Nike career is a perfect fit
From athlete to Nike executive, Charlie Denson has made it big
Hollywood surely has a place for another cookie-cutter drama: 'The Charlie Denson Story: Small-Town Kid Makes Really, Really Good.'
Growing up in Corvallis, Charles Denson couldn't have envisioned his current lot in life as one of two presidents for Nike Inc. There were local options. He could have inherited the family business, Denson Feed & Seed, founded by his grandfather in 1931.
But Denson was, in his words, 'always a sports fanatic.' You could usually find him on a ball field or court, whether in a game at Cloverland Park or sneaking into Oregon State's Parker Stadium or Gill Coliseum for some stolen moments with his pals.
He went on to a football and track and field career at Crescent Valley High in Corvallis, then played football at Mt. Hood Community College and Utah State. In each situation, he was a key cog in a winning situation.
So in the sports world, there was some Denson credential-building going on early. Still, it has been a remarkable leap from there to running the operational side of the largest sporting apparel company the world has known.
'My career kind of parallels the company's history,' says Denson, 47, who began at Nike as an assistant store manager in 1979. 'It has been a great ride. Life isn't too bad.'
Denson has a seven-figure salary, a vacation home in Sunriver, a membership at Pumpkin Ridge and a wife, Trina, who understands that more than a little responsibility lands in the lap of her husband.
They ski, mountain-bike and play tennis together. They tend to their two young boys, Justin, 4, and Jackson, 2. But there's too little free time for Denson, who has a 16-year-old daughter, Lindsey, by a previous marriage.
'I wouldn't trade jobs with anybody,' Denson says, sitting at his desk in the McEnroe Building on Nike's Beaverton campus. 'The pressure is at a different level than anything I have done, but (the job) is a ton of fun. I feel like I lead a pretty balanced life; I do spend a lot of time at the office. And whether you're physically here or not, you're always connected somehow.
'I'm lucky. Trina is incredibly supportive. She understands the context from which I go to work every day. The boys, they keep me young. I'm blessed in that regard.'
Phil Knight's co-right-hand man remembers Nike before it was Nike.
'When I was in high school, we used to go down to the shoe repair shop off campus on Monroe Street and buy the original Tiger shoes,' Denson says. 'That was when Phil and (Bill) Bowerman were doing the deal with Tiger, and the original Cortez shoe was a Japanese-manufactured Tiger shoe. I remember buying those in a little plastic bag.
'When the Nike brand started in about 1972, Geoff Hollister (a pioneer with the company) came to Crescent Valley during track practice, and I bought my first shoes out of the back of his car.'
Upon graduation from Utah State in 1978, Denson worked in the sporting goods department of Meier & Frank stores in Portland and Eugene. Then he ran into old Corvallis neighbor John Woodman, who was managing six West Coast retail stores for a new firm called Nike. Woodman asked if he would interested in a job.
'It didn't sound like it was a real job or a real company,' Denson says now.
A few months later, in February 1979, Denson accepted a job as assistant manager of a Nike retail store on Southeast 106th Avenue and Stark Street.
'I figured I would work for four or five years, have some fun and then get a real job,' he says. 'Little did I know.'
Nike was a mom and pop-like organization in those days.
'The company was small,' Denson says. 'You knew everybody. Every Friday afternoon, we'd go to the home office in Allen Business Park by Washington Square and have beers. Everybody would congregate and talk about what happened that week and whether or not we'd get paid.'
Climbing the rungs
The next year, Denson got a taste of the big time. He moved to Boston and served a two-year stint as Nike's East Coast promotional representative for college basketball, pro football and major league baseball.
Suddenly, he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lou Carnesecca, Lefty Driesell, John Thompson, Gary Williams, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Carlton Fisk, Pete Brock and Russ Francis.
'I was 24 years old, running around with the biggest names in sports, giving away free stuff,' Denson says. 'It doesn't get any better than that. During baseball season, all I did was go to Fenway Park every day at 2 p.m. and hang out. Our endorsement contracts weren't very big then Ñ basically, $500 of free products.'
Denson returned to Portland in 1982, worked in Nike customer service for eight months, then moved to Los Angeles to serve as a sales representative. He stayed for eight years.
'When I first got there, I had 350 accounts,' Denson says. 'I had every little tennis shop from Malibu to San Diego. I eventually worked my way up to a sales manager job.'
Denson came back to Portland in 1990 and began a quick ascension up Nike's corporate ladder. By 1994, he was vice president of U.S. sales, helping the company experience the biggest growth period in its history. Then it was on to the Netherlands in 1997, first to serve as VP of European sales, then as general manager of Nike Europe.
'That was a great experience,' Denson says of the international duties. 'We retooled and refocused the sales organization and experienced a great growth period. We grew the business more than a billion and a half dollars in three years. We put ourselves on the map. We had a great World Cup in Paris in '98, which helped us launch the brand authentically in Europe and got us focused on soccer.
'Working in Europe was the most pure fun I have had in my career. It was so new to me, being in a foreign land and getting to experience not only incredible growth from a business standpoint, but also personal growth from a cultural standpoint.
'I learned more in four years than I did the previous 15,' he says. 'It's a different environment, and you have to learn a lot about yourself, and how to motivate and inspire people who don't culturally have the same background as you or think the same way.'
Nike's fix-it guys
By 2000, Nike sales were flagging in the United States, and Denson was called back to Portland to serve as vice president and general manager of Nike USA. In April 2001, with Knight beginning a gradual withdrawal from the company's penthouse, Denson and Mark Parker were named co-presidents. The two had started with Nike within months of each other in the late '70s but didn't know each other well and had never worked together directly.
'We had to sit down and figure out how we were going to split things up,' Denson says. 'Phil didn't have any specific instructions. He just said, 'Fix it.'
'Mark and I decided we had to put a little bit of hierarchy into the matrix and organize around our individual strengths, which would give us the ability to be stronger leaders.'
The upshot: Parker began to oversee product creation, design and development along with brand management. Denson assumed control of corporate organization, profit-and-loss divisions and human resources.
Parker, a former Penn State distance runner with a biomechanics background, has designed many of Nike's shoes over the years. In many ways, he's a virtual opposite of Denson, who believes that's to the company's advantage.
'It's a right brain-left brain combination,' he says. 'A pragmatic-creative combination. A product-sales combination. I'm a little more outgoing and gregarious. He's a little more quiet and reserved. I'm all about the process. He's all about the product. We are complementary.
'This literally allows the president to be in two places at one time, which is a big advantage for us. It has worked beyond our grandest expectations.'
The last three years have allowed Denson to forge a closer relationship with Knight.
'I have learned a lot,' Denson says. 'Phil is not a great academic teacher, but he's a great influencer. He doesn't sit you down and tell you this is what you are supposed to do, or how you should do it Ñ ever.
'But he is intuitive with respect to the business and the world of sports in general and how it interacts with everything. He's insightful. That's why he's what and who he is. He sets high expectations and rewards those who fulfill them.'
Sometime in the coming years, Knight will step aside and allow a successor to assume control at Nike. Could it be the small-town kid from down the Willamette Valley?
'If that's the next step, fine,' Denson says. 'If it isn't, that's fine, too. I don't have that aspiration.
'Phil is the icon, the spiritual leader of our company, but he's not really a stand-up, rah-rah guy. In a lot of ways, the company runs itself. There's a great core group of employees who make this place go. It has been incredibly rewarding to be a part of that. It's an honor for me to be in the position I'm in, to help lead it.
'So if it works out, great. If it doesn't, I have gone way beyond my expectations to start with. Believe me, I won't feel incomplete.'