Fila, flying high, tries to step into No. 3 spot

July 17, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sporting Goods IntelligenceSun Staff Writer

As he looks down at the new pair of Filas on his feet at Mondawmin Mall, Thomas Whitby can sum up one of Maryland's biggest business successes of the 1990s in 10 words.

"It's a different look," the 28-year old said. "That's basically why I bought these."

In the three years since the Italian maker of athletic shoes and apparel bought out its U.S. licensee, Fila USA Inc. has been skying. Sales of the U.S. arm jumped 61 percent last year. The Hunt Valley-based company is doubling the size of its East Baltimore sneaker warehouse this year and opening a half-dozen boutiques and two dozen factory outlet stores. And it has added 100 local jobs since 1991, tripling the size of the Hunt Valley operation.

"It's amazing that they're growing this fast," said Bob Carr, editor of Bob Carr's Inside Sporting Goods, a New York-based newsletter. "The market hasn't been growing fast, and people don't take risks in this market. They do what's safe, and Nike and Reebok are what's safe."

But Fila has been crushing the market, boosting shoe sales 160 percent in 1992 when the market was growing only 5 percent. Last year, Fila's shoe sales jumped 25 percent to $250 million, according to Sporting Goods Intelligence, a Glen Mills, Pa.-based newsletter. The New York investment bank Goldman Sachs said 1994 footwear sales will jump to $308 million.

Fila's smaller apparel division is also growing, from $25 million in 1991 U.S. sales to nearly $68 million this year. The Italian company does not report earnings separately for its U.S. division.

The fight is really just beginning, though. All Fila's work so far has only gotten it to sixth place among U.S. athletic shoe companies. Its market share is only 4 percent.

Nike and Reebok are out of reach for now. But L.A. Gear Inc. (4.65 percent and falling) and Interco Inc.'s Converse brand (4.25 percent and rising) are fourth and fifth, and Fila is gunning for them.

"Possibly, by the end of the year, we'll be No. 3," said Howe Burch, the company's director of advertising and communications.

The last thing Jack Steinweis looks like is a fighter. Fila USA's 40ish, long-haired senior vice president for footwear is a sneaker junkie, with tours at Puma and Diadora under his belt and jargon like "shelf keeping units" (he means different styles of shoes) on his lips. But it's a sneaker war out there, so he's a warrior.

The war room at Fila USA is a conference room that looks suspiciously like a shoe store, on the 12th floor of a Hunt Valley office building -- the very space the Baltimore Colts left behind when they fled for Indiana. The walls are lined with hundreds of sneakers, mostly models not on the market yet.

The shoes seem much wilder than he does as Mr. Steinweis explains the plan to get from No. 6 to No. 3. He doesn't talk much about the big star Fila hopes to sign to an endorsement deal this week, or the flashy "Change the Game" commercials with NBA forward Jamal Mashburn that drive Fila's marketing. In short, he doesn't dwell on personalities, even though this business has made everyone from Michael Jordan to Nike's enigmatic founder Phil Knight famous.

"The formula is product, product and product," he insists. The opportunity is clearly there. But it's not a slam dunk.

"After the top two, there's a big drop-off," said Andrew Gaffney, editor of Sporting Goods Business, a Manhattan trade publication. ". . . After the one or two spot, anyone could grow substantially. It's just a question of who it's going to be and how much share they can grab."

Keds, Converse and L.A. Gear are Fila's immediate rivals. Keds is not a major problem, since its canvas-topped shoes compete for a different market than Fila. Overtaking L.A. Gear appears to be a matter of time. Converse is the problem.

Converse and adidas are firing hard. Converse has revived the Ancient Mariner of the shoe business, repositioning the Chuck Taylor line of canvas basketball shoes it founded in 1917 as a fashion statement. "They even show them on women in Vogue," said Jennifer Black-Groves, an analyst at Black & Co. in Portland, Ore.

Converse has also brought its other shoes and their marketing into the 1990s. Hurt by the retirement of spokesmen Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Converse has signed Charlotte Hornets star Larry Johnson and dressed him up as slammin', jammin' Grandmama in high tops, the high tops in question being Converse's React line. Converse is also expanding into cross training shoes and running shoes.

Adidas is also showing signs of bouncing back from years of stagnant U.S. sales after the creation of a separate U.S. unit 18 months ago. Figures from 1993 show that adidas still wasn't growing, but industry magazines expect a much better performance this year. The company has signed New York Knicks guard John Starks to join longtime endorser Patrick Ewing, but its heaviest ad play goes to ESPN sportscaster Dick Vitale.

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