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Greg Thomsen on the future of adidas Outdoor

The outdoor industry veteran reflects on his decade with adidas and shares about challenges, successes, and next steps.

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Greg Thomsen proudly shows off an adidas Outdoor climbing book sold in a grocery store.Courtesy

Greg Thomsen has had almost every job imaginable in the outdoor industry: a climbing guide, a sales rep, a specialty outdoor retailer, a product designer, owner of Mountainsmith, co-founder of Wilderness Experience. For the last decade, Thomsen has served as the chief outdoor officer of adidas Outdoor, growing the brand exponentially in the U.S. But on Dec. 31, 2020, his work there will be finished.

In January, adidas Global decided that Thomsen had succeeded in his goal of building the brand up to the point where it was time to transfer management back in-house. Over the next two years, operations will shift from Los Angeles to its global headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

In an interview with Outside Business Journal, Thomsen reflected on his 10 years with the brand, what he’ll work on during the next two years, and what’s next for him.

Take us back to the early days at adidas Outdoor.

Greg Thomsen: When I first talked to adidas in Germany about starting adidas Outdoor in the United States, I thought it would be a big challenge because it’s really hard for larger sporting goods companies, especially European-based and especially footwear and apparel, to come to the U.S. and be successful. To do it in outdoor was something that really hadn’t been done to that degree. Maybe a couple companies tried, but most have had problems. When I started, there was nothing. We had to get all the basic business things, like a telephone and a computer. We planned from the very beginning to do more of a performance-based line and only go to specialty outdoor retailers. For the first four years, we only sold to smaller technical specialty outdoor stores.

Was there pushback? How did you overcome it?

GT: When we first started, we had pretty much a 100 percent rejection rate. It was tough. Specialty shops were the hardest to sell. They already had all the major outdoor brands they ever wanted. Every shelf or hanger had to come at the expense of some other brand. The products were good technically, but the fit was different, the colors were not right for the U.S. market, price points weren’t always right. It was a European brand trying to fit into the U.S. Plus, we were going to the hardest, most demanding customers. But that also helped. It strengthened us and made us a tougher organization because we had to really be on the front lines and fight for every sale. Then we had to stand behind it and say if it didn’t sell, we would take it back and we would never leave anybody hanging. It was 100 percent service oriented and we stuck by that.

Who are some of the retailers that helped with the brand’s early success?

GT: On a bigger scale, Zappos. It’s about as perfect of a relationship you could have. The model for Zappos is to pretty much overwhelm their consumer with service, but not go off price. They have a very clean distribution arrangement. For us, it really helps because over time, they agreed to carry every single item we make. It gave us a platform for really good support. We also had some small specialty shops like Gear Coop that came on really early on and helped us establish the brand. We still work with them today. Moosejaw was a good early adopter. Now we’re in REI, Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, and nearly 800 others. I think it’s been the correct way to build the business, which is slow and steady, and strength to strength.

Why do you think this particular European brand has been successful in the U.S. market? What was your strategy?

GT: We’re true partners with the retail community. Every one of our retailers knows that we can cancel and move or change or fill in. We really are customer-service oriented. Over the years we were able to slowly gain influence over the product line and get certain styles colored and sized to be more appealing to the U.S. We kept improving the line year after year after year. An ongoing and never-ending battle has been trying to be more consistent and keeping a good product in the line for a longer period of time. A brand like adidas thrives on being new every season—new products, new colors, new styles. That’s the nature of their overall business, but the outdoor business sometimes wants to have a consistency and style and color up to five years. Some outdoor brands, 20 years.

Woman looking at climbing wall Five Ten
It was Greg Thomsen’s idea to seek out climbing gyms and young, up-and-coming climbers.adidas Outdoor / Five Ten

Agron took over distribution of Five Ten in January 2018. What has it done for business?

GT: The first year was spent trying to stabilize everything, make sure the inventory was correct, and get it solid again. This year, it’s been a really strong seller for us. It has helped us achieve the authenticity we want in the regular specialty stores. By having one of the best climbing shoes and one of the best mountain bike shoes and then bringing in the best adidas hiking shoe, it makes for a better presentation.

Something that has also helped is building relationships with climbing gyms and young, up-and-coming sport climbers, primarily women. When we first launched, the best high altitude men alpinists were already represented by other brands. So I looked at what was happening with women climbers and in the indoor climbing gyms. We built a team of climbers and we now work with about 200 gyms. But for eight years, we basically had nothing we could sell the gyms we were working with other than some T-shirts and some shorts. it was getting way ahead, having customers before you have a product. Then, when we brought in Five Ten we were finally able to have a climbing shoe that we could also market to the gyms and that the climbers could help promote. Competition wise, it was an open area we could thrive in.

What are some challenges that adidas will face through this transition?

GT: With outdoor, you have to love outdoor. I’ve spent my whole life pretty much in the outdoor business. I think it’s really important for whoever is running the vision is totally immersed in that feeling and that community. And I don’t know if that’s going to be possible. It’s hard to do that when you haven’t grown up in the business. It’s easy to follow momentary spikes in a certain direction, like a fashion piece, But if you don’t stay true to the foundation, you can really lose the brand. The challenge will be a balance between performance products and really competitive outdoor products and more fashionable everyday wear that influences it. I think they’re going to find that the outdoor industry looks great and easy, but it’s a lot of relationships and it’s a nice market but it’s a tough market.

The positive side for adidas is they have a lot of wherewithal. They’re a bigger brand so they can put in more resources for advertising and marketing and support, if they choose. My hope is that they take it from where we’ve gotten it and then they really expand it and take it to the next level. It’ll be fun to watch.

I bet you’re also having fun watching your brother, Jim, relaunch Wilderness Experience and the Klettersack.

GT: I think what he’s doing is really great. He’s been working on a documentary on Wilderness Experience for a couple years. He’s captured a lot of great interviews and people so I think doing the pack keeps it going. Eventually, I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. The pack has done really well. He passed his Kickstarter goal in just the first week.

Do you also have something up your sleeve? What’s next?

GT: Who knows. I haven’t got really any plans other than to really focus on this task. There’s a lot of moving parts so I want to make sure it’s perfect. It will have been a 10-year program for me from starting adidas Outdoor in the United States. Then, I think I’m going to have fun.