When you think of Jordan Brand there is only one eponymous man that comes to mind. But what about the players behind the scenes - the ones that have kept the Jumpman franchise bubbling like a Berocca since 1985? Introducing Gentry Humphrey, Jordan Brand's General Manager and undisputed king of the hill. Gentry is no overnight rising star. He has been holding down the Jordan fort for the last 18 years, making and breaking deals, all to create the most sought after sneakers on the block. When he's not jet-setting to catch a game of hoops, he's the go-to-man when it comes to getting the dirt on Jordan sneakers. We sent along our main man X-Drift, Melbourne's certified Jordan junkie, to hit Gentry with the all questions you'd ever want answered!
First up Mr Gentry, tell us about being the GM of Jordan Brand - what does your role entail?
Okay. Well it's a funny thing, lately I've been calling myself the dinosaur of the Jordan crew because basically I've been around for quite a long time. I have been working with Michael for about 18 years now. In my old role I was primarily responsible for everything that had to do with footwear. In my new role, I'm the international GM of the Jordan brand where my responsibilities are pretty much everything! Not just footwear but apparel, advertising, sales and strategic planning for our overseas markets.
So you're pretty much running the company?
I don't know about that. They're trying to throw a lot on my shoulders though. When the brand first started in the US it was a $160m company and well, now, we've obviously surpassed the billion-dollar mark. As we look at our international business, it's pretty much in the infant stages. Ninety percent of our current business is done out of the US but I was there from the beginning to help the growth in the US and they've put the challenge on me to grow the business internationally. So really that's my new focus – incorporating just about anything and everything that has to do with the business. But I think it's a great opportunity for the brand as we look to grow and expand beyond the US.
Prior to being top banana, what did you do at Jordan Brand?
Anything and everything on the US side of the footwear business, from initial concepts to approving design. I had a group of 26 people that reported directly to me and I had influence over probably another 60 – everything from product marketing to design and development. All of those fell underneath my gig, just trying to come up with a strategy, or should I say, a future strategy that would allow the footwear industry of our business to grow, creating concepts and then making sure that you see those things through from beginning to end...
What are your thoughts on Australia at the moment and what do you hope to achieve while you're down here?
Australia is very interesting for me. I love it here, period. There's just so much about it that is rich.
You keep coming during winter!
Yeah. You're right, if it were up to me I'd be here in summer and if it wasn't so far away I'd probably be here a whole lot more often. The people here are great. And then when you complement that with my love for the game of basketball and see how rich the culture is here, it's pretty exciting. When I can go to a couple of rec centres and just see people playing the game, from morning ‘til night, with courts being filled the entire time, it is pretty exciting! If you look outside the US, there are pockets where the game of basketball has a big influence on people. And while most people look at the business opportunity in Australia as a small opportunity, really for me there's an emotional connection because of the excitement around the game itself. Being connected to that is just huge for me.
Well, unfortunately our local NBL is struggling as a professional league. With Australia, there seems to be a touch of tall-poppy-syndrome going on. A lot of our good players end up going to your country and we can't afford to keep them here. What are your thoughts on the sport down under on a professional level?
Like anything in life there are people looking for a land of opportunity, so the big players are obviously looking to go to those areas where they can maximise their opportunities. It almost starts at a grass-roots level, so the more you can continue to build excitement at that level, the better the game will have an opportunity to grow in the long term. What I think is lacking here now is the fact that no one is really coming in and investing in the game. So part of my trip here is to just really look at the opportunities and see how I can make an impact on the game itself and how it parlays itself into opportunities for the brand. But really it's more about staying connected to the younger consumer, creating additional excitement around the game itself and then just seeing how it eventually leads to bigger opportunities. And who knows, maybe over time that starts to develop a better plan for a professional league here.
What have you got in store at JB? Is there anything special for us coming up?
Funny you should ask. I walked into one of the retailers yesterday and it was hilarious. I feel like a lot of times I'm in a no-win situation. We're getting ready to release the Air Jordan III. And many people don't realize this is an international market exclusive.
Why was it an international release only?
I remember being here a year ago and everybody said ‘Oh how come we don't have what the US has?' You can never seem to please everyone, but at the end of the day I think the excitement that it brings to the brand and whether they're talking about the hype around it, has a positive influence on what we do. You're going to see more things happen like that where we start to introduce special projects which are international-only and so forth. As I start to travel throughout the rest of the world and look at these pockets where the game is really relevant, I hope to create some special projects just for those regions. So I definitely foresee an opportunity in the future to do some special Australia-only projects.
Awesome. I want to talk to you about the rumour of the VIs dropping. Apparently there is going to be six colourways and it's going to go crazy. Is there a reason why they've been rather late to the party - is that part of your strategy?
