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Menswear issue 06/20/2011

In a business that’s all about speed—on the running track and in the market—Jochen Zeitz is odd man out. The executive who dreamed up the sports lifestyle category and over the last 17 years has transformed Puma AG from a loss-making, bargain-basement brand into a $3.85 billion company has always played a long game, setting his own pace and heeding his instincts.

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Years ago they told me Puma was too small to survive, but does an animal care about its size? We do what we believe in, and we’ve always found our own way, created our USP rather than following any ranking,” says Zeitz, 48, during a telephone interview from his offices in Herzogenaurach, near Nuremberg, Germany.

Over the next few months, Zeitz will put that philosophy to the test when he swaps his chief executive officer role at Puma for the top job at PPR’s new sport and lifestyle division, which will have Puma—which PPR bought in 2007 in a deal valuing the company at $7.1 billion—as its core.

Although Zeitz is keeping mum for the moment about strategy, one of his first tasks will be integrating Volcom Inc., the California-based action sports brand, into the new division, while hunting—alongside PPR chairman and ceo François-Henri Pinault—for more acquisitions. Pinault handpicked Zeitz for this job, and it’s an open secret that he also had wanted him to head Gucci Group after Domenico De Sole left in 2004. Zeitz got the better deal: The new sport and lifestyle division is poised to eclipse PPR’s luxury division—which includes Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga—in terms of size.

Volcom, for which PPR is paying $607.5 million, will click easily into place, according to Zeitz. “Puma is a sport and lifestyle brand, but there’s no action element to it, which is why Volcom complements and fits into the group. We like that market, and we’ve been looking at it for a while,” he says, noting that he already has assured the Volcom team that he’s prepared to jump on a surfboard during his next trip to California.

“They’ve promised to teach me how to surf,” he adds.

That up-for-anything, collaborative approach is typical of Zeitz. Former colleagues say he is fiercely loyal, funny and personable—once he gets to know you. “He’s a big motivator, and if he trusts you, he lets you run and do your thing,” says one, who requested anonymity.

Zeitz may not be ready to talk about the future, but certain aspects of his approach to business aren’t about to change. “I think in five-year game plans—it’s a good way of measuring progress,” he says. “You need a clear strategy, and you need to be pragmatic in your implementation.”

Former colleagues say Zeitz has one of the sharpest minds in the industry. “He knows exactly where he wants to be 10 years from now,” says Benoit Duverger, managing director of Pringle, who reported to Zeitz when he was brand director of communications at Puma. “He takes very calculated risks, knows his margins, knows his numbers and ensures above all that the business is profitable.”

And nothing escapes Zeitz’s eagle eye. Duverger recalls a TV spot that Puma helped make to promote a group of African soccer charities. “About 30 of us looked at the ad. Then Jochen saw it, and he was the only one who noticed that the teams were not playing with a Puma ball. He has a very commercial way of thinking—even when it comes to a charity,” he says.

Zeitz is at the beginning of his latest five-year plan for Puma, which he unveiled last October. Known as “Back on the Attack,” it’s designed to drive sales to 4 billion euros, or $5.68 billion at current exchange, by 2015, from 2.71 billion or $3.85 billion this year. Puma plans to invest in key growth drivers such as e-commerce and emerging markets, and will adjust its product mix to rely less on footwear and more on accessories, such as those produced by equipment maker Cobra Golf, its most recent acquisition. Zeitz has said the company would focus mainly on growing its existing assets rather than on filling its basket with acquisitions.

“We have to be focused and not try to do everything for everyone,” he told investors at the launch. “We need to focus and grow based on strength before we attack new markets.”

At the time, he predicted that this year would mark a turning point for the firm, which has lost some of its luster in recent years as it faced increased competition, internal challenges resulting from the expansion into new categories and markets and the global economic crisis. “Puma has gone through challenging times over the last couple of years, but we feel that the time has come to close that chapter and turn over a new page,” he says.

Adversity—and defying the naysayers—is guaranteed to fire up Zeitz. In fact, he has built his career on defiance. The son of medical practitioners from Heidelberg, Germany—his mother was a dentist and his father a gynecologist—he was earmarked for medical school, but abandoned that path in favor of business. After attending the European Business School in Frankfurt, he joined Colgate-Palmolive in New York, developing and marketing new products. He later returned to Germany and joined Puma, then a struggling brand that had once been famous for making Pele’s soccer cleats.

In 1993, after witnessing a string of non-starter ceos fail and leave, Proventus AB, the firm’s new Swedish owner, decided to give Zeitz a chance at the top job. He was just 30. A year later, Puma was turning a profit, and Zeitz never looked back. He considers the resuscitation of Puma one of his greatest achievements. “We took it from a low-end, low-price, poor-image company to a premium sport lifestyle brand. And we helped to create a whole market for sport lifestyle, and did the first collaboration with a fashion company,” he says.

