I first met Mike at a trade show with my good friend Colin Brickley from Asics. Mike was also with Asics at the time and had played a huge role in the growth of a presence in street culture that was typically dominated by Nike. Those who have read the Shoe Dog book know that Nike actually grew from being the distributor for Tiger shoes which was Asics.
This trade show really demonstrated to me the level of authenticity Asics had built with the worlds most influential retail partners such as Kith in an incredibly competitive space. The Asics booth was very understated and said everything it needed to say without shouting from the rafters. I really liked what Mike and Colin were doing but more importantly; what they stood for.
Mike has a very interesting history as he has worked with a lot of brands that I have always respected including DC Shoes – which for me back in the day stood out for their design and technical aesthetic–way before simplicity was a thing.
I have watched what Mike has been doing as an outsider looking in and took an even further interest in his journey when he recently became the President of Reef. It's a brand with serious heritage.
I stood outside the Reef booth back in the early 90's at Surf Expo when we were exhibiting there with my Rip N Hammer brand in awe of their graphics and overall brand presentation.
They also have two of the best surfers in the world as part of their team with both Rob Machado and Nick Fanning. Guys that are true advocates for living a life of freedom with music and surf.
Hope you enjoy this one, I am a big fan of everything Mike stands for both personally and professionally.
Thanks for reading
Ralph | fr.
INSTAGRAM: Reef Canada
One of the key pillars to success that took me years to truly understand is what I call the Sum of All Parts. This means the combination of quality product, people, purpose and also realizing without profitability the first three will get lost. Watching what you have done with Asics, DC Shoes and Reef over the last 6 years since I first met you seems to be driven by that understanding of what the Sum of All Parts truly means. Can you take us through your thought process in balancing these pillars and also if you don't mind...how did you learn the importance of these pillars?
I think what’s most important is that each of the pillars is vital to the outcome. The reality is however, is that great PEOPLE really make it happen. If you take away the brands, logo, products, etc…it’s really the people that make for a great culture in any organization. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some truly great people and I’m truly grateful. People who are led, guided, and driven by a sense of purpose…coupled with a dose of teamwork and servant oriented leadership can really do great things.
As it relates to serving and inspiring consumers, there really is no substitute for exceptionally well crafted products. I try to never underestimate consumers appreciation for craftsmanship and long lasting, well-built products.
The combination of purpose driven people, who create great products…products with real soul & a great story behind them is so special. It’s really what keeps me so connected, engaged, and inspired by the industry.
As a leader, if you can crack the code for the above 3 P’s…it’s typically possible to drive profitable outcomes. In my roles over the years, I’ve obviously spent time and energy optimizing P&L sheets, but what I know to be absolutely true is that without great people and products there won’t be enough profitability to make the work worthwhile anyway.
As for how I learned these pillars, I’d say I’m still learning. But, the reality is there are so many lessons over the years. It’s not just one thing…you know? One of the beautiful things about this industry, though, is that there’s still an element of art, instinct, feel, intuition…even in the sea of data in which we live. The sum of all the lessons learned over the years, in varied roles, with different brands, gives me the confidence that I know the ingredients required to build a great brand and a great team…and thank goodness it seems to be working out, humbly speaking.
Your background is so diverse with Asics, Pony, DC Shoes, Reef and also with Spy Optics. What drew you to the industry in the first place?
I’ve been so lucky to work for such authentic brands over the years. Lucky to work in relatively diverse industries with unique and varied business models. I’ve also been unbelievably fortunate to work with, for, and around incredible people. What a blessing. I’ve also been quite intentional in the way I’ve managed my career, putting value on 1. Brand; 2. The team I was going to work with, or create; 3. The deal and/or opportunity at hand.
What drew me to the industry was something that’s so simple. I grew up playing basketball and it’s still a big part of my life today. I remember getting my first pair of Jordan 1’s @ Foot Locker in 1985…to play for my 7th grade basketball team (dating myself, I know). I’ll never forget the feeling…ever. I’ve also had a love for fashion that’s never gone away either.
I got my start in the industry through a friend & I worked for Converse. More than anything, I jumped at the chance to work in an industry that seemed really cool…for a brand that was really interesting and authentic (and just starting on the comeback trail from bankruptcy at the time). What an absolute blessing it’s been and I couldn’t be more appreciative to be part of this special world…
"People who are led, guided, and driven by a sense of purpose…coupled with a dose of teamwork and servant oriented leadership can really do great things. "
Authenticity is probably the most overused word in branding now and as we both know...that tag is earned. You have worked with brands that have through various phases, been incredibly authentic. In your opinion, what is the key to a brand maintaining a path of authenticity and how would you articulate what authenticity means to you?
Yes, it’s such an overused term and it’s also quite subjective. I guess it’s kind of a ‘you know it when you see it’ kind of thing. But, I do feel like there’s an element of science involved. As a brand builder, having a very, very solid grasp of the brand history is so important. I want to know how the brand feels, what’s the persona, how does it smell? What have been the most successful ingredients over the years? The delicate part of the balance is: how do you stay true to the brand’s history/past/core tenets, while also pushing into new areas?
To the point about ‘science’, I’ve been in places where we very intentionally assessed the 3-4 features in both brand and product that we would just make sure were included in every product. We worked hard to clearly identify the most distinctive elements of the brands ethos and made sure to represent them in every product we created and every story we told. We were very intentional, in some ways because the stewards of the brand who came before us had very little discipline and really steered the brand to a questionable place. Employing a tactic of using a very intentional approach to creating helped us gain back some of the lost authenticity.
