“Don’t be nervous. And don’t be afraid to fail,” Nick Woodhouse smiles to me as he recounts the advice he would offer his 20 year old self. Woodhouse is the President and CMO of ABG, which owns a wide swath of brands from Reebok to Brooks Brothers, Nautica and more. After acquiring Reebok earlier this year, Nick appointed a new CEO of Reebok: Todd Krinsky. The two have formed a partnership intended to ignite a renaissance for the brand and a return to its heyday. I had the opportunity to speak with Nick and Todd to hear about both of their entrepreneurial trajectories and plans for the future of Reebok.
Todd’s journey to becoming CEO of Reebok seems like it came straight out of a movie script. He began his career as a kid who loved sneakers, selling shoes on the floor of a FootLocker. “Selling Jordans,” he tells me, and then with a little glint in his eye: “And then I think ‘89, I sold my first pump shoe.”
He fires off the rest of the story too quickly: “And then I parlay that into a job working in the mail room at Reebok, which my parents were thrilled about outta college. So I worked in the mailroom for almost 15 months. And yeah… now I’m CEO of Reebok.”
Immediately, Nick jumps in: “He’s selling himself short. This is the guy that had his picture on pieces of paper, slid it under executives doors and said, I’ll work for free, and I’ll do this and I’ll do that. He was that guy. He was that guy that hustled for that. Like, you don’t have to pay me. I want to work at Reebok and I want to do this.”
With a little coaxing, Todd relents:
“Yeah. I hustled. I made these coupons. I figured out how long I could work without getting paid during the day. And I made these coupons and I put ’em in everyone’s mailbox. The coupons said I’d work four weeks for free. There’s a picture of me, I still have the coupon.
“Nobody really took… Well, first of all I got in trouble with the mailroom head. No one took me up on that specific thing, but I got awareness and I got known and eventually led to a role.
“I was kind of in because I was delivering mail, and I was gonna take advantage of it every day with the hustle.”
“It was his destiny,” Nick interjects, smirking.
Todd would go on to play an integral role in bringing on some of Reebok’s most iconic partnerships over the years. He encouraged the signing of A.I., helmed their introduction of Jay-Z’s sneaker (a then-novel idea to have a rapper with a signature shoe) and then drove their music partnerships for year before moving into product and design.
Similar to Todd, Nick got his start working retail for a sneaker and tee shirt store called Forzani Locker Room.
“That allowed me to grow my love of consumer connectivity. So that was that was the beginning of my love of working retail. To me, [retail] allows you to build confidence, right? You have to go approach people. You learn numbers, you learn, you learn everything. And you learn product. It’s a foundation for what you do. So that was beginning.”
Nick initially got his job at Forzani’s so he could buy a coveted pair of shoes there on the shelf, but would go on to rise through the ranks of the Forzani Group to become a VP. He eventually joined ABG in 2012, where he has been instrumental in expanding the company’s roster and cementing themselves as the second biggest licenser in the word behind Disney, with a $24 billion portfolio of global brands.
“So it’s been an interesting trajectory. As I look back, on the way to get here, every decision was filled with anxiety. Now when I look back on that path, I see the path was crystal clear for me to get here. Looking back, there was a time I would cry about those decisions.
“Now I’m like, well that worked out okay, didn’t it?” he chuckles to me, buttoning up a 40 year career.
Eventually, we turn to Reebok itself. As a perpetual fanboy, I had to hear a bit about how Todd brought A.I. to the brand back in the 90s:
“So basically it was myself and a friend of mine Que Gaskins. We were watching Georgetown play. It was his sophomore year and I think it was the Sweet 16 where he had this dunk on Marcus Camby. We had already been talking about him and we were like, ‘Oh my god.’
“It was the swagger he had, you know. I mean, he didn’t have the corn rows or the tattoos yet, but he had the swagger. He had this incredibly brash attitude on the court. He was obviously a football player playing basketball.
