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As CEO of Brooks Running, Jim Weber is building a brand and living his dream.

courtesy of brooks sports

With a smile sprinting across his face, Jim Weber (B.S. ’82) calls himself a “hopeless soul.”

Back in seventh grade, the St. Paul native penned a paper on his career aspirations. While “hockey player” topped the list, leading a business took the runner-up spot.

“I had some people in my sphere of influence who ran companies and they looked happy, so I had in my brain I wanted to do this,” Weber says.

Fast forward some five decades and Weber is entering his 23rd year at the helm of Brooks Running, a once-languishing business he’s transformed into a billion-dollar enterprise and one of the globe’s foremost players in athletic footwear.

The opportunity to lead
After a year at St. Cloud State University, where he played hockey, Weber decided to get serious about a potential business career and transferred to the University of Minnesota to major in business administration. Between his energizing studies in the business school and his turn as president of Sigma Nu fraternity, Weber describes the U of M as his professional launching pad.

“That was the beginning of my really focused leadership career,” he says.

His postcollegiate years included an early commercial banking job at Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo), an MBA from Dartmouth, and a return to Minneapolis to work for Pillsbury. In 1990, Jerry Levin, the Pillsbury-executive-turned-CEO of the Coleman Company, pulled Weber into the outdoors business.

After leading turnarounds at O’Brien Watersports and Sims Sports, Weber assumed the corner office at Brooks in 2001. The Seattle-based company was in disarray and on the verge of bankruptcy. It hadn’t recorded a profit in five years and its debt had climbed to $40 million. Brooks lacked a strategic plan and had spit out three CEOs over the previous two years.

Much of the company’s $60 million in annual revenue came from inexpensive athletic footwear Weber himself labeled “barbecue shoes”—and poorly made ones at that. Only one product category, performance running footwear, was making money amid a muddled inventory mix covering multiple sports.

But Weber, who had served as a board member at Brooks, saw potential. And the opportunity to build a brand in a sport—running—he had embraced in his adult life as meditation and therapy. His plan to stabilize the listless brand centered around an unapologetic, singular focus on premium performance running shoes and apparel. “Nobody else was playing a focus game, but I had confidence it would work,” Weber says.

In 2021, amid a global health pandemic, Brooks crossed $1 billion in sales. The company is part of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway empire.

Running with purpose
In his first full year at the helm, Weber liquidated all non-performance-running inventory, satisfied $10 million in debt, and steered Brooks to a $500,000 profit. Though it was an undeniably positive start, Weber was determined to build something lasting. He pushed for greater product innovation; invested in the sport of running, including inking a partnership with the nationwide Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon series; and leaned into “Run Happy” as the brand’s rallying cry—a quirky, lighthearted counter to “Just Do It.”

“We celebrate the podiums, but we are also inclusive and welcoming in that we celebrate people taking their first steps out the back door and running around the block,” Weber says. “It’s about moving right foot, left foot, repeat.”

Over the next decade Brooks tripled its domestic business, even as the Great Recession pummeled American spending. In 2021, amid a global health pandemic, Brooks crossed $1 billion in sales. Today, one of every five pairs of adult performance running shoes sold carries the Brooks logo, according to data from market research firm Circana. “We’ve built a brand that resonates with runners, and products people fall in love with and tell their friends about,” Weber says of Brooks, which is a part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire. “I follow the words of [British statesman] Benjamin Disraeli: ‘The secret of success is constancy of purpose.’”

A bout with esophageal cancer in 2017 threatened to derail the good vibes. Enduring surgery and rounds of cancer treatments, Weber emerged cancer free—albeit with one less lung—and reflective. Like many facing a life-altering event, Weber, a father of three and grandfather of four, has consistently asked himself if he’s making the most of his days.

“And the punchline for me is I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” says Weber, who joined the Board of Advisors at the U of M’s Carlson School of Management in October. “We’re building a brand, just like I always wanted to do. How lucky am I?”

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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