The Brooks Running C.E.O. on Beating Cancer, and Leading With Purpose

Jim Weber, the longtime chief executive of Brooks Running, was for many years a devoted runner. The hours spent racking up the miles were more than exercise for him. They were a chance to meditate on life, to devise strategy about business, and to ruminate on the thorny problems that come with operating a company with more than $1 billion in annual sales.

Then, a few years ago, Mr. Weber got cancer. He had to step away from running the business, endured difficult rounds of treatment and emerged cancer-free — but missing a lung.

Though Mr. Weber can no longer run, he is still active, walking laps around Brooks’s new headquarters in Seattle. The company, which is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, is profitable and growing quickly.

And Mr. Weber, who has been C.E.O. for more than two decades — steering it from near bankruptcy, through private equity ownership, out from being a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, and into being a stand-alone part of Berkshire Hathaway — is still enjoying what he calls his “dream job,” with no plans to retire.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me about growing up in Minnesota.

I was one of six kids within eight years of each other in a working class suburb of St. Paul, and it was a very chaotic and busy house. My dad was an alcoholic and he was never happy, and almost a bully at times. He had so much negative energy that I just ended up avoiding him. So I was pretty independent, and I decided I wanted to be a glass-half-full kind of person. I wanted to sort of break out and be happy and pursue being good at something and not being bitter. So I poured myself into hockey, but my Plan B was to run a company.

One of the things I’ve gotten perspective on, though it’s really kind of tricky, is that I was born a white male in the Midwest. Everybody is dealt so many cards when they are born, and I was born with a good hand. That’s a broader lens now that I have in life.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My first job was a commercial banking officer at Norwest Bank in Minneapolis, and I learned how to financially analyze a business, from a profit and loss balance sheet to cash flow. I became a really good financial analyst in that first banking job, but I knew I wanted to be on the other side of the table at some point and run a company.

There were layoffs at some Berkshire Hathaway companies during the pandemic. How did you manage to avoid having them at Brooks?

When you don’t know what’s going to happen, the conventional wisdom of all the C.E.O. peers I talk to and most private equity people I know, and most bankers, is to hunker down, batten down the hatches, and throw stuff overboard you don’t need. Shed costs, because it’s about first and foremost survival, and not only survival, but protecting profits.

But we didn’t have a brand that we were protecting. We were creating a brand, we were adding new customers. We’re in an entrepreneurial mode, have been now for 20 years. So in April 2020, when everybody’s laying off people, my own board was saying, Jim, you know, you’re probably going to have to lay off people.

But we had a thought that in stressful times, running is convenient. It’s cheap. People might go running. So we paused, and as soon as we saw runners running and digital demand picking up, we turned back on our supply chain, and I think we probably did it at least eight weeks before anybody else did. It’s hard to describe how meaningful that was. We kept our marketing spending going. We didn’t lay off one person, and we grew 31 percent last year. And this year, without our supply chain issues, we’d be up over 30 percent.

When did you realize Brooks had the potential to compete with big companies like Nike in the running market?

When the Great Recession hit in 2008 and 2009 and the world was ending, economically speaking, it just crushed apparel. We did a layoff at that point. But by February of 2009, shoes started selling.

Nike is one of the greatest brands ever built, and it’s about competitive, athletic achievement and breaking the tape on the podium. It’s just so powerful. But we saw running as the most unique sport in all the world, and we had this “Run Happy” ethos, which was unique.

Running is maybe the original sport from a competitive standpoint, with cross country, track and field, the Olympics, road racing, trail running and ultramarathons. But it transcends sport, because it’s an investment in yourself. One hundred and fifty million people have running as part of their fitness, health and wellness, meditation regimen. It’s a tool to invest in themselves. So we positioned our brand right in the middle of the running lifestyle. We’re doing something no one else has ever done, and creating this unique brand that’s only about running. And it’s the biggest category of sporting goods.

It’s rare to be a C.E.O. for 20 years. Why haven’t you left to take other jobs?

All the heroes I had in business had built incredible brands and fantastically dominant businesses. So once I got on to Brooks and I saw that it could be a great business, and that you could attract a customer for life and sell them three pairs of shoes a year, I saw it, that flywheel in the business.

I almost left a couple of times. But I love building things. And here’s the other thing about Berkshire: This is the closest thing to owning this business. I’m the chief culture officer, I’m the chief strategy officer, I’m the chief risk officer. I’m accountable for everything short term, medium term, long term. I have a dream job. So that’s what’s kept me. I knew this was a gem.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about good leadership today?

I think that the whole command and control thing is a relic. It’s about engaging people and creating a North Star, a purpose, so that the team is going to give as much as they get.

So what’s the misconception? The misconception is that you can command and control your way to really creating value in culture. If you want to attract great talent, you’ve got to create purpose and mission and an opportunity for those people.

How do you manage your stress as a chief executive?

Running became absolute therapy for me. Once I quit playing competitive hockey in college, I ran three to five days a week and I’ve done marathons and all that. But mostly I ran by myself and, mostly without music because I processed. If I had a notepad with me, I’d process big decisions and puzzles and problem solve. It truly was meditation for me.

I got cancer a couple of years ago, and I can’t sustain a running heart rate, so I can’t do these six-mile-long runs anymore. It’s killing me, but I’m still active. I can do intervals, I can do walk-runs and the gym. But running has just been absolutely my best processing time throughout my entire life.

Besides affecting your running, how else did cancer affect your professional life?

It was not great. It was a four-year thing and the surgery was brutal. I have one lung now. But I learned what I really value and the way I want to live life. I want to live every day and I want to get the most out of every day. I don’t want to be the cancer survivor and do speeches on that. I want to be a C.E.O., and a dad, and a papa and a runner. That’s who I am. So I just determined I was going to beat this thing, and I’m cancer-free today.

Did you ever think about stepping down when you were sick?

No. And in fact, on Day 3 of my diagnosis, I called Warren and I told him, “I’m going to fight this thing. It might take a while. I might have to leave for six to eight months. And my biggest fear is I get healthy and eight months from now, I have no job and no team and nothing to do.”

He said, “Don’t worry, Jim. Brooks will be there when you get healthy.”

Am I defined by my job? Yeah. I love this job and I love this team and this brand. And so that was a huge fear of mine because I don’t have a retirement plan. I don’t want to do something else. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, and I didn’t want to change that.

Do you think Brooks is basically the company it needs to be right now, or is it still growing and changing?

We just put together a 2030 vision for Brooks to continue this path to be a leader in performance running, focused on runners, and we think that niche 10 years from now is absolutely a $4 billion company. We’re building something in a category that is bigger than outdoor or fitness. Running is bigger than all of that. I don’t know when I’m going to retire, but I’m not going to do another gig.

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