with greg layton

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to former SKINS Chairman and CFO of Adidas, and now CEO of eo Lab, Dean Hawkins, on the power of a brand, creatively telling the story of the business, and turning alchemy into the extraordinary.

Dean is a vastly experienced senior executive having held a variety of senior and advisory roles over the last 25 years with international businesses across a range of industries including sports, fintech, television, broadband, apparel, and venture capital.
He has also held many Board positions including of adidas, Ten Network Holdings, I-Med Australia, Apparel Group and the Sydney Dance Company.

Dean was the Chairman of SKINS Global, a household name in compression clothing and activewear. He has also been the CFO of adidas, during which time the company’s market capitalisation grew from €1.5bn to €8bn. Prior to this he was an investment banker at UBS in Zurich where he led the successful IPO of adidas.

Dean returned to Sydney from London in late 2021 to become CEO of eo Lab, an exciting new sports technology business.
In this episode we talk about:

  • Moving into a career where he could own the consequences of his decisions
  • Turning adidas around by reigniting the brand with customers
  • The intersection of a positive brand story, people and a great product and other lessons from Skins
  • Changing the rules of the game of sports technology with his latest venture

Connecting with Dean Hawkins

You can connect with Dean via LinkedIn

Books and resources

The Hard Thing About Hard Things – by Ben Horowitz

“It's not enough to have a good-sounding idea. Is that idea executable in a way that is sustainable or do you have dependencies on things that are just outside your control?”

On lessons from investment banking

  • You've got to get on top of technical skills very quickly. You've got to actually arrive at a client's premises and know what you're talking about.
  • You need to get into that culture of being able to connect with that client because they need to trust you in what you’re going to actually be offering. To do that, you've got to be able to engage with them. So there's a whole personal issue but really do you understand their business?

On his career path into business ownership

  • I didn't want to be the guy who'd worked for 40 years in the same gig and said, “Wasn't that a great ride?” I wanted to work with people I liked, in a product that I could associate with, in an industry where I got excited about the degree of change that was going to happen.
  • That's part of the reason that my career has been pretty diverse by industry and even by geography, because I found opportunities that I found interesting and exciting and actually made me want to get up in the morning.
  • I wanted to be the guy who, if I took a decision, I'd have to live with it. I've got to make sure the organisation grows with it and that it actually delivers value. And for me, that was the red line of when I knew that I wasn't a career investment banker and I needed to get into business.
  • This was a decision made at a personal and emotional level rather than financial. I could have made more money being a banker compared to some of the jobs I ended up doing, but it was about did I feel actually deeply involved and attached to what was happening? I really wanted to be in a world where I felt that I could see for a number of years the benefits and outcomes of what I did.

On how to manage complexity and overload

  • I have a capacity to actually manage a fair amount of complexity without feeling overwhelmed by it. Going back to my banking experience, where you can't look like you're panicking, you've got to sound like you're absolutely setting the path and you know where things are going even if it is impacted by, in that industry, market forces at various times.
  • You’ve got to have a real vision of where you want to end up. Do you have a sense and a picture of what it is you're trying to achieve? What is the end game? Don't just be dealing with today's problem, but constantly know what it is you're aiming for and don't lose sight of that.
  • Particularly when you're working with teams, if they see you starting to vibrate on a daily basis because of external factors, that radiates through teams incredibly quickly. My belief is that you need to be able to maintain that view, make sure everybody's heading in that same direction.

On reigniting the Adidas brand

  • The business had been bankrupt not long before. It had gone through this incredibly undulating history from family ownership all the way back to the founder, through his son, through his family. Then they brought in external management, then different ownership and it ended up being basically owned by the banks after a French entrepreneur who owned it went bankrupt. And they basically were looking around for someone to buy it. 
  • The most powerful lesson for me out of my time at Adidas was the power of a brand and the importance of managing a brand properly. Because here's a business that's broken, but a brand that's basically just wanting to be loved all over again both by management and by their customers.
  • We resuscitated the business by actually getting a great product to support the brand, and great marketing to actually reignite the brand with customers. Suddenly this business was then just going absolutely bonkers in growth. At the time I joined, the market share in the U.S. was about 1.8%. It then went to 11%, and in the sporting goods market, that's half of the world's volume.
  • The growth in that business was just extraordinary and it was all through getting the right oxygen back into the brand that then actually just drove the volumes of the business. You put all of that alchemy together and extraordinary things started happening. The power of people and the brand and the product and then the performance of the business becomes the outcome. 

On what he learnt from creatives

  • When I was at Adidas as a CFO, I actually worked for a week out of the design studio because I wanted to see the guys who come in every day with a blank sheet of paper and have to start designing and creating products.
  • I love the creative process; a few of my jobs have been in media as well. It’s vital to know how you can regularly refresh your energy and your own sense of what you're trying to do. So I would just go and sit with the guys whose gig for the day is to create something.
  • It changes some of your perspectives without a doubt; it affected the way I've thought about things and the way I've managed my own self and my own energy, attitudes.
  • You need creativity, even in finance jobs. The mission statement I gave my department at Adidas was that part of our role was to tell the story of the business; it's not just sitting there crunching numbers. You need to be able to tell the story about the business and where it's going and how it's reflected in the numbers, rather than just, “Here's a bunch of numbers.”

