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An Interview with David Helter, GM of ECCO USA

Posted Nov 01 2009 10:01pm
Last week’s review of the ECCO BIOM was a landmark one for me as a gear reviewer – and no, it’s not because the shoe is the most expensive one I’ve ever tested (that honor is still held by MBT ). Rather, it was the first time I've met with a shoe company executive to talk specifically about his product.

Before conducting my field testing on the BIOM, I met personally with David Helter, General Sales Manager for the Performance Division of ECCO USA. Although he’s based in New England, he was making a West Coast business trip, and requested a face-to-face sit-down to talk about running, blogging (believe it or not, he gets around to a lot of websites), and of course, the ECCO BIOM.

It’s very possible that he just needed a rest stop on his drive from San Francisco to LA, and I happened to live in a town that’s close to the freeway. Regardless, it was an opportunity I wasn’t going to dare passing up. In fact, I wrote a new policy into the Running and Rambling bylaws: anytime the General Manager of a global company who makes one of the most talked-about products of the year asks me for a meeting, I say yes.

And then I write about it. This interview exchange was born out of that initial meeting and subsequent e-mails, and is a companion piece of sorts to my BIOM review. There’s a lot of stuff here, such as discussion of ECCO’s price point, the company’s pride in ownership throughout the manufacturing process, and how most of us have already used ECCO products without realizing it. We also touch upon running as therapy, Christopher McDougall and Born to Run, as well as the ever-deepening mystery of all those capital letters that ECCO uses.

In other words, there’s something for everybody. If nothing else, it makes for an interesting glimpse into the life of a major shoe industry executive.

Running and Rambling (R&R): David, give me a quick professional bio: How many years have you been with ECCO? How did you come to work for them in the first place? How did you end up overseeing the athletic shoe side of the store?

David Helter (DH): I have been with ECCO for 5 years, which is a relatively short time in 2 regards. 1) Many of my ECCO colleagues have been with the company 10 years or more (for a company in the US less than 20 years). This type of loyalty and longevity is rare in today’s business world. 2) I have been in the footwear business for almost 35 years. I spent most of my career with other premium brands; Bass, Stride Rite, Reebok and Nine West. I started with ECCO in 2005 as General Manager of the ECCO Kid’s Division. In late 2006, I assumed a dual responsibility for the ECCO Performance as General Manager. My 7 year experience with Reebok, 1987 – 1993, certainly helped ground me in the athletic business.

R&R: Tell me a bit about your exercise background: What activities you enjoy, how long you’ve been a runner, how often you run or what kind of weekly mileage you do, types of races (if any) you enjoy, favorite places to run, etc.

DH: I have always considered myself an athlete although I was not born with any extraordinary athletic skills or talent. But, I prided myself on how hard I worked to achieve the limited athletic success I had. I played football and wrestled in high school and wrestled in college. In those sports running is “punishment.” When you do something wrong, you run laps as punishment! When I graduated from college, I began to run for pleasure. I have been running on and off ever since. I am currently running 15-25 miles per week as my schedule and travel permits. I have recently been running in a few local (NH and MA) 5k races. I am only running an 8:45 pace but am working on getting that down a bit.

As with most runners, I run for enjoyment. I love running anywhere outside and am lucky enough to run all over the country. Although running is a bit of loner sport, it is always fun when I am at a place like Portland, OR or Cambridge, MA where there is a series of river trails and a lot of other runners and cyclists on those trails. Running is also great “therapy.” It is easy to work out problems, block out problems or just meditate when running. I also enjoy golf and some occasional beach volleyball.

R&R: On to the company questions … and let’s start with an odd one: What’s with all the capital letters? Both the names ECCO and BIOM are written in caps every time I see them in brochures or on the company website. What gives? I know BIOM is a shortened form of “biomechanics”, but I can’t figure out why the convention in needed.

DH: I don’t know how the letters got capitalized. The ECCO logo is actually done in small letters, ecco. BIOM in most of our printed materials in also done in small letters. Maybe we, the Sports Team, started to capitalize them to scream about our message. I am meeting with our Global Performance Marketing Manager, Wibke Rolf, today and will have to ask her how and why this happened.

R&R: For many runners (myself included), the tipping point for barefoot running and midfoot running form was Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, but I know that the research and design process behind BIOM has been going on for nearly three years. What initially inspired ECCO to think “outside the box”, as it were, and explore the potential of a natural running shoe?

DH: The co-CEO of ECCO, Dieter Kasprzak, was actually inspired by the barefoot runners of Africa. ECCO was making some “me too” running products but not making any in-roads into the premiere running channel. Dieter decided to use his inspiration with barefoot running and leverage 3 distinct pillars to embark on the BIOM project; 1) ECCO expertise in footwear making. 2) Dr. Peter Brueggmann’s and the University of Cologne’s expertise in biomechanics and 3) Torbjorn Sindballe’s professional athletic base as a world class triathlete and human laboratory. BIOM was about 3 years in development.

