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5.14.99  
How One Startup Snared a Big Fish for its Board
Robert Meers, retired Reebok CEO, talks about helping young companies

When Robert Meers, 55, former president and CEO of Reebok International, retired at the end of last year, he had brought the company to $3.5 billion in sales -- up from $13 million when he arrived over 15 years ago. During his tenure, he served as president of the Specialty Business Group, where he catapulted champion golfer Greg Norman from a Reebok endorser to an upscale, full-line, $100 million sportswear brand. As president of Rockport, a Reebok subsidiary, Meers expanded the U.S. walking-shoe company to an international brand with $355 million in sales and record profits. That kind of track record has made him a sought-after director for small companies.

Prior to retirement, he had limited his board service to that of a few nonprofits, the American College of Sports Medicine and, of course, Reebok. However, since January, he has joined the boards of two small entrepreneurial firms, Tubbs Snowshoes, owned by a friend from his days at Wilson Sporting Goods, and Fitforall.com, a personalized health and fitness Web site. At press time, he had just agreed to join the board of Reflective Technologies in Cambridge, Mass. (See our feature on boards, Star Search, in the May 24, 1999 edition of Business Week frontier.)

Meers spoke with Business Week frontier's Echo Montgomery Garrett about why he is attracted to serve on the boards of young, entrepreneurial companies and what he looks for before agreeing to serve. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: Were you surprised to find yourself a hot property when you retired?
A:
Absolutely. The initial vision of retirement is you go sit on a dock and fish. You tend to think everyone will forget you existed when you don't have a business card anymore. But the opposite was true. If you let yourself, you can get spread too thin.

Q: Did you actively seek positions on boards of entrepreneurial firms?
A:
As you get ready to retire, you do a lot of introspective looking at your life and examining what you truly enjoy. In my case, I like creating things that didn't exist before. I like innovation. Consequently, what is very attractive to me is associating with people I like and people who have high energy and a strong commitment to success. They must have the business vision that could change the particular industry they are operating in. So when offers started coming my way, I knew I wanted to accept some. However, I wanted to be extremely cautious. In each case, I need to make sure I can supply time and resources that can help the company.

Q: How did Reflective Technologies catch your attention?
A:
Reflective had approached Reebok when I was president about using their product. I remember seeing it in a product review and being taken aback by how innovative it was. Then the product for some reason never made the product line, and I forgot about it. In January, the courting period began with a call from a friend of mine, a well-respected lawyer in the Boston area, who contacted me about the company, saying he thought I'd like Adam Rizika (the CEO of Reflective) and their product. Thirty-six hours later, a Midwest investment firm called me and said they'd seen something incredibly interesting and wanted me to go over and take a look at Reflective. I thought they had an amazing innovation and business idea, a highly intelligent and committed management team, and an opportunity to bring to market products in a variety of areas that would revolutionize the marketplace. Reflective totally fit my interests and, from a personal point of view, I liked their aggressiveness and thought I could add value.

Q: How has the courtship process gone?
A:
Before I even joined the board of directors, I met with them more than a dozen times. We've met at their headquarters, my offices, suppliers' offices, and at financial investors' offices. Their management team is very bright and intellectually interested in how to build a brand equity around their product line in the international marketplace. They are looking for people who can help them succeed. They are not simply looking to get names on their board. They want people who will contribute and challenge their thinking. They aren't afraid to ask for assistance, but they are not afraid to challenge me either. That to me makes a strong partnership. Before we ever got into a discussion about remuneration or equity, I needed to make sure we were compatible and shared the same degree of commitment. Candidly, that's more important to me than money. I have the luxury of working with people I want to work with.

Q: What does a young company need to have to attract someone like you?
A:
They have got to have a compelling idea that's intellectually stimulating; a well-thought-out strategic plan or vision; and an intelligent, high-energy, committed management team. They have got to be committed to win. The truth is, everything else is a crap shoot. From an ego point of view, Reflective really hit a chord.



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