“And so we started to kind of talk internally. And then there was this guy named Howard Smith, who was running marketing at the time. And we were like, ‘We gotta sign ’em we gotta sign ’em.’
“He said, ‘Listen, I don’t make the call. Paul Fireman [Then CEO of Reebok] makes the call. Come to the boardroom.’ So we go to the boardroom and there’s like, I don’t know, 15 executives in that huge boardroom, and it’s me and Que. And I’m like 25 or whatever. And Paul says the famous quote. He goes, ‘Listen, if we don’t get ’em, there’ll be another Allen Iverson.’
“And this is one of those risk taking moments where Que and I stood up and unplanned, almost in unison. We were like, ‘No there won’t!’ And Paul was like, ‘Who are these guys? How did they get in there?’ But then he listened: ‘Well, tell me why.’
“We were so nervous. We were like ‘There won’t be someone like him. He’s off the court, incredible. He’s got this brash attitude. He relates to kids. He’s six foot, dunking in traffic, blah, blah.’ We’re going crazy. And, you know, talking over each other.
“And then Paul’s like, ‘All right, alright, alright. We’re gonna shoot for it, we’re gonna shoot for it.’
“The one other thing that was going on at the time is we started to create a shoe for him while he was at Georgetown, at our designer’s apartment.
“And so by the time we got a chance to meet Allen, we actually had the shoe almost done. The Question. We were designing the question in a little apartment in Quincy, Mass, off campus. Because we didn’t wanna get in trouble. And this is before social media.
We were designing The Question in a little apartment in Quincy, Mass.
“So Que and I were cutting out pictures in USA Today and the Georgetown paper and putting ’em up in the designer’s room. Because the designer wasn’t a basketball guy, just a great designer, Scott Hewitt. So we had to bring him into the culture of what this guy represented, and he created The Question.
“And then we went down to Washington DC and David Falk’s office, and in walks Allen Iverson for the first time. It was really surreal for us, because we had been obsessing over him for like a year and a half. And then here’s the shoe and here’s the guy and the whole thing, it was really surreal.
“I think it was just that he didn’t have any desire to conform. Like people say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care what people think.’ And I think nine out 10 people do care. He just didn’t care. He really marched to his own drum and he was gonna dress and talk how he wanted it, and I think young people started to relate to him.”
The NBA is an expression of everyone today, because he gave people permission to do that.
As a 30-year vet of the brand, there is perhaps no one alive better poised to summarize the ethos of the sportswear brand than Todd himself. He explains the spirit of the brand in detail:
“I think Reebok has always kind of zigged when everyone else is zagging. You know, what really has made Reebok work over the years is just running a different playbook, bold innovation. Incredible heritage. And then combining that with a lot of risk taking, with signing irreverent personalities that you didn’t know if it was gonna work.
“Like you know, an Allen Iverson. Like an unprecedented deal with the NFL to be the first brand to take the entire NFL, even though we had no idea how we were gonna do it. To a watershed deal with Jay-Z. Where we asked, could a music person actually sell a shoe like a basketball player?
“These were a lot of risks that were taken. So I think intrinsic to Reebok is a really strong risk taking brand that just has a different lens on culture. And I think the market needs it because I think that so many brands talk and launch and do things the same way.
“So I think the ethos of Reebok is this irreverence that appeals to so many people.”
In 98/99, there was an NBA strike. During a period where basketball product was imbued at the center of all style, this left a pretty big chasm. Todd tells me that Paul Fireman had just returned to Reebok in this time, and was trying to figure out what the “kids were into” that could help fill the void. It pretty quickly became clear that music was the next best place to look:
“Literally what happened was Paul looked at a couple of us and said, ‘Well, who’s the guy?’”
The next day, they were in a meeting with HOV.
“I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities and people, but it was a little surreal,” Todd recounts, explaining:
“Jay and I have this sneaker conversation for like two hours. We’re the same age. I grew up a sneaker kid, he loved sneakers. It centered around the Gucci tennis shoe and what it meant to him. And obviously I knew that shoe and it just went from two guys talking about their passion for sneakers.
