Interview: Michael Rossi, adidas Canada

Michael is the President of adidas Canada.

IBR: Throughout your career, you’ve held a variety of roles in different business functions. How has this breadth of experience helped you get where you are today?

MR: I’ve been fortunate to work in product management, in marketing, in sales, and in general management prior to coming into this role. All of that experience just makes you more well-rounded, more able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and ultimately more capable of finding solutions and ways of working together that make everyone successful.

When I started out in marketing, understanding the process of how campaigns and marketing initiatives are developed and driven helped me engage with salespeople. When I moved into a sales role, I gained a different perspective dealing with customers. When you understand what the marketing people are trying to achieve, you have empathy for the other side of that partnership. I think it’s benefited me and I would certainly recommend that folks do try and get diverse experience; it makes them more marketable and more effective in what it is that they’re doing.

IBR: You briefly worked in marketing at Nestlé Canada but have been with adidas and Reebok for over 15 years. How has your experience in this unrelated industry proved useful as you progressed through your career?

MR: I remember a headhunter telling me, “Go and get some packaged goods experience because even if you want to come back to sports, it will always serve you well.” That was absolutely correct. Being in the food industry— one that was more disciplined and structured at that time around consumer insights, research, and data—gave me a different perspective.

This ties into the previous question: I think the more diversity of thought and experience you can bring to future roles, the better. Being able to bring learning and insights from the packaged goods industry, even from in-store displays and packaging, was beneficial. When I came back into it, the sporting goods industry wasn’t quite as structured and disciplined as it is now. Consumer data is everyone’s buzzword today, but 15 years ago, coming from a packaged goods company that already focused on that data, insight, and research was really helpful.

I haven’t left the sports industry in quite some time, but I do spend a lot of time speaking with people from many different industries. I think there’s always learnings and insights that another industry might have discovered first but that you can apply to your own business.

IBR: What has been the greatest challenge that you’ve faced in your career?

MR: Two of the biggest ongoing challenges would be leading people and leading through change. I say that because I think they both require a lot of energy and resilience—they’re not easy.

Coming out of Ivey, I felt confident making decisions on the business side, but there really is nothing that fully prepares you for leading people and leading through change. It is so unique to the circumstances, the situation, and the individuals involved. When you lead people, you really do need to understand their individual drivers and motivations. You need to tailor your leadership approach to the individuals on your team—I continue to learn that throughout my career.

On the leading through change piece as well, when you’re the leader who is responsible, it can be daunting to lead through change where you may not even know how it’s going to turn out. You have a vision and you try and paint that picture for others, but it does take a lot of energy and perseverance to push forward in times of uncertainty. Having said that, I would also say leading people and leading through change are two of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences I’ve had and continue to have, so although they demand a lot of you, they also give a lot back.

IBR: What do you think were the key strategic elements that helped grow the adidas brand in Canada?

MR: First of all, we’re incredibly fortunate that the adidas brand has great products and a wonderful brand heritage through athletes and ambassadors who have worn our products in the past. It’s phenomenal to be able to tap into that kind of legacy.

Having said that, you can’t rely on your legacy alone. We operate and compete in a really emotional category around sports footwear and apparel. Our brand positioning is focused specifically around creativity; we have competitors that talk about hard work and effort and potential, so having a unique voice was the starting point of differentiation. Over the last two or three years, I think people have recognized that we have a fresh take and unique position within the market.

We follow that up with innovation in product, whether it’s our Boost products in running, or partnerships and unique initiatives to then amplify that brand positioning. People have seen a lot of consistency in our messaging and our efforts to the point where they trust our direction. They align with the values of the brand and want to be a part of where we’re headed. In my mind, that’s what’s really helped propel us forward.

IBR: As Vice President of Reebok Canada, you developed partnerships with organizations like GoodLife Fitness; at adidas Canada, you established partnerships with the NHL and the CFL. How do you identify partner organizations that could be a good strategic fit?

MR: The most important thing is to start with a strategy because a lot of times, there’s a temptation to select flashy partners or go after sexy partnerships. You really need to ground yourself in your strategy and what it is you’re looking to achieve, and it then becomes a lot easier to select partners who align with that.

For example, on the Reebok side, in wanting to reposition the brand around fitness and coming from a heritage of sport associations with leagues and teams, it was important to find partners like GoodLife and CrossFit who embodied a focus on fitness. When the strategy is clear, you then look for partners who have similar objectives, values, and principles. It needs to be someone that you want to work with because it’s important that you enjoy working together. Trust also becomes critical: in any partnership, you are essentially sharing your brand with somebody else. It is crucial that they have the same shared values and beliefs so you trust them to speak on your behalf when you’re not in the room.

IBR: To date, adidas has limited colourways and styles of a few flagship sneaker models like the Ultraboosts, Yeezys, and NMDs. This has kept demand high and margins elevated. Do you see this trend continuing in newer shoes and will production limits always be kept to a few models?

MR: To me, this is the prototypical product life cycle management approach. With any of our franchises, there is a period where we want to incubate and in some cases, we don’t yet know what the consumer response will be. Once you see that the consumer is responding to the product, that upfront scarcity in the development process does sometimes fuel interest and demand. Certainly, as a product becomes commercial, demand does increase and we do increase volumes, colours, or fabrications.

