Ice Skates to Running Shoes

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I GREW up in a suburb of St. Paul, one of six children. My family owned a combination bowling alley, restaurant and tavern, and our lives revolved around that business. I was counting change from the vending machines and rolling it into coin sleeves at the age of 7. Among my jobs there was working behind the bowling counter.

My life was work, school and hockey. We played games at rinks, but we also had ponds all around us. The first freeze of the year before snow was fabulous; you could skate for miles. Hockey was a way to go places -- college, the Olympics and the Minnesota North Stars, our National Hockey League team at the time. I knew at 6 that I wanted to be a hockey player.

In eighth grade, I was the biggest kid in the class. I convinced my parents to send me to the Hill-Murray School, a hockey dynasty in the area, for high school. In ninth grade, I was the last one cut during tryouts for the varsity team. By 11th grade, colleges were showing interest in me, but I had stopped growing and clearly did not have a path to the N.H.L.

I had put everything into hockey, so I had to pivot and put my energy into business. I was well positioned; I had always had leadership roles. I was captain of my hockey team in eighth grade and president of my class all through high school. I enrolled in St. Cloud State University and, after my freshman year, transferred to the University of Minnesota, where I became president of my fraternity. I graduated in 1982 with a degree in business administration.

I went to work for a Minneapolis bank when I graduated, but I really wanted to work in consumer products. So after two years, I left to attend the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth for an M.B.A. I loved Tuck -- it was such an energizing, inspirational environment.

After graduating in 1986, I got a job at Pillsbury, now part of General Mills. First, I worked in mergers and acquisitions with Jerry Levin; he recommended me to Bill Spoor, then chairman, to help with a strategic assessment. I learned that you get paid to have a point of view; you never want to tell people what they want to hear. Next, I worked in the Pillsbury Doughboy Group, the refrigerated-dough division, to learn marketing and managed two brands when they were introduced.

Jerry left in 1989 to run Coleman, the outdoor products company, and recruited me as vice president for corporate development. A year later, I became president of Coleman Spas, which was a huge opportunity. I was 29. In 1992, I went to O'Brien International, a unit that made water sport products.

I left for an opportunity to become chairman and C.E.O. of Sims Sports, a privately held snowboard company that was later sold, but I left after two years. I found the dissension among the investors distracting, and they didn't share my vision. In 2000, I accepted a job in middle-market mergers and acquisitions at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray in Seattle and joined the board of Brooks Sports, now a Berkshire Hathaway company. Brooks was not doing well. At one particularly frustrating board meeting, Ann Iverson, the chairwoman at the time, asked me why I wasn't running the company. I joined Brooks in 2001 as president and C.E.O.

We found a way to compete by dropping our lower-priced footwear and focusing on technical-performance running shoes. We also added a lab and engineers. The big brands have huge marketing budgets, but the runner looking for the best shoe is the one in charge.

Last month, my wife, Mary Ellen, and I ran the Medtronic Twin Cities 10-mile race. I don't like to cite my finishing times because I'm the slowest person at Brooks. I tell fellow runners that I can talk or I can run, but I can't do both.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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