For Adidas, big cities are key in shaping “global trends and consumers’ perception, perspectives and buying decisions”.
Yet on the cusp of its 70th anniversary this month, the world’s second-largest sportswear group has opened a new €350m headquarters in Herzogenaurach — a bland Franconian town, 22km north-west of Nuremberg in Bavaria, with just 25,000 inhabitants and no railway access.
It seems an unlikely location for a brand seeking to identify the next big thing. But roughly 70 per cent of all product innovations originate at its headquarters, with “hubs” in Amsterdam, Shanghai and Portland, Oregon, accounting for the rest.
Karen Parkin, head of global human resources at Adidas, admits without hesitation that, were consultants searching for the ideal base for a multibillion-euro sports and fashion brand, “of all the locations in the world, I doubt whether a pin would fall in Herzogenaurach”.
Indeed, when US citizen Scott Zalaznik was approached for the job as head of digital in 2017, “I had to do a Google search to find out where this place actually is,” he recalled.
Adidas may be global and its production outsourced to Asia, but for the company Herzogenaurach remains “very important to our culture and to our identity. Product creation, the brand-thinking, the guidelines starts here,” said Ms Parkin.
Founder Adolf “Adi” Dassler, scion of a cobbler’s family who made the shoes Jesse Owens wore in the 1936 Olympics, lived in Herzogenaurach. He launched Adidas in August 1949 after falling out with his older brother Rudolf. The same year, his sibling founded rival sportswear maker Puma, which is still based next door though is five times smaller.
“We’re a global brand on a global stage, but we are also very proud of our DNA,” said Ms Parkin.
Herzogenaurach is where Dassler invented the first football boots with interchangeable studs that the German team wore when they won the 1954 World Cup; where “Adilette” pool slides — a favourite of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — were designed; and where the ball for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia was created.
A life-sized bronze statue of Dassler, seated on a bench and holding the 1954 boots, stands outside the main entrance of the company’s Arena building in Herzogenaurach. Over the past decade, global revenues at Adidas have more than doubled to €22bn while net profit has increased sevenfold. This year alone, shares are up almost 40 per cent, lifting the group’s stock market value to €50bn.
“The stock has been a star performer [year-to-date],” Adam Cochrane, a Citigroup analyst, wrote in a note this month. On average, analysts expect annual sales growth of more than 7 per cent a year by 2021, and increases in operating profit at twice that rate.
Adidas’s decision to maintain its rural headquarters is not unusual in Germany, but J. Vernon Henderson, professor for economic geography at the London School of Economics, points out that “in a major city you have the diversity of ideas for innovation”, while “how to attract talent” can be a key issue for companies in remote locations.
Lacking the proximity of a global urban centre, Adidas is trying to develop its own centre of gravity.
The Arena accommodates 2,000 staff, and is the latest addition to Adidas’s “World of Sports” campus since 1999, a development costing €1bn to date. Built on a former US military base over an area equivalent to almost 100 football pitches, one in ten of the company’s 57,000 global employees work here.
The campus is populated by English-speaking hipsters with an average age of 38, who look to be as sporty as they are happy. Walking through the spacious cafés and sunny outdoor meeting areas, alongside football pitches and tennis courts, everyone appears to be young and good-looking, discussing the latest track suit and trainer designs — or maybe an upcoming party or the next mountain hike — over a latte and a vegan banana bread.
Raphael Curet is a senior Adidas footwear designer, working on boots for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar. He describes his job as having “to get the latest inspirations from the kids on the streets”, creating “a link between the game, their life and what is happening in society, in the world”.
In football, close co-operation with professional teams that Adidas sponsors helps to achieve that. “We are sponsoring Manchester United, and we meet the pro athletes as well as the young players,” said Mr Curet.
In key metropolises such as London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, Adidas has designated “city teams” which liaise with local influencers, organise sales events and cultivate communities like “Adidas runners”, where customers meet to workout together.
Mr Curet, 33, gave up a job in Paris with French retailer Decathlon in 2015. Since his move to Herzogenaurach, where he worked as an intern a decade ago, he has designed the latest football boots for Lionel Messi. “This is one of my dream jobs,” he said.
The trendy, easy-going and international atmosphere at Herzogenaurach is carefully cultivated. A video promoting jobs at the campus features people from Scotland, France, Poland and China — but no Germans — in an effort to tout the headquarter’s global credentials.
Roughly 100 nationalities are represented. Chief executive Kasper Rorsted is Danish, and among the five other board executives, just two hold a German passport.
“We have a mix of cultures here. I am working with a Spaniard, an American, a Swede, with people from everywhere around the world,” said Mr Curet, adding that he did not work in a similarly diverse environment in France. His girlfriend — a Brazilian from São Paulo — also works for Adidas.
He is adamant that he does not miss Paris: “I can go there every weekend if I want.”
It does not appeal to everyone, however. Some candidates visit the town and campus and conclude “this isn’t for me”, conceded Ms Parkin. “This can happen, but then you are not going to be right for our company.”
Yet for now, Adidas can cope. Globally, it receives 1m job applications a year.
Get alerts on Adidas AG when a new story is published