In the early 90's, I had the chance to go to Surf Expo for the first time as Volcom were just getting going with a small 10 by 20 booth that was pretty much just two white tents put together. It was amazing over the next 10 years watching that brand grow with an aesthetic that was very different than all the existing brands. At that same show, I stood outside a very busy Reef booth and it was incredible to see the energy surrounding the Reef booth. Since that time, the beach footwear space has become incredibly competitive with a number of the brands all doing great things. Through that length of time and with all that competition, what do you feel has kept Reef so relevant and more importantly it seems more authentic than ever.
Well, the founders were very good at creating disruption. I don’t think the brand ever shied away from a disruptive, entrepreneurial approach. Certainly, big company ownership for about a decade sucked a bit of the irreverence out of the brand, but in REEF’s core spirit there has always existed a ‘tongue in cheek’ approach to life. We’re really focused on bringing that attitude and spirit back to the people, culture, and brand.
One of the things that’s so evident with REEF, though, is our distinctiveness. Our iconic franchises (such as the Fanning) have incredibly distinctive features and elements. We’re just now unlocking the full potential of some of our most iconic design language & it’s so exciting.
The REEF brand has always always always been about telling great stories. Santiago & Fernando Aguerre, who started the brand in 1984, are two of the greatest (literally, the greatest) story-tellers in the world. That spirit lives within our 4 walls & we take the concept of telling great stories more seriously than ever. Especially today. Frankly, that’s one of the things that drew me to the brand. We have such an embarrassment of riches from a historical standpoint, it allows me (and our team) to tell really exceptional stories. Obviously, we know how critically important that is to consumers.
DC Shoes for me in the early 90's was pretty much all I wore - I felt like their aesthetic was clean and understated well before simplicity became such a trend in design as it is now. They also had great photography and their branding was incredibly timeless. What was it like being a part of that when you became Global GM and Head of Brand in 2016 after so much history and what was your main focus with that brand in a culture like skateboarding where brand is just as important as quality, durability and performance.
DC is one of my favorite brands ever. Ever. As you may know, I worked there twice. I was there earlier in my career, when the brand was really in it’s heyday…going back to help revive the brand was such a fun decision to make.
I went back to DC tasked with creating and implementing a new brand strategy. Frankly, the brand had really lost its way over the years.
Luckily I had some great resources on the strategic brand side of things with an outside brand strategy agency (science) and I also was able to bring Damon Way back into the business as well (art). The beautiful blend of art and science really helped us put a plan together that helped ignite a cool resurgence in the brand. We really worked hard to recapture the most distinctive elements of the brand & begin the process of a brand turnaround. We were able to partner with some truly incredible partners along the way that helped re-authenticate the brand as a skate and streetwear authority. The whole company responded so well to the changes. It’s like they were just waiting for an authentic north star to get behind. My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to see it all the way through, as I jumped at the opportunity to lead the REEF brand in an even broader scope and role. However, several members of the DC leadership team were part of my roster build and I continue to cheer for them from afar.
Footwear is a huge topic now in the environmental conversations around landfills and materials being used - where do you feel the industry needs to focus its efforts over the next 5- 10 years to balance both profitability and being environmentally responsible?
Well, we’re fundamentally very, very sustainably purpose driven at REEF. Protecting nature’s playground of beaches, oceans, and surf is critical to our future. We take it very seriously, it’s fundamental to our brand. What most of our consumer research indicates, though, is that consumers really care a lot about the causes that a brand supports, more so than the actual sustainable elements of the products a brand makes. Honestly, if the product doesn’t look good and/or feel good…it’s likely not going to be purchased…regardless of whether or not it’s ‘sustainable’.
With that said, we have a corporate responsibility(I believe) to responsibly create. For instance, I’ll happily pay a bit more for sustainable materials so long as I’m not compromising quality. At REEF today, we focus on 3 areas: 1. Corporate behavior; 2. Causes & purposes we support; 3. Product sustainability.
Who are the companies you feel are doing it right out there regardless of industry?
Well, first off I’ve got to say…the stuff you’re doing with FR. is really cool. You’re just not compromising on the details and it’s so cool to see.
Other brands I’m into are Nanamica, Stone Island (we’ll see what happens with their recent purchase), and Denham made in Japan denim. I also stay pretty in tune with what Kith is doing…Ronnie’s willingness to push limits on brand partnerships and story-telling is really impressive.
In sandals, I like the Suicoke stuff that’s out there right now…it’s so cool.
"The beautiful blend of art and science really helped us put a plan together that helped ignite a cool resurgence in the brand."
Two of my favourite athletes period are Mick Fanning and Rob Machado - how involved are they with the product process at Reef?
Rob and Mick are inextricably linked to the REEF look and feel. We literally feel their vibe and energy when we create. While they don’t play too much of a role in our product efforts, we are pretty consistently popping ideas back and forth with them…I’d say it’s more of a fluid process than a structure one when we bounce creative ideas off either of them.
If you weren't in the sports industry, what other areas of business would you be interested in exploring?
I’d probably be involved in something science oriented. My background and education is in biology and I spend a lot of time reading National Geographic. Animal behavior and evolution are topics I’m eternally interested in…
Top 10 albums of all time?
I’ll go top 3:
Tribe: Midnight Marauders
Kanye: The College Dropout
Side note: I spend most of my time listening to the Frozen Soundtrack and various Taylor Swift songs now, thanks to my daughters…
Top 5 movies of all time?
(not really a huge cinephile)
Caddyshack, Apocalypse Now, Bond (any option with Connery, Moore, Craig) . Gladiator , Bourne x 3
What is your go to Reef product?
I’m wearing something new called the Paipo (releases in June). Handcrafted with incredible milled wood pieces, glove quality leather, and an amazing hand wrapped toe post. Inspired by the Eames Chair…I’ll send you a pair soon!