Schooled to lead in the footwear of rebel rock stars

Jim Calhoun, chief executive of Converse, decided to embrace the shoe company’s creative roots
There is no finish line: Jim Calhoun, chief executive of Converse

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Amid the mementos and bric-a-brac of a well-travelled life in Jim Calhoun’s office in North Andover, Massachusetts, is a black and white photograph. The snapshot shows Mr Calhoun’s father playing in a college basketball game against the University of Connecticut and wearing a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers.

The photograph is significant for two reasons: Mr Calhoun Sr would later become the legendary UConn basketball coach and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame; while Mr Calhoun Jr was to become chief executive of Converse, the US apparel company.

Mr Calhoun got the job three-and-a-half years ago when Nike, Converse’s parent company, “called out of the blue and asked me to take on this brand I’ve loved from my earliest memory”, he recalls. “I’ve been on the good side of fortune and divine intervention.”

And lately so has Converse. The 106-year-old company, known for its canvas and rubber shoes worn by anti-establishment icons from Dennis the Menace to James Dean to Kurt Cobain, last year posted revenues of $1.7bn, up 15 per cent from 2012. Every day, more than 200,000 pairs of Chucks, named after Chuck Taylor the American basketball star, are sold around the world.

“We are a simple sneaker company,” says Mr Calhoun, who holds an
Executive MBA from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “We aren’t asking you to work out or get dressed up. When you put
on Converse, we want you to be you. We celebrate your originality and that’s a really powerful sentiment.”

It was not always this way. For decades Converse dominated the athletic footwear industry and was the sneaker of choice for basketball stars such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But in the early 1990s, amid an increasingly competitive sportswear industry, Converse struggled and filed for bankruptcy. Nike bought the company in 2003 and later closed its performance basketball line.

Mr Calhoun made the strategic decision to embrace Converse’s creative roots by focusing on customers such as artists and musicians. After all, the shoes are celebrated in an Andy Warhol mural and have been the preferred footwear of rockers from Elvis Presley to The Ramones, to Justin Bieber.

“We started in sport but we’ve also always had this rebellious creative streak,” says Mr Calhoun. “What I’m most proud of is that we have been able to name the identity of this brand. We are clear on what our role is.”

He grew up outside Boston, the eldest of two boys in an Irish Catholic family. Sport was omnipresent. Mr Calhoun was an avid, if not particularly gifted, athlete. As a child he did not have any well-defined professional plans. “If you’re not going to be a coach, what do you do?” he says, referring to his father’s work.

He graduated from UConn with a degree in psychology and began working at a PR agency in Chicago. The job was fun and fast-paced, but otherwise uninspiring. It was the first time Mr Calhoun considered going to business school. “I thought an MBA might enlighten me. And it seemed like a good thing to put on the resume.”

He had just taken his Graduate Management Admission Test when he was offered a job by Wilson Sporting Goods to run marketing for its soccer and volleyball division. At Wilson he discovered “a love for product and for managing a business around product”.

After five years Mr Calhoun “had a sharper plan” of what he wanted to do with his life. Once again he considered an MBA. “I looked at business school as a platform that could expose me to other industries.”

He was about to begin a programme at UConn when he received a better offer: a job at Nike’s home office in Beaverton, Oregon, managing its college basketball apparel division. “I had this notion that I can always go back to school, but when will I get a chance to work at a company like Nike?”

It was not until he was in his late 30s and an executive vice-president at Disney, in Los Angeles, that he returned to the idea of business school. The third time was a charm. “It was not the same as my two previous flirtations with business school,” he says. “I knew what I wanted. I knew I liked leading people; I liked being in a large organisation; I liked being at a company with a rich culture and working for a brand that had a strong resonance with consumers.”

He also knew his weakness: finance. It was the mid-2000s – the era of accounting scandals and a time when fallen executives at companies such as WorldCom and Enron claimed financial ignorance. “I really wanted to understand all aspects of the balance sheet. If I didn’t, it was always going to be an insecurity.”

He chose Marshall because the commuting was convenient and the “school’s network in California was unbeatable”.

The programme, which took place on campus every other Friday and at weekends, taught him the value of time management. (At that time he had three young children and a job travelling hundreds of thousands of air miles a year.) “It forced me to manage my time and that’s been a good tool going forward.”

True to his word, he focused on finance: in every group assignment, he signed on for the finance role. In every case study, he volunteered to crunch the numbers. “The curriculum is in front of you and what you do with it is up to you. Business school is a safe environment to wear a different hat and confront areas where you want to get better,” he says.

He talks regularly to many of his business school friends – particularly during football season. “We call it the Trojan network. We all have great school spirit.”

After earning his MBA, he moved to San Francisco to work for Levi Strauss as president of Dockers (clothing). In early 2011 Nike called again, offering him the role of chief executive of Hurley, the group’s surf brand. He held that job for a mere seven days before Nike announced a sequence of executive shuffles that placed him in the chief executive seat at Converse.

Today its products are sold in more than 160 countries and through 87 company-owned stores in the US. Mr Calhoun says his priorities include international expansion – especially in the UK, investment in Converse’s digital businesses and developing its line of apparel.

“I consider myself chief editor of the company,” he says. “We have a meaningful brand that has been successful generation after generation; and we are not short of opportunities.”

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