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Setting the Pace

Brad Gebhard, CEO of Propét Footwear, looks back on a career of perpetual motion.

Brad Gebhard at the 1993 U.S. National Championships in Trexlertown, PA.
Brad Gebhard at the 1993 U.S. National Championships in Trexlertown, PA.

Dear Brad, If we knew now what we knew then, we would have done many of the same things—starting with our passionate pursuit of bike racing, which took us all the way to being a member of the U.S. National Team! We loved cycling. (Still do, in fact.) The freedom, the mental and physical benefits, and the competitive fire that the sport ignites took us out of our hometown of Eugene, OR, to places around the world. Cycling showed us that the road ahead is filled with opportunities, so long as we put the required training in and give it our all. It also delivered, early on, one of life’s valuable lessons, which followed the decision by the U.S. government to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. We were 14 and saw dedicated athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs have their dreams vanish in an instant. Many collapsed in grief. Right then and there we learned that we had better have a backup plan.

To that end, our love of running small businesses—like mowing lawns, washing cars, and delivering newspapers—will serve us well in our career. It teaches us the value of hard work and discipline, not to mention fulfills another one of our passions: always finding ways to make money. There is no sin in that, as it helps fulfill another one of our early dreams: to own a snazzy sports car. Mission accomplished! And while we’re never the type to look in the rearview mirror much, it is important to reflect on life now and then. Assessing the twists and turns in the roads that got us to this point are no guarantees for future success, but they can help navigate a smoother ride for you going forward.

Set Goals and have that Backup Plan: We’ll never forget that day in March 1980 when we were summoned to a meeting at the Olympic Training Center. The president of the U.S. Olympic Committee read a message aloud from President Carter stating the U.S. would boycott the Moscow games. World-class athletes of various pursuits burst into tears as their lifelong dreams to represent our country on the highest athletic stage were dashed. It left an indelible mark on our psyche and ingrained a core life principle to always have a backup plan. We’ve lived by that rule since. Of course, stuff happens beyond our control. That’s why you need to be prepared for change. The fact is you will experience many setbacks personally and professionally, which is just part of life. And while change and adversity can disappoint and be painful, if you commit yourself to perseverance and personal improvement, you’ll find opportunities to continue to grow and be successful.

Build a Solid Foundation of Knowledge and Skills: Our footwear career starts in 1990 at Nike in costing and then product development. We are extremely fortunate to be learning from some of the best product and business minds in the industry. Specifically, Phil Knight’s relentless pursuit of excellence instills in us to always dream big, be disciplined, and don’t be afraid to fail. That training ground leads us to Adidas, where we lead product teams across multiple categories and countries. We learn to lead multi-cultural teams, solve complex problems, and to relentlessly seek out ways to grow the business. We also volunteer to lead additional projects, which gives us exposure to different aspects of the business and further hones our skills to solve problems and identify new areas for growth.

Listen and Learn: The road of life has its share of unexpected sharp turns. One of ours comes following Adidas’ acquisition of Salomon. In 2002, we are asked to uproot our family and move to France to lead the integration of Salomon’s Arcteryx, Taylor Made Golf, and Mavic cycling businesses into the fold. It’s during this time we learn about the power of a strong corporate culture. Namely, Salomon’s dedication to creating world-class hardgoods. It’s a revelation. The only way to be successful is to really listen to the people in operations to learn how these brands became leaders in their fields. The amazing products and cultures of these brands serve as blueprints for the executive positions that await us as Vice President Footwear for Columbia Sportswear, Senior Vice President Product Merchandising and Ecommerce for Speedo and Calvin Klein Swim, CEO of Hi-Tec Sports USA, President of American Apparel, General Manager DTC for Castelli Cycling, Senior Vice President of The Walking Company, and now, celebrating our one-year anniversary, as CEO of Propét Footwear. Each stint, like the mileage accumulated in cycling, has only made us smarter and stronger. That collective strength is enabling us to lead Propét to new heights. The company is already setting a killer growth pace, and the road ahead is wide open.

Focus, Focus, Focus: “That’s a distraction,” snapped Helen McCluskey, then CEO of Speedo/Calvin Klein, following our presentation of a new bag line. Specifically, it was a distraction from our responsibilities to lead the core business of swim and ecommerce. Helen is crack-whip smart and teaches us the importance of staying focused on the areas that have the greatest impact on a business. While it’s easy to be attracted to shiny objects—and sometimes those tests can lead to great results—never take our eye off the areas that drive growth. Every organization has personnel and resource limits, so remember to be disciplined and stay focused.

Remain Humble: No matter how successful we become, remain humble and recognize the contributions from our teams. Their talents, insights, and dedication make us better—always. Appreciate them. Respect them. Acknowledge them. Along those lines, we’ll work for some amazing leaders, and the best ones lead their teams with purpose and vision. What’s more, they never use their platforms to self-promote.

Ok, it’s time to roll. Just keep pedaling and enjoy the ride! See you down the road.

—Brad

The March 2024 Issue

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