outdoor brands to get into more traditional running specialty shops?
At Merrell, we already have the credibility as an authentic outdoor brand, so it’s on us to also be an authentic running outdoor brand. You have to have a point of differentiation. You know, there is so much sameness out there, there is no benefit in trying to just outdo the other guy by a little bit. I think the point of differentiation with Merrell is that there is a heritage to the brand that has kept people comfortable for a really long time. The second one is that it has kept us and the athletes protected, but the biggest one in all our jobs is, the only problem we are trying to solve for is how do we keep trail runners temperate? Which is, how do we keep them warm, dry, cool, and then how do we keep them protected? If we can accomplish that then we can have a design language and aesthetic that is emotionally empowering, so when you put on your shoes you feel better when you put them on. I think we have a good case to be successful.
What’s your take on all of the mud runs and non-traditional fun runs that are booming right now?
I think what you’re going to find is, particularly with younger generations, is that the outdoor athletes are looking for an experience. So I think the idea of competition, while important to one generation, might not be as important to the next generation. It has to be a shared experience in two ways: 1) you want to share it with another person, and then 2) when you’re done with it you want to share it with people to show them what you did.
You’re an old-school 1,500-meter runner who obviously ground out a lot of hard workouts on the track and worked hard to drop your time by a tenth of a second, but running has gone from being about time to being about the experience. What’s changed?
You know it is interesting, when I was training like that a tenth of a second meant everything. But I think now the outdoor athlete is trying to get away from technology. So, I think it is an escape from it in a lot of ways. They will go back and use it at the appropriate time, but they do not want to be governed by it. I think there is a self-awareness part that I think they are looking for with that.
How did your hard work as a young track athlete influence your life and your career?
I grew up in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s and it was not a good place to be, so running for me was a means to an end. It is how I saw the world, I got to see the world, I got a “free” education, and I eventually got a job and a longstanding career with many longstanding companies in the footwear industry. So for me, that was what was important. I still use that value system today in everything that I do, and not only with running a business and being the president of a brand. I also use it to raise my children, that there is a value system that came with training to be a fast runner: hard work, perseverance; there was a part where you went within yourself and became very individual and there was another part where you became very aware of everything and everybody around you. That is no different than an athlete going into the outdoors today and all the things I just mentioned. That is why I think it is organic for me to do this. My only trouble is that I have a 4-minute mile brain, but an 8-minute mile body and I can’t reconcile those two.
How did you wind up in the running shoe industry?
I remember the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1971 with Marty Liquori and Jim Ryun and it said “The Dream Mile” and that is when I said I want to break the 4-minute mile. Eight years later I went to Fordham University, I ended up getting down to 4:03 and I wrote a letter to Marty Liquori. He was in Florida and he invited me down and he said, “I will help you with your dream.” He also got me a job in his sporting goods store called The Athletic Attic, which eventually turned out to be a big chain. That was my first job and that’s how I became a tech rep with Nike. But to me, my vocation and my avocation are the same thing. I don’t think I have worked a day in my life yet because I enjoy this so much.
What are some of the things that contributed to the evolution of the running industry?
I think there are cultural influences that we all take for granted. Nike started as a track and field company back in 1972. But looking back to the tragic Munich Olympics in 1972, Frank Shorter gave us a little bit of patriotism and won the marathon. That might have started the shift. Then when Jim Fixx came out with his running books in the 1970s, and by the early 1980s a lot of people were running. I think there are all these cultural influences where Nike had no choice but to switch to not just track and field, but to be running.
Then you go into the mid-1980s and Jane Fonda stopped making movies and started making workout videos and that is when 9-5 came out and that is when Reebok was kind of a hit. These cultural influences really affect things, even in 1984 when Michael Jordan came on the scene and then there was the advent of MTV, ESPN’s SportsCenter and all of these cultural aspects clashed and converged and help create these industries. After all those things, it’s still something we call running, but it’s been influenced by so many things.
What do you miss most about your days running on the track?
I miss the workouts, I miss going to the track and doing 12 quarters in just under 54 seconds. But the one thing I really miss are those few moments before a race. I loved to lace up my track spikes and do it precisely and make sure it was double-knotted, because I still have nightmares that my shoes are going to come untied. I love the way my heart was beating before you stepped on that line and the gun went off. So every time I speak publicly, I try to recreate that so I can give it my best performance.
Tell us about your experience running against some of the world’s best milers.
At the time it was announced that the U.S. would be boycotting the 1980 Olympics, I was training with Marty Liquori down in Florida. He was going to go down to Kingstown, Jamaica, for the Norman Manley Games in Kingston, Jamaica, and the race promoter was John Carlos, who had won the bronze medal the 200 at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But Marty got hurt that spring when he went skiing in Colorado and he told John Carlos to give me a shot. John had never heard of me, but he reluctantly took me down there to run the 1,500. It was the race of my life. I was leading with about 600 meters to go, but I wound up third in 3:42.06 behind Steve Ovett of Great Britain and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania—both guys that held the world record at one point. That was May 9, 1980, but I never really thought about the date at all until much later because my youngest son was born on May 9, 1990.
How has your experience in training and running influenced how you build a brand and its team?
The dedication and determination needed to train hard in running remains a part of every day for me. As I look to build the Merrell brand these two key traits come into play and I look to my team to do the same–push themselves, think strategically about the brand and how we build it together, and be dedicated to the work it will take to connect consumers to our Merrell family.
When I was in the running business, I would tell my team that there are runners, there are people who run, and there are people who like the idea of running. If we don’t speak to the core runner, we don’t build credibility with anyone else. The same is true at Merrell. There are outdoor athletes, and there are people who enjoy the idea of the outdoors. We need to attract the core in a way that will empower more people to appreciate experiences and the physical and emotional rewards of an outside active life.