Moving ahead: New Balance’s Joe Preston on the COVID-19 marathon

Author of the article: NEW YORK — What do you do when the world stops moving? That is the challenge New Balance President and CEO Joe Preston experienced, not long after he ascended to the shoe giant’s corner office. Preston spoke with Reuters about the grueling marathon of the COVID-19 era. Q: You had not…
Moving ahead: New Balance’s Joe Preston on the COVID-19 marathon

Author of the article:

NEW YORK — What do you do when the world stops moving?

That is the challenge New Balance President and CEO Joe Preston experienced, not long after he ascended to the shoe giant’s corner office.

Preston spoke with Reuters about the grueling marathon of the COVID-19 era.

Q: You had not been CEO for long when COVID-19 hit. What has that experience been like?

A: It has been a trial-by-fire for everyone, whether you were in that role for 10 years or not. I came into the role in October 2018, so I’m glad I at least had a year-plus under my belt prior to COVID.

Q: One of your responses was to create employee ‘pods’ to work together?

A: What we tried to do was to take an agile approach. So we created these pods, with a tight number of team members who had 90-day objectives.

They had authority and accountability to come up with their own action plans and sets of initiatives. When you get a smaller group of individuals working on a project, they can move faster.

Q: Why the 90-day timeframe?

A: When you think of how disrupted the world was, it was imperative to be action-oriented. We couldn’t have teams just developing white papers. We needed action plans out of them as quickly as possible.

We settled on 90-day ‘sprints,’ although some were 60 or even 30 days. It was imperative to get things done.

Q: Did all of your existing tech plans get accelerated?

A: We had a number of different capital investment and organizational plans underway already, and when COVID hit, it threw everything ahead 3-to-5 years. Now digital commerce represents more than 50% of our business.

Q: Everyone is talking about global supply chain issues. Has it been helpful to have factories here in the U.S.?

A: We’re the only athletic footwear brand to have factories here in the U.S., and in the U.K. as well.

Supply disruptions have been well-noted, with shutdowns in southern Vietnam affecting the entire industry. The fact that we have our own factories has always been a core part of who we are and has definitely helped.

But it’s still not easy even if you have your own factories, because just-in-time manufacturing means everything still has to show up.

Q: How do you compete with the bigger boys in the industry like Nike?

A: We don’t try to copy Nike. We are very comfortable being independent and running our own offense. We’ve been around since 1906. Being a private company allows us to take the longer view on some decisions that other companies don’t.

Q: It has been a rough era for retail, in general, so how do you see that playing out?

A: I see retail bouncing back. Many retailers have made good progress on their digital capabilities since COVID hit, and I think that bodes well going forward. They’re not just relying on brick-and-mortar stores anymore.

In the intermediate run retail is getting healthier, and over the longer term companies are continuing to evolve.

Q: Do you think exercise can play a role in mental health?

A: Exercise is a core component of wellness, and being in this space has afforded me the opportunity to understand the benefits running can have.

It’s not the only thing – sleep and nutrition are other factors. But if you have those three things, that does a great deal to ward off the blues.

Q: What management lessons have you taken away from this pandemic era?

A: One of the mantras we came up with was, ‘Control our destiny.’ Try to control what you can control, because so much out there is outside of that.

From a leadership standpoint, I learned that the power of listening is just so important. You can’t learn without it, and you can’t lead without it.

Q: If the COVID era is a marathon, what mile do you think we are in?

A: A marathon is 26.2 miles – it’s a long, long run. Just when you think we are turning a corner on COVID, we continue to get thrown another curve ball.

I can’t speculate on how long this will be with us, but I do think it has changed the way we work as a country. There are some silver linings that can be taken away, like all the enhancements in communication and all the tools people are now using. But I don’t think this run is over yet. (Editing by Lauren Young and Diane Craft)

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