We have to be very calculated and strategic about the releases of our retro product mainly because the influence of everything else that we have in the line besides retro has a big part in what we decide to release. In other words, if we're doing a basketball shoe, and just by chance it might be a team basketball shoe and it has some similar design lines to something like the VI, then we're not going to necessarily bring out the VI because they're going to cannibalise each other. So a lot of it plays into which releases we decide to bring to market. Every time we drop a new retro shoe, another shoe becomes one of the favourites. So for instance once we release the VI, all of a sudden our people will want the IIIs or IVs.
So we'll calculate all that and figure out when the right time to fill those voids is. It really is about looking at the overall business strategy and seeing what fits best. The new footwear team has decided to drop the VIs at this point in time and I think it makes sense for us to do it now. There's going to be a lot of colours dropping, which should be very interesting. I just think we have to be very smart in how we mix it so that we don't get into an area where we drop too many colours and we lose some of that love affair with what that shoe is all about. There's one colourway that we have planned, it's really pretty sweet. It's just a black-white version.
Yeah, I've seen that. It's got a bit of a speckle down low as well?
I'm looking forward to that. And what about the motor sports? You guys released the ones for the motor sport team as well, right?
That one will be a really, really exclusive entry and very limited. Few people will probably get that one. But yeah, we're going to drop that one in and it ties directly into Michael's motorcycle team.
The bike colour, yeah?
Yeah. They change their graphics and colourways every season, so we just happened to connect it in with that particular shoe. It looks pretty hot.
Apparently next year for the 25th anniversary you'll be releasing all the shoes in all-white. Is that right?
Well you know what, we're actually not. But we always have some special concepts that we think about trying out. That picture leaked out ironically by Chris Paul...
On his Twitter page!
Yeah, we just happened to have those in one of our showrooms on campus. He saw them and thought that they were pretty cool and now all of a sudden people think we're going to release them. That's the power of the digital world!
What's the deal with the bombardment of hybrid Jordan styles hitting the streets over the OG flavours? Is the aim to attract the newer kids with the crazy styles and the fusions?
I think we end up capturing those people just through the evolution of the brand really. The great thing about Jordan is the fact that we have been able to create that emotional connection because of Michael's success and all of the emotional connections that consumers from the past have been able to draw to retro.
Everybody can tell you why they love their favourite Air Jordans. Everybody has their special moments with their shoes. And unfortunately, the younger generation today doesn't really have that to draw on - they only have stories from their siblings or parents. So the legacy of the brand lives through the culture and history of people that are true collectors, people that get the brand, like yourself.
The younger generation only has those stories, so when we start to introduce these new projects and they see things like the fusion, they're able to kind of draw their own connection and start to develop their own story. Their stories become a part of the past but there's also a part of the future that allows them to have a connection. So I think while it's not our intent to draw those new consumers directly to fusion, I think it happens somewhat naturally.
Why is Michael Jordan himself no longer involved with publicly promoting the brand, like in the old days?
All the footage that exists of Michael is owned by the NBA, so a lot of that stuff we unfortunately don't have the rights to. But with today's digital world through YouTube and everything else, the consumer has an opportunity to still tap into what that world is all about. So as you start to see us marketing the brand going forward, we'll have Michael do a cameo appearance, but we'll start doing things more creatively in the realms of digital. The concept around the new Air Jordan really fits in well with how we can tell the future of the brand, how Michael's involved with the brand and how the legacy can carry over into the new athletes of today. We'll be pretty creative and allow people to see a different side of Michael, but yet still be able to relate to what Michael did in the past.
Okay. You mentioned the new Air Jordan then, do you mean the Jordan 2010?
Yes. This will be the one that people will have a chance to see little bit of MJ, but you'll also get a good feel of where the brand is headed for the future.
While I've still got it on my head, I must commend you on all the commercials that Jordan Brand do because they're absolutely crazy!
That's good if it inspires you, hopefully it inspires a lot of other people, if so we've actually done our job well.
Yeah, you've done it very well especially the one where he talks about how he made it look easy - I'm surprised you guys don't win awards for that stuff.
(Laughs) It's funny though... the tough thing is in the advertising world, it's very easy for people to try to win awards. So obviously many times they will do things that they think are over-the-top and really kind of out-there. But sometimes they don't hit the sweet spot because they go too far. Our challenge is to make sure that we balance it, that we push the limit in our advertising without missing our target audience and the boat altogether. From an advertising standpoint, that's always the challenge, but through the years we've been able to strike a nice balance of being edgy yet relevant so that people connect with it.