When we started to present BIOM to the running specialty stores in the US 1 ½ years ago, many of the retailers looked at us like we were crazy. After all, we were speaking of footwear inspired by the human foot and/or barefoot running. It was being made by a company NO ONE considered a “running company.” ECCO was battling the running industry giants like Asics and Nike. It was the most expensive running shoe in the world in a tough economy. And, last but not least, it was flying in the face of the current industry paradigms of extreme cushioning, motion control and stability.

1 ½ years later, with the rising popularity of McDougall’s book, the heightened interest in barefoot running, much talk about Chi & Pose running methods and the introduction of new concepts like Nike Free, Vibram Five Fingers, Newton Gravity and BIOM, there is a definite industry trend towards the “less is more” philosophy. I predict in 1-2 years every major running brand will be debuting styles in the natural motion category. This is great as it will give BIOM and ECCO credibility in the running community!

R&R: Related question: Have you read McDougall’s book? Any thoughts about his vocal advocacy for barefoot running, or criticisms of the traditional shoe industry?

DH: No, I haven’t read Born to Run. But, I just purchased a copy and it is the next book on my tall stack of ‘to reads.” I’ll talk to you the next time we meet about the book. McDougall and all barefoot runners are definitely viewed as extremist and in some cases “nutty people.” But, as it is clear that the trend away from the current running paradigms of motion control, stability and extreme cushioning are NOT a fad, the point of view towards him and other barefoot runners will begin to soften.

R&R: You’ve been very clear that ECCO is not seeking to convert barefoot runners to the BIOM. I’m also aware that BIOM can be worn by runners who heel strike, because of the PU pad in the heel. Is there any specific style of runner that you feel would benefit the most from using the BIOM? If you’re targeting those runners transitioning from traditional shoes to barefoot, does your long-term success hinge on whether or not those folks ever succeed in becoming barefoot runners (thus eliminating their need for more shoes)?

DH: BIOM was developed for runners of all strike styles, who don’t experience severe pronation. It can serve as a transition shoe for runners who want to move towards less motion control, stability and cushioning. It can serve as a minimalist shoe for barefoot runners running in severe temperatures or surface conditions. For heel strikers, the lower profile and rounded heel construction will help to move heel contact more towards the center of the heel. It will also help transition the runner from heel through midstance to toe-off quicker. For the midfoot and forefoot strikers, the broader forefoot platform and the great flexibility & torsion will allow for more natural motion.

Our long term success with BIOM will hinge mostly on placement of the concept in the right number of premiere running specialty stores across the US. Natural motion is one segment of running footwear. There will probably always be runners in some form of cushioning, motion control and stability footwear. Although most runners could probably condition their feet to run barefoot, I am not sure most runners have the discipline or desire to do so.

R&R: Pro triathlete Torbjorn Sindballe was instrumental in providing performance feedback for development of the BIOM. Since his recent retirement, is he still involved in the R&D process? Is the company recruiting other professionals for product development, or for a “Team ECCO” at high-profile events? Similarly, are there any plans for event sponsorship at road races or triathlons in the U.S.?

DH: Torbjorn was definitely instrumental in developing and testing BIOM. He has become a good friend and I view his retirement as sad and unfortunate. We will continue to partner with him in several ways but his role in testing product will obviously become much more limited. Yes, ECCO is looking to recruit other professionals but I don’t have much progress to report to you on this front.

We have had great success in launching BIOM and telling the story the grass roots level in the US and abroad. We will be at several trade show events like The Running Event in Austin, TX in November and the Tri Expo in San Diego in January. In addition, we will be doing a variety of race expos across the country including major events like the Chicago, NYC & Boston Marathons in addition to some of the Rock N’ Roll series. We are also looking at the triathlon event market closely as BIOM has struck a chord in this exciting and growing market. Sponsorships are very expensive and given our limited market funds we might leave this avenue to the industry giants.

R&R: You’ve mentioned that a trail model of the BIOM is in the works. Do you have a target launch date yet? Can you reveal any structural differences between the trail model and the current BIOM?

DH: BIOM Trail should be ready to launch the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011. We have already begun to test the trail model. We think the current attributes of the BIOM concept (extreme flexibility/torsion, low profile and anatomical last/shank) will be as efficient in promoting a natural gait on the trail as they are on the road. We have developed a different outsole with more traction and grip. In addition to their function, I think the silhouettes, materials and colors are very cool!

R&R: ECCO is the only major shoe manufacturer to own and manage the entire manufacturing process. Describe how that so-called “cow to consumer” ownership enhances your quality assurance, production efficiency, and/or corporate responsibility.

DH: WOW, this is a BIG question! ECCO is the only company in the athletic industry which manages this type of vertical control of their destination.

