Puma is purring again. Under 40-year-old CEO Jochen Zeitz, the German athletic shoemaker has become one of the world's hottest fashion brands. From casual and sports apparel to roller skates and sunglasses, Puma's leaping-cat logo suddenly seems to be everywhere. Sales soared 52% last year, to $1.1 billion, even as much larger rivals Nike, Adidas, and Reebok battled lackluster growth.
It's a remarkable turnaround. Puma, which once vied with Adidas as the leading global seller of sports footwear, had faded from view by the 1980s after failing to update its product line. By 1993, the company was $100 million in debt. Enter Zeitz, a German-born dynamo who is fluent in six languages and an avid amateur pilot. A former marketing executive at Colgate-Palmolive Co., he was recruited as Puma's marketing chief in 1991. He moved into the top job two years later, becoming the youngest CEO of any publicly listed German company at the time. "I'm not a fashionista," Zeitz says. "But I could see the Puma brand had tremendous potential."
Zeitz's boldest stroke was to reposition the brand, stressing fashion over sports performance. He brought in designer Jil Sander and model Christy Turlington to design and promote new products, including a $195 sneaker. To lure young shoppers, he introduced items such as roller skates with fluorescent wheels. "We realized that to appeal to a young lifestyle, we needed to get away from traditional athletic looks," Zeitz says.
Zeitz scored big on celebrity endorsements, too, signing Serena Williams to a five-year contract, just as she was beginning her ascent to the No. 1 spot in women's tennis. The contract expired early this year, and Puma is in talks for a possible renewal. But the company looks robust enough to keep growing without her. Zeitz is forecasting 50% pretax profit growth this year, with sales up 30%. Not bad for a company that was on the endangered-species list.