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The Biz! Mark Doherty (ASICS)

Date: February 17 2009

By: Sneaker Freaker

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Mark Doherty is one rare bird. A fair dinkum Aussie that bleeds green and gold, he has risen through the ranks to become one of the top heads at ASICS, where he markets concepts for their performance range of footwear. Along the way, he has infused his biomechanical prowess with his own peculiar sense of humour, and in the process, helped make ASICS the leading athletic shoe company. He loves a joke as much as he loves shoes, which makes this a thoroughly entertaining discussion.

Hey Mark, What is your actual job title?
That’s interesting, I might pull my wallet out ‘cause it changes every now and again. It’s Global Product Marketing, but the official title is Senior Manager, Product Marketing Footwear. Most people don’t realise what I really do.

What do you really do?
Basically, building sports shoes, or coming up with the concepts. The most important thing is to judge a few years in advance what consumers are going to want. There might be some new process that you want or a biomechanical principle, but when it’s a new concept, it’s normally up to us to find an opening in the market. First and foremost, ASICS is an athletic company, so the shoe has to work. It’s not about gimmicks. I don’t ever care what other people are doing, stuff them. I like to talk to the consumer and find out what they want. I’m hands-on whereas most marketers in my game, they leave it to the developers and designers to do it and that’s fine. For Jim (US), Jurian (Europe) and myself we want to make every shoe perfect.

How did you get started in the shoe game?
How long is the tape here, mate?

I’ve got two hours and 18 minutes. (laughs)
Well I come from a small country town in South Australia called Mannum on the River Murray. My father was a toolmaker and I did it as well, then I went to Adelaide to play football and work in a sporting goods warehouse. In those days, computers weren’t around and you had to write invoices, and I had very neat handwriting, so that got me into the office. I wanted to know how everything was built. We had Gunn & Moore cricket bats, Yonnex tennis racquets, fishing reels from Japan, second-hand rifles from the Russian army and I used to repair them. Then we actually got the Tiger (ASICS) agency and it was very exciting, I’d heard about this Japanese company and how they made really good shoes. I got to understand how footwear was made, and as I was nearing the end of my footy career, I got injured and went to see a physiotherapist. He recommended Tiger and I thought ‘My God, this medico loves our shoes!’

And so I introduced myself to a young biomechanics guru called Simon Bartold and long story short, he taught me a lot about bio-mechanics and I taught him a lot about our shoes. About 14 years ago, ASICS offered me a position and off I went to my first development meeting in Amsterdam. The Americans and Europeans were quite shocked that an Australian was in this meeting. The first day I never said anything, I was just overawed. Day two, I actually put my hand up for the first time and in my usual Australian way,

I spoke way too fast. I looked at the Japanese guy, now a good mate of mine well up in the company in Japan now, Koji is his name, Heida san. He just put his head on a tilt and he’s looking at me as I’m rambling on, ‘cause I went on for about 10 minutes about why I wanted DUOMAX back in the 2020 shoe. He had this quizzical look and he said ‘Mark san, you do not speak Queen’s English’. Now whenever I’m in a meeting in Japan, I have to slow down ‘cause it’s a real strong Aussie accent that I have. But over time, they realised that I really wanted to build shoes. I know we’re the best shoe builders in the world and we went hammer and tongs and stuck to the ASICS DNA. I think it’s held us in good stead.

What do you mean by ASICS DNA?
What we talk about in ASICS is the ride, from heel contact through to toe-off, it’s just a beautiful transition. And most people, when they build shoes, they’re actually thinking ‘we need a component here, we need a component there’, and it becomes an issue of the ‘jewels’ you can put on a shoe. One of the sayings we always use is that most of our competitors are marketing companies that dabble in shoe making but we’re a shoe company that dabbles in marketing. We overbuild shoes but I love that.

There doesn’t seem to be anywhere you can go and learn this stuff so how do you advise kids to get started?
I’ve had kids say that to me, and I always say, ‘are you working in a sports store right now?’ Because there’s nothing better than being hands-on... on feet, basically. Even if it’s part-time, that’s a great way to get started and noticed. You can always tell when someone’s just got it. I always tell kids to be like a sponge, soak it in and then take it into action. Go out and have a look at someone running, and that becomes experience. You made the point that what I do is unique and you’re right. Basically, I’ve learned over the years just by pure experience. I can pick up a shoe and tell you whether it’s going to work or not. In our game it’s actually about ideas and biomechanical principles. A sportsman could come down with an injury and we can build a shoe to help with the problem.