On combining a personable brand and a technology story at Skins

  • In hospitals, they have compression bandages to increase the blood flow from the extremities of your limbs and make sure you don't suffer blood clots. So that's the medical background that then got applied into sport with a similar principle, whereby wearing compression apparel would encourage blood flow back to your heart, carry more oxygen, result in better performance and less lactic acid.
  • So it’s a real technical story that combined with a great brand. It became a brand with a real personality, especially in Australia. But as we took it to other countries, it was a similar occurrence. And that was again through the marketing activities of building a brand that really resonated with people and people could identify with and had a technical story.
  • It means that you can then build what is a high value, high price point product that allows a small brand to compete on a direct product basis with the major sports brands and have a price point significantly above them and outsell them.

On how to extract the most synergy between Board and Executive

  • It starts with the Chair. What is the culture they are creating within that Board?
  • And then how do the individual board members approach being a board member? Because it depends on the size of the business, on the complexity of it, on the state of the business and where it's going.
  • Individually, you can't have a fixed perspective of, “I'm a non-executive director, I think this way, I do this.” Particularly if you're in different industries, you have to have an ability to come in with intellectual curiosity but mental flexibility. An ability to almost smell the areas that you need to focus on and where there may be problems. 
  • Sometimes you've got to push harder in the questioning of management because you fear either their degree of smelling the danger is not high enough, or maybe you are overreacting because you're getting too close to the operations.
  • The management team is living and breathing this 10, 12 hours a day. So they certainly should be closer to the issues. But sometimes you can be too close to the issue and can't actually just get a perspective of the world, the technology, the market, the competition.
  • As a Board member, you should have an ability to understand different things quickly and to absorb issues out of what can sometimes be not a lot of information (you get a board pack, which is through the lens of management).
  • Management teams won't always get it right, but are you able to help the management team and the CEO understand that and find the right outcome?
  • And in some ways that's more of a challenge in smaller organisations as they grow incredibly rapidly, because you do know that organisations go through phases of needing different things. So high growth, there is a bit of an S curve that flattens out, an S on its side that can flatten out in the company's growth and sometimes that's a point where you need to retool the management team. And they may or may not be the right people to take it forward – so you want to give them the opportunity, but equally you've got to do the right thing by the company as well.

On the evolution of eo Labs

  • I like being in a role in a company that's fundamentally changing something. Not incrementally, but actually trying to do something just totally different. We're trying to take existing technologies and apply them into sport in a way that is fundamentally new and different and is actually fundamentally advancing an athlete's ability to perform.
  • We are unconstrained by the way that most companies approach the sporting industry and the way most brands are structured, which is essentially a vertical look at sports and product. Whereas we're unconstrained by those, we're technology-agnostic, sport-agnostic, and product-agnostic. We're just trying to find the right technology to create progress and advancement for athletes. Wherever there's a great piece of technology that we can apply into sport, that's where we're playing.
  • If we start with what swim coaches have had to work with to date – their eyes and a stopwatch – the difficulty is translating what they can see with their eyes and an underwater camera into actionable coaching. The answers to that are incredibly complex and coaches have never had any data that helps them understand the successful translation of effort into force into speed.
  • What we are about as a business and the brand is servicing the needs of elite athletes to start with, but in a way which is commercialisable to prosumers, keen athletes, and the like and will eventually into the community. It's the equivalent of the airbags in high-end cars ultimately going all the way through the product line. 

On “the science of defiance”

  • It's taking real science and marrying that with an attitude that we refuse the status quo or just the marginal change. So we are looking for significant benefit for our users, the athletes and the broader community eventually. In a prior life I would be thinking of making a marginally better shoe or a shirt that has better wicking capabilities for sweat. That's not what this business is about. We're about actually changing the rules in some way.
  • Some of our products have huge applications even beyond sport, such as the military, fire departments, mining, and anywhere where there’s a duty of care that an employer owes to their employees. And I also think there's a bit of progress needed for attitudinal change about what is good for the user as opposed to what’s invasive.
  • And if you look at our concussion product, it is not just about the concussion event itself and whether someone stays on the field or not. It becomes critically important on issues like return to school. There are clinics now who are making it clear that for students in that concussion recovery time, they should not be actually undergoing academic stress points like exams. So basically there's a baseline and we can track your overall brain health over a career.
  • What might appear like a single solution to a single event of that athlete is concussed, actually has ramifications way beyond that in terms of that duty of care of sporting bodies and teams to athletes. We're seeing more and more cases of athletes as young as their 40s having to report early stage dementia. So how do we make sure that's not going to happen for the generation that's coming through now? 

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • A lot of the next generation are working it out themselves; they're brave, they're bold, they're quick, they don't expect the world to come to them. They're going to actually go and chase the world.
  • Ultimately, it’s about the skills that you need to acquire along the way, the ability to work with people, as well as strategy and challenges. You need to make yourself a rounded person who understands all of those things, but at the same time, you've got to keep that hunger burning as that, increasingly now in the world, is an absolute must.

Stay epic,
Greg