We actually used to raise our own cattle for hides. Based on our growth and size, we now buy rawhides from many premiere sources. ECCO is the world’s 5th largest premium tannery. Our leather division, KT Trading Company, sells leathers to Wilson for baseball gloves. We have contracts with Coach and Louis Vitton for premium leather goods. We sell leather to car and aircraft companies for leather interiors. And most important, we sell leathers to many other shoes companies and make ALL our own leathers. Even though ECCO is not the family name, we are a family owned business and ECCO is treated like the family name.

We have won awards and accolades for the cleanness of our tanning process. We have factories in several countries including Denmark, Portugal, Slovakia, Indonesia, Thailand and China. We produce 80% of our own footwear. We only make one kind of construction in our own factories; Direct Injection Process. We control all processes of our factory construction including pattern making, last making, mold making and footwear assembly. So we humbly consider ourselves shoemaking experts in all processes of shoemaking. When it is your company with the “family name” on the product, which the company is entirely responsible for producing you take pride in every step of the process. Using a simple analogy, it is the difference between owning a home and renting a home.

R&R: Let’s talk about the cost issue: No matter how many great things we have to say about the BIOM (and there certainly a lot), a large segment of the population will remain hung up on the price point. Aside from the unique selling points that were covered in the review, what would you say to recreational runners who believe the BIOM is just too cost prohibitive to try? Are you OK with ECCO being seen as a premium product – something like a BMW compared to a Volkswagen – for a narrower segment of the running community? Do you have any ballpark market share in mind to consider the BIOM a success?

DH: Let’s start by saying that the timing was difficult for ECCO to launch the most expensive running shoe in the world, as it would have been to launch the best watch, car or suit. With that said, ECCO has been and always will be a premium brand.

As per the above statement about our company & control of the entire process, we are more interested in being considered the best vs. the biggest. There will always be a segment of the market looking for and rewarding innovation, “the latest and greatest.” There are plenty of less expensive MP3 players than the iPod but the consumer is still driven to Apple as the leader. So, yes, we are OK, even honored if we are seen as premium like BMW to VW. We can always look to broaden market share in additional development in the running market.

And don’t forget, ECCO makes men’s & women’s comfort/casual/dress shoes, children’s shoes and golf shoes. Not many other single brands span this kind of diverse categorization in footwear. We don’t have a ball park market share but for the US, I hope to be in 125-150 stores maximum for distribution of the BIOM concept.

R&R: I know you place great importance on supporting local running stores and helping to maintain their expertise about your product specifically, and overall running biomechanics and shoe industry knowledge in general. However, since the BIOM is sold through a limited number of retailers, many of your potential shoppers will be inclined to buy directly from the BIOM website or other online retailers. If someone is considering the BIOM, what is your recommendation for the preferred route of purchase?

DH: We are going to continue to sell BIOM and tell the BIOM story through the premiere running specialty retail channel. As detailed above, we feel we need 150 premiere partners across the US to meet demand.

We recently placed BIOM on our own website. We did this because we found the tremendous amount of PR and marketing we were receiving on BIOM was generating a lot of consumer interest. We were receiving emails and calls weekly from frustrated consumers who could not find the product in their respective market. Where possible, we try to steer these consumers to the closest BIOM partner. Ultimately, rather than frustrating the customer or losing a sale, we decided to service the consumer as best as we can on our website.

The results have been humbling. In reviewing the sales, we are selling a lot of the yak leather, which only represented 20% of our placement but have been almost 50% of the sales to the consumer. In addition, it is interesting to look at the origin of the sales. 99% of the sales are coming from markets where we have no partners. We are using this selling information to recruit partners in these areas and to guide our current partners in terms of what product to assort and inventory. When we reach critical mass for retail representation, BIOM might best be serviced only through the traditional brick and mortar retail channel where the story can be told and the product experienced. We would prefer everyone have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a running specialist to experience and buy BIOM.

R&R: Look into your crystal ball: Where do you see the BIOM in 5 or 10 years? Will it be a “classic” model, or is it the kind of thing that will continually be tinkered with and/or revamped over the years? Do you anticipate the interest in barefoot running and natural running to keep growing, or are we at an apex of sorts? If the barefoot running movement goes away, does the BIOM disappear with it? (And while you’re there in the future … will I still be running? Are people still reading my blog?)

DH: ECCO is constantly striving to improve. We are already evolving the BIOM concept and will be launching the next generation, BIOM 2.1 and 2.2, of BIOM in Spring 2010. Let me tell you these are tweaks and truly represent evolution and not revolution. The revolution started with the original BIOM concept! Yes, hopefully BIOM will become classic but can continue to be updated.

Barefoot running and natural motion is not at its apex. This “organic” style is just beginning. To quote Neil Young….”rock and roll (and BIOM) must never die.” Regarding my look into the crystal ball on your running and blog future … sorry my crystal ball just got a little cloudy!

R&R: Well, it didn’t hurt to ask. Thanks very much for your participation with this interview. I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.

DH: My pleasure. Happy running!
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