By  on February 10, 2005

NEW YORK — William D. Perez has big sneakers to fill.

Succeeding Nike co-founder Philip Knight as president and chief executive officer would seem as challenging as replacing Michael Jordan in the Chicago Bulls lineup.

Perez, 57, who began his career selling bug spray, is taking over from a sporting goods industry legend and is the first outsider to lead the world’s largest and most successful athletic company. He steps into the job as Nike is surging: earnings increased 99.5 percent to $945.6 million in 2004, and sales went up 14.5 percent to $12.3 billion.

Industry experts said a key challenge for Perez is growing the company’s business outside of the Nike brand, and adapting to a culture that is steeped in the personality and vision of Knight.

“Outsiders have a mixed record of success at Nike given its unique culture, which has historically rewarded loyalty,” Goldman Sachs analyst Margaret Mager wrote in a recent report.

Perez, Knight and other Nike executives declined to be interviewed.

Knight, 66, is keeping his title of chairman, but responsibility for running the company falls to Perez, a marathon runner who spent much of his youth in Colombia and his entire 37-year business career at S.C. Johnson, where he rose to ceo of the $6.4 billion packaged goods company that manufactures home supplies such as Windex and Ziploc.

Though Nike, whose swoosh is one of the most recognizable brand symbols in the world, is the dominant athletic company, rivals such as Adidas and Under Armour have been expanding market share. Nike’s momentum in the U.S. might be starting to slow, analysts said.

Merrill Lynch analyst Virginia Genereux on Tuesday lowered her rating on the company, saying “Nike’s shift from a one-brand company to a multibrand company will ultimately command a lower multiple in our view….A risk related to this multibrand strategy is the uncertainty around something of a new management regime. Athletic footwear and apparel end market growth is slowing everywhere except China. The slowing international growth may reemerge as an issue next in Japan, especially as Nike’s powerful recent momentum in the U.S. begins to slow.”

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