“A couple weeks later, we did the deal and we did the first shoe, inspired by Gucci. And everyone was like, ‘Probably won’t work. It’s not basketball, it’s not the formula.’ And Jay wasn’t even a hundred percent sure.
I’ll never forget, we used to have a store in Philly, a Reebok store in Philly. I think we had like 10,000 pairs of the shoe in the two stores. We drive up, and it’s pandemonium. We’re in this Sprinter and I’ll never forget, I don’t know, 8,000 people shut the whole street down. And Jay looks back at me and says, ‘I think this is gonna work.’
8,000 people shut the whole street down. And Jay looks back at me and says, ‘I think this is gonna work.’
“Then it was like one of the fastest selling sneakers we ever had, and it birthed this whole generation of music and sneakers.”
As we turn to the future, Nick and Todd are both optimistic about bring Reebok back to existing at the apex of sports, music and culture. “Our mantra is: Let Reebok be Reebok. And the exciting thing about that is that we’re re-unleashing Reebok on the world,” Nick dives in:
“That could be anything from retros and the archive that Todd is bringing to the world, new shoes, new technology.
“We wouldn’t be winning those shoe shelves if we didn’t win the hearts and minds of the buyers and the consumers to earn those shoe shelves too. So this whole idea of letting Reebok be Reebok is, to me, is the most exciting thing that’s happening in our brand these days.”
Todd, personally at the helm of the brand, adds:
“I think that there’s a real strong space for Reebok in the market. Maybe over the last decade we’ve kind of pulled back and allowed others to come in. And that space is being one of the strongest brands that can do heritage, can do performance. It kind of has this irreverent attitude to how we approach the market, the people we signed, how we launch products. This has been really an intrinsic part of Reebok, and I think I was fortunate enough to be around and see and experience and feel a lot of what we meant to consumers around the world before.
“And so my excitement and motivation every day is to get us back to that place, to be that meaningful brand in the market again. Really what we say is, to get back to our rightful place.”
Being two men who built careers around their nascent love of retail and sneaker culture, it was a great opportunity to get some advice. So I asked the two to reflect back on the beginning of their careers.
Todd: “Mine’s gonna sound a little bit cliche, but it’s really true. You just can’t let the highs get you too high and you can’t low get you too low. You’re gonna get there, but you gotta stay even keel. You gotta take risks. You gotta enjoy the process, but it’s never gonna be as good as when you’re up here. It’s never gonna be as bad as when you’re in your ultimate despair. You gotta keep moving, learn from it.”
Nick: “I would say don’t be nervous and don’t be afraid to fail. It took me a long, long time to realize it’s okay to take these big risks and you’re never gonna get anywhere without this unwavering conviction that it’s okay if you’re not doing what everyone else is doing.”
Todd: “The only last thing I would say, especially in this career, is you gotta be open minded to opportunities. You don’t know at 20 what you really like or what you really want. I had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas, but I had a chance to live in South Korea for three years. I didn’t really want to be a developer, but I took the opportunity to learn. I look back and in my thirty years, some of the most valuable time was living in a factory.”
Whatever option you take, it’s not forever. Just use it as a tool to learn.
As we conclude our conversation, Nick turns to the importance of gratitude and remembering those who help you along the way:
“I still reach out to people that did things for me at the time that I probably dismissed. Now as I look back, that was a crucial moment in my life. That could be everything from the guy who sold me my first house when I was 25. I didn’t realize what he did for me. I shouldn’t have been able to afford that house and it changed my life. I didn’t appreciate it at the time. So I reach out to him and I’ll text him on his birthday. His name is Tommy Forzani.
“All these people that touch me in my life. And for the same reason, I hope that one day I have those moments with other individuals, right? I’m sure there’s all these moments, seminal moments in your life that, if it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I am.
“We’re all connected somehow, right? The thread. The thread hums amongst all of us. And the thread with those people hums a little bit louder when you go back to them.”