Which brings me to my next question - the recent viral marketing campaign with Leroy Smith aka Charlie Murphy!
Yeah, you know, we had a little bit to do with it. (Chuckles)
Initially there was no branding or anything! Charlie Murphy and Manny Mayek are funny as hell doing the Shazam!
The deal there was really inspired by Michael. I think what a lot of people don't realise about Michael is he has a great, great sense of humour. Leroy Smith was the guy obviously that beat Michael out of his sophomore year when he was playing, trying out for the varsity high school basketball team. So from that day on to show you Michael's competitive nature, it became a motivation for him to continue to do well. Once Michael made it to the NBA, Leroy would continue to be a driving motivation. You know, MJ would check into hotels with the alias of Leroy Smith. It's important to see the funny side or take the lighter side of the brand.
True that! Back to the Jordan 2010 - can you give me some insight into the inspiration?
Michael always is the first point of inspiration for the Air Jordan game shoe. When we sat down with him the first time, Michael talked about how he played the game. We always usually get those nuggets to start us off from an inspirational standpoint. And one of the things that was most fascinating about the conversation was that Michael talked about when he played, he only wanted players to see what he wanted them to see in his game.
So in other words if he went out (his basketball IQ is off the charts) and he's playing against a team and they are a poor three-point shooting team, Michael might play off a defender to make them shoot the three pointer and basically try to get them to shoot themselves out of the game. In doing so he would show that offensive player that he might be lax on defence but in reality, when he knew it was crunch time and he needed to do what he had to do to win, he could lock you down at any point in time.
So I'm thinking either camouflage or magic?
Close. We put that inspiration into the shoe, so when you look at it there'll be things that you'll be able to see in the shoe that you haven't seen before with some interesting techniques that some people might say, seem magical. I can't give it away but as we get closer to the date maybe we can connect again and we'll show you an image of the shoe.
Perfect! Now I know that Jordan Brand does a lot of design competitions and gives plenty of opportunities to get the youth involved. Is there any advice that you would give to the kids that would possibly be looking for work eventually in the sneaker game?
It starts off with having a passion for the business and the sport. Whether you love the game of basketball or whether you love design, whether you love the logo or whatever, be passionate about whatever it is. And that will help drive an individual to get to wherever they want.
As this business grows there are so many things that allow it to tick. So if you're a great artist and you want to go to design school, obviously there's something there. If you're very creative in your thought process, there's marketing opportunities. If you're very good at being an engineer, great – we just don't draw good shoes, we have to develop good shoes. We need good people who can make that happen. So whatever your interests are and whatever your talents are, and if you do those things well or you're able to perfect those skills, there's an opportunity for individuals to work within the brand. So all I would say is make sure that you continue to strive to perfect those skills and then when those opportunities arise where you can move into the business, take advantage of it.
Say you're a great designer and during the summer months you worked at a retailer and gained knowledge of the industry and the business, and then one day you get the opportunity to interview for a design position, you can always draw back on those experiences to show how they helped influence your skills for today. I think a lot of young people take a lot of things for granted. You could do volunteer work at a basketball camp. There's a lot of ways that you can parlay those volunteer experiences into future opportunities.
Let's say I've taken a trip to the States, could I give you a call and you could show me a tour of the JB office?
If you can catch me (laughs).
Alright. I'm going to put that down as a definite-maybe.
Yeah. I'm not always there, but if I am there, yes, you can always reach out to me, I'm always willing to assist people. If I'm not too busy I'm more than willing to take people to certain places to show them around the place.
You can pretty much just unlock the door and let me go!
(Laughs) Well, we definitely have to unlock the door ‘cause it's pretty much lockdown over there. But if people do 'rock this way', I always make sure that there are opportunities for me to connect them with the right people.
Have you ever put anything on eBay personally?
Oh, heck no!
If you were going to, what would it be?
Oh man, you know, the crazy thing is I'm so connected with the stuff that I do that I just don't ... I don't ever see me doing that.
The footage I’ve seen of your secret closet is mad! There's tons and tons of crazy stuff in there.
Yeah. And that's only a third of the stuff that I have. I have some really, really special things in my collection.
You could probably retire off that stuff.
I mean it's so special. It's almost like if you're a parent and people ask you about your children, you never can say who your favourite kid is ‘cause then the other kid gets upset, you know. I love the things that I have in a BIG way and I can't see me letting them go!
Sneakers don't have ears! There was a rumour that JB and Kanye are doing something together...
No. Not right now.
Ok, last question. If you were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, who would be your phone-a-friend?
Ah, that is an interesting question. To be honest with you, I think my last phone call would probably be to Ray Allen.
Interview by Mark 'X-Drift' Gale