Indeed, it was thanks, in part, to his fellow German Jil Sander that the sport lifestyle concept was born. “She got in touch with us because she wanted to use football cleats for one of her fashion shows, but I told her you couldn’t have cleats on the runway, so we put running bottoms on them,” Zeitz remembers. “Then the product started selling in stores, and then there were waiting lists.”

A former Jil Sander employee recalls the moment, in the late Nineties, when the collaboration was born. “Puma opened up their archives to her, and she found vintage sneakers from the 1970s, some with the golden logo. She mixed some of her own details in—like elements from a golf shoe—and the products became so hot.…It was a really interesting collaboration for both sides,” the employee says.

Zeitz also recalls that everyone warned him at the time against mixing with fashion people: “They said fashion was too fickle. They told me to stay away and not get involved, that it was not a sustainable business. And the competition just laughed at me.”

Puma’s fashion collaborations past and present—with Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Yasuhiro Mihara as well as Jil Sander—are now a normal part of business. “Of course, there is always some mileage left in the designer collaborations, but ultimately what matters is whether or not you are creating exciting product,” Zeitz says.

But exciting product can’t be the sole focus. As Zeitz sees it, a brand’s future lies in its social and environmental sustainability. “Our mission at Puma is to be a desirable and sustainable sports lifestyle company—those two qualities need to be fully integrated, one into the other,” he says.

It’s no wonder then that PPR last year named him to the newly created role of chief sustainability officer, where he has spearheaded PPR Home. Unveiled in March, PPR Home is a project that will require all the group’s brands to start thinking green and generating long-term social and environmental benefits.

In London in May, Zeitz unveiled a first for the fashion and sporting industry: an environmental profit and loss account for Puma. The company has calculated its impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gasses emitted and water consumed through the brand’s operations and supply chain. Next, Puma will look at the impact of its operations on acid rain, smog precursors, waste and land use, as well as the good work it’s doing with job creation and wages.

“It is an essential tool and a shift in how companies can and should account for, and ultimately integrate into business models, the true costs of their reliance on ecosystem services,” he told reporters in London.

Zeitz is evangelical in his commitment to safeguarding the environment. “The next generation of shoppers won’t be asking questions anymore about the environmental impact of a company—it will simply be part of the way they consume,” he says. “We are in a transitional phase now, but there will be a new paradigm. We also have to learn to pay a price for sustainability—it doesn’t come for free.”

He believes it’s up to businesses to lead the environmental charge and to educate the consumer. “The power of business needs to become the power of positive change,” he says. “There is an opportunity now to ingrain sustainability into the DNA of a company. It is part of the new paradigm.”

George Wallace, ceo at the consultancy MHE Retail, says Zeitz’s approach to eco-initiatives is on the right track. “Long-term, it’s the right thing to do, and you have got to stick with it, because consumers will come and go,” he says. “Keep in mind, too, that not all consumers around the world are as fussed about organic and environmentally friendly products. Italy, Spain and Holland, for instance, are not as conscious about this as the U.K. and Germany.”

Auret van Heerden, president and ceo of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which monitors labor conditions and seeks to protect workers’ rights worldwide, maintains that when it comes to sustainability, Zeitz is the real deal. “He’s one of the few ceo’s to actually get involved with this stuff,” says van Heerden. “He’s really serious about labor and human rights, and he doesn’t make the distinction between human rights and protecting the environment. He believes it’s all part of the same quest for sustainability.”

As van Heerden tells it, Zeitz made the NGOs’ jaws drop last November during a global forum on sustainability when he vowed that Puma would work toward ensuring a living wage in the entire global supply chain. “Workers’ wages are always a problem, and there is always debate about what to do. Jochen immediately made his commitment on Puma’s behalf, and the NGOs could not believe it,” van Heerden says. “Jochen realizes there is a problem and he acts.”

Zeitz’s passion is fueled, in part, by his love of Africa. He has been vacationing there for 15 years, has a ranch in Kenya and even speaks Swahili. “Spending time there has made me value nature differently and realize the little contributions we can make to help,” he says. “The destruction of our planet is at an advanced stage. We all have to contribute to changing things. And it needs to be an industry-wide collaboration.”

In 2008, the executive founded the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety, a not-for-profit organization based in Kenya that promotes conservation and the creation of sustainable environments and ecosystems. Its work ranges from offering free medical health care to thousands from poor rural communities in Kenya, to planting trees, to supporting eco-friendly tourism resorts from Kenya to Sweden to Costa Rica.

And because Zeitz is the first to admit that his personal and professional lives are intertwined, colleagues such as the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt—who designs a collection for Puma—and François-Henri Pinault are ambassadors for the foundation. Other ambassadors include singers Amadou and Mariam and the Jamaican film director Stephen Hopkins.

The multitasking Zeitz doesn’t stop—and he wouldn’t have it another way. “I enjoy what I do. I’m a curious human being, and when I wake up in the morning I look forward to the day,” he says.

As for his own lifestyle, he says he tries to live a healthy life and go to the gym. But he’s not strapping on long-distance running shoes or training for any marathons. “That,” he says. “I’ll do in my next life.”


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