How do you know when someone has ‘got it’?
First of all enthusiasm. They just want to know why this shoe works and things like that. And of course the personality, ‘cause in our game you’re going to be living out of each other’s pockets for weeks on end. In a Japanese company, you’ve got language barriers, so you’ve also gotta be pretty patient and respectful. So when you see these kids, if they’ve got that drive and enthusiasm, and they love footwear and sport, they’re on the right path.

Does it frustrate you that not all shoes are designed to actually work with the body? That you can actually be injured from wearing footwear that doesn’t suit you?
Yeah... Actually, I’m glad in a way, because in the end it makes our shoes better. There are so many players in this game now for fashion because it’s become the money earner for a lot of brands. But for us it isn’t. I’m proud that over the last 60 years we’ve kept to Onitsuka san’s principles. So no, I’m not too worried if someone gets injured wearing another shoe. I love it ‘cause then they can come and wear our shoe and we fix ‘em up. And it normally happens that way too. We are not perfect every time but the percentage is very high!

I get the sense that you enjoy your role at ASICS, working within a smaller, less bureaucratic organisation than one of the giants?
Yeah, the best way to put it is that I’m an Australian. I don’t give a shit about Americans who think they can tell the world how it should be. The greatest thing I have earned is that I have good respect from the Japanese and they’ll listen to an idea, such as the cricket shoe development that we did eight years ago. They had no idea about cricket, they thought it was a crazy game – you play for five days and possibly no result? What? That plate system that we developed for our cricket shoe was extremely expensive in development costs. I’m really proud of how the bosses in Japan backed me on these ideas and spent the money on development, rather than on buying an athlete. We had a famous marketing campaign many years ago that says it very well. ‘While other companies buy athletes, athletes buy ASICS!’ And it is true.

Are you able to express your sense of humour through the product development?
Oh yeah. There’s little quips. I don’t know whether you should put this in ‘cause sometimes I like to keep ‘em quiet, but there was a design element on the football boot and it’s called MFC or multi-function cleat. Japan asked me to come up with a patent name, and the reason I came up with MFC is that it’s my hometown, Mannum Football Club. Now, every time we build a new tooling, I put a little signature on it that relates back to my hometown, they’re actually built into the moulds. Also if you find any ASICS shoe that has an Australian town name, that’s because I’ll often be driving and I’ll see a town and I go Gel so-and-so, yeah, that’s going to work! I did a netball shoe years ago and I was driving through Kiama in southern New South Wales...

Kiama sounds kind of Japanese.
Yeah, it does a bit. How long have you got on that tape?

Keep going.
The funniest story was years ago. I would drive from Sydney back to Adelaide (1500 miles) for Christmas. It was just my two children and I (my wife took the plane!) and it was getting dark and we were worried about hitting kangaroos. I said to my kids, ‘if this town has a hotel, I’m going to name a shoe after it’. The hotel did have a room available, and that town was Tooleybuc. So I actually named a shoe Gel Tooleybuc.

Lucky it wasn’t Poowong or Wagga Wagga.
Tooleybuc was bad enough because everyone just went ‘Tooleybuc? What the hell?’ The only shoe I could do it to was a kid’s shoe. One of our reps at that time was nicknamed Trigger, so I named the shoe after him, because he dared me and the shoe still exists today.  I have taken the piss out of some of my mates as well. Gel Lethal is named after one of my best mates. So yeah, I try and put my own little spin on things. I think that’s the fun of doing this in our development team. When I first started it was tough going to Japan, very regimented. And now, we make meetings fun. I mean we’re building shoes, we’re not brain surgeons! We have long days and it can get very tedious and you’re talking about minute details, but I’m always trying to have fun. I also love taking the mickey out of my little short mate from America, Jim Monahan – we get him to wear test our women’s samples as his feet are so small!

