November 28, 2023

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The Sports Fanatics

Nike Alums Leading Top Sportswear Brands Like Lululemon, Hoka, Columbia

  • Nike alums lead numerous brands, including Lululemon, Allbirds, Columbia Sportswear, and The North Face.
  • “What you learn at Nike isn’t taught in school,” Jana Panfilio, a 29-year Nike veteran, said.
  • Nike insiders worry about the loss of executive talent.

Wall Street analysts gathered near Beaverton, Oregon, in October for a splashy investor-day event. Music videos blared as executives with decades of experience at Nike took the stage. The latest sportswear products lined the walls of the auditorium. 

But it wasn’t a Nike event. It was part of the first investor day for Columbia Sportswear, which happens to have its global headquarters across an interstate highway from Nike’s corporate campus. 

Three of the 11 speakers at the Columbia event — Tim Sheerin, Pri Shumate, and Craig Zanon — worked a combined 44 years at Nike. Each joined Columbia within the past three years. 

A month earlier, VF Corp., a sportswear giant and the parent company of The North Face, hosted an investor day. Among the speakers was Nicole Otto, who worked 16 years for Nike, most recently running the company’s direct-to-consumer business in North America, before she became president of VF’s North Face brand in May. About that time, The North Face announced a new chief marketing officer and a new chief product and merchandising officer. Both came from Nike.

Nike executives are regularly being named to positions atop the organizational charts of other consumer brands in sportswear and beyond. The moves take place two years after a sweeping reorganization and as Nike continues to work through a digital transformation under CEO John Donahoe. Analysts and insiders say the trend is a reflection of the demand for Nike talent, but they worry about the loss of institutional knowledge at Nike, especially to companies competing for the same buyers and shelf space.  

“Nike simply breeds leaders, and the industry knows that,” Ashley Comeaux told Insider. 

Comeaux became the vice president of product design for Allbirds after spending more than a decade at Nike in various roles, which she described as an “Ivy League education” in product creation.

“It wasn’t until I left that I was fully able to absorb and appreciate what I’d learned in design and product,” she said. “I have an incredible toolbox of transferable skills.”

When Nike executives want to take those transferable skills to their next gig, many look to 6453 Alumni, a nonprofit group with roughly 400 members. The group helps alums stay connected, find their next job, or even start their own company. (The digits 6453 spell “Nike” on a phone dial.)

“What you learn at Nike isn’t taught in school,” Jana Panfilio, a 29-year Nike veteran and cofounder of the group, said. “From deep understanding of consumers to marketplace execution and everything in between, Nike has long been the industry standard for delivering uncompromising excellence.”

Nike wasn’t always considered a launchpad for corporate leaders. Nike cofounder Phil Knight lamented that fact in a 1986 shareholder letter when he said “we have some management problems” and referenced some bad press coverage of “swoosh management.”

The days of corporate America looking sideways at Nike are long gone.

Nike is now the dominant sportswear company, with annual revenue 46% higher than its closest rival, Adidas. It’s part of the Dow Jones index of blue-chip companies and regularly named a top employer. One job applicant went so far as to print her résumé on a cake to get an interview.

The allure of Nike lasts long after executives leave the company. 

Tim Sheerin, senior vice president, global wholesale at Columbia Sportswear, at an investors day event in 2022

Tim Sheerin, the senior vice president of global wholesale at Columbia Sportswear, at an investor day event this year.

Matt Kish

‘The brand opened up the doors quickly’

In 2016, Under Armour opened a footwear office in Nike’s hometown and staffed it with several Nike alums. The trend has accelerated in recent years, with competing sportswear companies including Lululemon and Allbirds opening offices in Portland, Oregon. Each company hired from Nike.

Lululemon, whose chief brand officer, Nikki Neuburger, spent over a decade at Nike, launched a footwear line earlier this year. Neuburger’s last position at Nike was vice president of global brand marketing in the company’s running department.  

“For me, it’s the brand,” Rob Barnett, a headhunter, a corporate recruiter, and the CEO of Rob Barnett Media, said. “A lot of my job is about positioning people who have the most credibility and the most success that they can possibly present. There are certain companies, like Nike, that give you a strong calling card.”

Barnett recently helped a company fill an open executive position with a Nike veteran.

In recent years, the Nike cache has been touted in numerous press releases.

Nike executives who have found their way to Columbia, North Face, and Deckers have been touted in press releases as “consumer-obsessed,” innovators and “future-focused” leaders, and having the ability to create and transform “merchandising functions across categories, channels, and markets.” 

While sportswear companies are a natural fit for former Nike executives, nonathleticwear companies also have hired from Nike’s top ranks. Google, Target, and Amazon have Nike alumni working in top roles in branding, marketing, communication, design, and sustainability.

Last year, Lisa Wynn joined Google as its head of internal communications. Byron Merritt joined Amazon as its vice president of design for Amazon Music.

Maserati CEO David Grasso is a Nike alum, as is the company’s chief marketing officer.

Rumors even bounced around Hollywood this summer that Mark Parker, Nike’s chair and former CEO, could be the next CEO of Disney, though an insider dismissed the speculation as “just not true.” Parker sits on Disney’s board.

Lululemon's new line of shoes

Lululemon launched a footwear line earlier this year. The sportswear company has poached a handful of execs from Nike.


‘Not everybody can climb all the way up the ladder at Nike’

One reason Nike employees are leaving is insiders said the reorganization Donahoe instituted early in his tenure resulted in fewer middle-management roles and fewer opportunities for advancement. Insiders also said the company’s org chart, which the company describes as a matrix, needed to be simplified. 

“Given how big and successful Nike has been, I think it’s natural for other companies to look at Nike when scouting out talent,” Tom Nikic, a Wedbush Securities analyst, said. “Plus, not everybody can climb all the way up the ladder at Nike, so at some point, some of these execs likely feel like they’ve hit their ceiling at Nike and need to look outside of Beaverton for their next big opportunity.”

Others said there’s diminished loyalty and lingering frustration because of how layoffs were executed during the reorganization.

“There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that has either walked out the door of its own volition or been shown the door,” a former employee said.

Other reasons for departures: Competitors pay more, COVID-19 forced people to reevaluate priorities, and the company has a stubborn work-from-home policy. Nike also tends to hire hypercompetitive people who want to move up and jump at opportunities to prove themselves at new companies.

Nikic said Nike executives had good track records at their new jobs, noting the recent success of Deckers, the maker of Hoka, under CEO Dave Powers, a former vice president of Nike’s Converse brand. Crocs, which named the former Nike vice president Emma Minto the senior vice president of the Americas in 2020, also has been on a hot streak. (Minto recently left Crocs, according to her LinkedIn profile.)

Nike hasn’t commented on its executive turnover, but it’s gone through similar periods.

In the same shareholder letter in which Knight criticized characterizations of Nike’s management, he said the company was coming out of a period of high turnover. But he put a positive spin on it. 

“We have been raising a new group of company leaders,” Knight wrote.

Since then, Nike’s revenue has climbed more than 4,000%.

Do you work at Nike or have insight to share? Contact reporter Matthew Kish via the encrypted-messaging app Signal (+1-971-319-3830) or email ([email protected]). Check out Insider’s source guide for other tips on sharing information securely.