You do generally see a bit of a maturity phase in which the product becomes more available. You’ve referenced some very current models like the Ultraboosts and NMDs, but we also exercise portfolio management with iconic products like Stan Smiths and Superstars, which have been around for 50 years. There is a very strategic way to manage those: sometimes you’ll reduce the amount of product in the marketplace leading up to an anniversary, for example, and then bring it back with renewed excitement and energy. So it’s not just new franchises that we do this with, but you want to manage the product that consumers have access to so that it’s always fresh and interesting to them.

IBR: Nike’s decision to stand behind Colin Kaepernick has made it clear that companies’ use of influencers represents a shared belief in values. How do you decide which influencers to use and where the organization stands on contentious issues?

MR: We’re really clear on where we stand and on something like the topic of diversity, we actually have a very long history of supporting diverse athletes such as Jesse Owens or Terry Fox almost 40 years ago. As a brand, adidas has always stood by and supported diverse athletes of many walks of life. When that’s embedded in your DNA, your values are very clear. We’re not shy to speak out about that and to have a voice.

It goes back to that idea of trust—you’re trusting influencers to represent your brands when you’re not in the room, so you do need to do your due diligence to select them carefully and ensure they share your values and views. It then becomes stronger when they speak out on those issues. For example, we have a campaign around breaking barriers for women in sport on the adidas brand and a number of our athletes and ambassadors like Tessa Virtue are firmly behind the movement and are sharing the same messaging that we are as a brand. That’s where the power of influencers really comes in. They can amplify the message because we share the same values and beliefs.

IBR: You’re fortunate that your interests in sports and fitness align well with your role. Would you advise students to consider their personal interests when deciding in which industry they should pursue their careers?

MR: This is an interesting one—you’re right, I really do think I am fortunate. Out of the 25 years or so that I’ve collected a paycheque, 23 of those years have been in sports. I think that it’s somewhat rare to be able to enjoy a career that is almost completely aligned with your passion. However, what I will say is: differentiate between hobbies and interests, and passions.

I love sports, but I also have found in my career that I love coaching, I love mentoring, and I love leadership. Those are passions that I discovered through my career and they don’t exclusively tie in to being in the sports industry. I think people should be open to and curious about the things that really do inspire them. If that is a hobby or an interest, and you are fortunate enough to combine that with your career, that is certainly an amazing experience. I definitely benefited from that, but sometimes you can put too much pressure to work in a business that’s your passion. You may discover that there are other passions that can be discovered across industries and sectors. Keep your eyes open, keep your interests open, and you may discover that more things inspire you than just that initial passion you had before you started your career.

IBR: You’ve described your younger self as a very reluctant networker. Do you have any advice for students who have trouble building a strong professional network?

MR: The short piece of advice is: get over it. I say that because I was there. I look at it now, and the importance of networking—particularly as you move through your career—is so crucial. It’s not just to find a job or to network for business gain. I get so much inspiration and knowledge from my network. I’ve been able to connect with people in so many different industries.

In terms of how to get there, I would encourage people not to be apologetic or shy about asking for advice or help, especially early in your career. I think you might be pleasantly surprised by how many people are willing to help. As we evolve in our careers, we recognize that many people have been very impactful and helpful to us at some point in our journey. A lot of people are committed to giving back, so don’t be afraid to ask.

I would also say to be mindful and prepared in terms of what you want to gain from a coffee chat or an interview. Be very specific, come prepared and be respectful of that individual’s time. In turn, you are making an impression on them, and if you make a positive impression, it could come back to help you in ways that you don’t expect somewhere down the road.

So, don’t be shy, push outside your comfort zone, and it does get easier. As you build your network and get more comfortable doing it, more connections and contacts tend to come into your world as a result.

IBR: Do you have any advice or insights for students at Western or Ivey who are interested in pursuing a career in sports business, in particular?

MR: When I came out of Ivey, there were very few sports business programs anywhere in the country. Ivey didn’t really have a focus on it, so I found my own way. A lot of times people have a very literal definition of the sports business, where it may be limited in their mind to professional teams, leagues, and maybe sporting goods brands such as adidas or Reebok.

However, I would encourage people to broaden their view of what the sports industry is. There are brands that sponsor sports properties and activate around sports. If you look at the banks as an example, there’s a lot of brand work and marketing exposure tied to sports that might be an interesting way for someone to get access and exposure to the industry without working for a team, per se. There are so many digital partners out there now, and agencies and analytics companies that are servicing different components of the sports industry. It can be very difficult to break into the industry if your focus is solely on working for a team or a league, but if you start to expand your scope, it does open up a bigger set of opportunities.

I would also say: be interested in more than just sports. During interviews, a lot of people tell me that they are huge fans of hockey or soccer. That’s great—I don’t want to diminish that—but that’s not really something that is going to differentiate or distinguish you during the interview process. I would encourage people to be curious about the business of sports, so really take the time to learn about companies, the industry, and the trends that are affecting the business. It’s great that you may be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, but go beyond that and show that you really have a curiosity in what’s driving our business. Bring expertise, analytics, and a curiosity to learn—and make sure that comes through in any interview you have.