Is sales the only criteria for success?
If the company was going to listen right here, I’d be saying yes, it’s all about making money. The bottom line pays my wages and we have to make money. But there are times when you just have to give it a shot. We’ve done things like the diabetic walking shoes, maybe that wasn’t going to be a huge seller, but now it’s starting to really move, thanks to Kiyo. We developed a shoe for Hockey Australia. Now, that’s going global. The cricket shoe was the perfect example, it was something I wanted to do because cricket shoes were basically rehashed golf shoes and we needed something done for the sport. Cricket shoes are not going to be a huge money-turner for the company ‘cause there’s only certain countries in the world that play it, plus it can only be worn for cricket, unlike basketball for example. The big volume sellers, like the Kayano, the 2100s, 1100s, Nimbus, all these allow us to play with smaller projects

What was your first big success?
Probably the netball shoes. I can remember the first shoe was $130 retail and everyone said ‘You have got to be joking!’ Well that shoe’s now the iconic Gel Netburner. The Lethal footy boot was the proudest moment, because I and Simon Bartold wanted to build a shoe that actually raised the heel in a football boot. Boots back then were so goddam heavy, but when guys put our boots on, they just fell in love with them. Every year we get those boots lighter and lighter. Kinsei, which is our latest running development, was a concept I wrote back in 1999 for this ultimate running shoe. It took us five long years to be happy with the first Kinsei, and it was typical of the teamwork of the global development team.

What’s the budget on something like that?
It’d be scary, probably in the millions ‘cause we went through that many development processes, sample stages and components. Plus it was a big job for our R&D centre. A lot of people put a lot of effort into that shoe, and I have to thank Nishiwaki san and his team at the R&D centre for that!

Can you explain how designers & developers work together?
There are processes that we go through. First of all, it’s up to the marketing guys to come up with a concept. That can be visual concepts, it can even be the costings that we want to hit, and the technology we want to put in the shoe. So we pitch this concept and the boss of the running team (a guy called Senda san, a brilliant man and now it is Takaoka san in charge) will say ‘okay this designer and this developer is in charge of this project’ and the designer and developer work together from the concept stage. In the past it used to be designer then it was passed over to a developer.

So the developer is responsible for the 3-D DESIGN?
Yeah. He takes that 2D design and makes it into an actual 3D sample. They’re the real clever guys. A designer can have a really wacky idea, but actually taking that idea into a physical shoe, and then giving it that ASICS ride, is the real clever part. It takes a few years to become a really good developer at ASICS, and we have some of the best in the world, like Ueno san, Kurosaki san and then there are new boys coming on. Every year we give them new challenges and it can be a huge job, it might take them months to figure out how to do one thing. We go through two normal sample developments, then a photo sample, then a sales sample. Some shoes we’ve actually re-built completely from second sample to photo. Sometimes they get shelved, other times (clicks fingers) it works out.

Do you see a future when we could be wearing something really radically different to what we’re wearing now?
Yeah. I think every product developer has got a pet idea that is like their holy grail. For me, it’s always going to come back to a biomechanical principle, with the help of R&D and research that we do at Melbourne University. There’s one project that is underway now, which is totally, totally radical. And if we can pull it off it’ll be incredible. But it’s so secret, because it’s such a radical idea, that if I was to tell people they’d get very excited about it and if we can’t do it everyone will drop their bundle. So I’ve learned over the years that you don’t tell anyone. If this project comes off, mark my words...

You’ll be a dead-set legend.
Yeah, I hope so.

Well I think that’s it.
That’s it? I thought you wanted more funny stuff...

Well, I have time for funny stories... Do you have any?
I’ve got heaps, mate. I’ve got real funny stories about sales meetings and things like that. There’s a famous one, we went to a bar in Japan one night and this Japanese ASICS guy showed us a trick – he’d break a set of chopsticks by squeezing his jocks and his butt cheeks together or something, I don’t know how he did it. Our new guy got up and did it, and I don’t know what happened, but it went wrong and he got all these splinters and we were killing ourselves....


THE NEXT TWENTY MINUTES OF TAPE HAVE BEEN KEPT SECRET ON THE GROUNDS OF COMMON DECENCY AND LIBEL LAWS.

Is there anything else you’d still like to do?
One day I’d love to meet Phil Knight, he made the sporting industry what it is now, and I’d be interested if he ever knew of me (laughs). People often say they would have liked to have met Onitsuka. They brought him to the European sales meeting a couple of years ago and I have never seen anything like it, it was like a rock star walked in. There he was, our founder, this is the man who had the philosophy back in the ‘50s of getting people active. He just had an aura about him. His life story is even more amazing than Phil’s. I’m sure Phil has the same aura about him at Nike. Or Mr Knight, as I should call him.

This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here 

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