Corporate Innovator Profile
|Name: Julie Belkus
Title: Senior Manager-Product Management, Innovation
Experience: New Balance
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 10 years
LinkedIn: Julie Belkus
As an iconic global athletic brand, Reebok must consistently innovate to maintain and grow market share in the midst of increasing competition. A primary stakeholder in this endeavor is Julie Belkus, a senior manager within the company’s burgeoning innovation group. Julie recently spoke to us about the innovation priorities of one of the world’s largest footwear companies, how those priorities have changed and evolved over time, and how she guides her team to identify trends 3-5 years ahead of market acceptance.
Tell us a little bit about how your career has evolved from its beginnings in consumer products to innovation roles at some of the world’s largest footwear companies.
My career began in women’s ready-to-wear fashion apparel as a technical designer working for Sears and then later Saks Inc. When I took my first role in footwear product development, I had no clue how footwear was made or what the creative process would be, but I knew I could learn. I was excited to bring my fashion experience into the athletic world.
I found my way to New Balance and wasn’t there for long before I was driving the factory crazy with a steady stream of self-initiated side projects on top of my assigned projects. If there was a new material or new process, I wanted to try it. If I thought I could better develop a design by modifying the intent or look, I would request my own prototypes. Sometimes these explorations became real shoes, other times I failed, learned and applied the experience to a new endeavor.
Moving into innovation from an inline product development mindset is a big shift. Calendars, direction, boundaries and cost are all theoretical and highly ambiguous. Being comfortable and thriving on working in the gray area is critical to your success. But innovation proved a good fit for me. I love new ideas and particularly ideas that people say are impossible. There is nothing more satisfying than making the impossible possible.
I started an executive MBA program at Johnson Cornell last June and wanted an opportunity to implement my new skills to take product and process innovation to a new level. A recruiter from Reebok reached out to me and after a few months of talking, I decided to come in to meet the team. Upon interviewing, I knew I wanted to be a part of building the Reebok brand through innovation. This past February I accepted my new role. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working at Reebok.
People don’t normally think of innovation and physical apparel products in the same sentence. What are some of the current innovation priorities in footwear and how have those priorities evolved since you first began your role in enterprise innovation?
When I started in product more than ten years ago, there were opportunities to innovate product within the business unit without always requiring the assistance of an innovation group working close to inline development calendars. A company usually had a group focused on longer-range innovations that were 5+ years out, but typically inline design and development had the freedom and risk tolerance to innovate for the short-term.
However, a few years into my footwear career things changed. Companies began to drive lean manufacturing and Six Sigma methodologies throughout the organization to better manage risk and improve efficiencies and margins. In my opinion, the unintended consequences of these changes were the hampering of creativity and innovation. Product looked homogenous from season-to-season at retail. In the aftermath of these implementations, most footwear brands realized the need for more expansive innovation groups that could operate more freely than the inline organization.
Priorities differ from one innovation team and brand to another, but in general, most are typically focused on creating platform technologies with longevity that can be used over multiple seasons. Once a marketing strategy and story have been crafted around these new innovations, the inline product teams manage the incremental design changes of future seasons. The transition of technology platforms to inline then frees the innovation teams to work on defining the future.
The competitive pressures for a company such as Reebok must present many challenges. In the midst of such major competition, how are innovation objectives – from products to marketing – driven by the need to continuously outpace competitors?
With the athletic footwear market at, or near, saturation, brands face monumental pressure to gain market share at the expense of the competition. With the rise of the ath-leisure trend and the casualization of what people consider acceptable “dress code,” demand for sportswear has risen significantly and brought new brands (and some familiar but new-to-sportswear brands) into the mix. In this climate to protect and grow a brand’s market share, intrapreneurs in footwear must invest in and drive innovation throughout the systemic organization, particularly in product creation and everything consumer-facing.
Within the footwear industry specifically, tomorrow’s trends are being identified today. How challenging is it to forecast and develop innovation that is 3-5 years away from reaching the consumer?
Thanks to the rise of data analytics and consumer insights, I would say identifying current and future consumer trends has become a little easier, but data is just one tool that footwear innovators utilize. We study social and economic macro-trends with the potential to shape the world as far as 10 to 20 years out, in hopes of anticipating future consumer needs and behaviors. Sometimes we partner with universities to develop entirely new materials. We also study technologies entirely removed from footwear, looking for abstract connections that might influence consumers.
With so many trends and countertrends developing and playing out in the world sometimes it can be daunting to focus in on just a handful of potential work streams. When narrowing focus on which trends to pursue, we try to view them through the unique lens of the brand and select those trends that are authentic to our identity.
As a follow-up to the previous question, planning for long-term consumer wins is important, but how do you balance that with the innovator’s need to show short-term wins on a consistent basis?
Innovation has a push-pull relationship within an organization. For new innovation teams, you always feel the pull from the inline teams for new products and technologies to fill gaps or holes in product assortments because of missed opportunity. To satiate the organization and prove your innovation team can execute, it is important to initially devote significant project loads to quick-wins, while working slowly in the background on longer-term and more likely game changing technology.
When you’ve executed a few short-term projects and successfully rolled them out and transitioned them to the inline teams, you build trust. Trust is critical to the relationship between greater organization and innovation teams. Once you’ve earned some credibility, you’ll feel less immediate pressure to execute, and you can focus on more future orientated projects where you’re pushing the new into the organization.
What does the future look like for corporate innovators within the footwear industry? What can we expect the priorities to be for Reebok and the industry as a whole?
As a corporate innovator, I see a real need to build a culture of innovation throughout organizations. To compete and be successful, having an innovation team working in isolation on product isn’t sufficient. Manufacturing, operations, HR, marketing, IT/digital architecture, costing processes, essentially any and all processes and functional areas of an organization need to be open to incremental and disruptive innovation to support the brand of the future. For the industry, over the long-term, you will see organizations embrace systemic innovation or they will lose to the competition. There is no place in this industry for a “This is the way we’ve always done things,” attitude.
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