Former top Kiwi athlete Zion Armstrong has risen through adidas' corporate ranks to be the president of its multibillion-dollar North America operations. It is a world away from leaving school with no qualifications, his first job packing shoes in a warehouse and living in a caravan while cash-strapped and chasing his Olympic dream in the black singlet. Neil Reid reports
Reminders of his proud Kiwi roots are displayed prominently in Zion Armstrong's office in adidas' North America headquarters in Portland.
There's an All Black jersey and a banner stating: "He tangata, he tangata, he tangata" ("It is the people, it is the people, it is the people").
And Armstrong – a former New Zealand champion 400m hurdler and Commonwealth Games representative – truly is a people person.
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In his role at adidas he employs a staggering 12,500 people.
And doing what he can to better the lives of his staff, and provide sporting opportunities for those less privileged are among the forces driving the 44-year-old ex-pat Kiwi whose business success is a world away from his upbringing in Auckland.
Though his CV on LinkedIn features a range of adidas leadership roles in New Zealand, Germany, Asia and now America, one notable omission is the mention of school qualifications.
That's because in his own words he has "zero qualifications", leaving college without even School Certificate.
"Let's just say high school and I [didn't get along]. I actually found some of my high school reports and there were plenty of 'coachable opportunities'," he says during an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday.
"I wasn't a great student but I loved sport. I remember mum having a debate with one of the [teachers] at the time because they kept saying 'all he cares about is sport' and she went up there and defended me and said, 'that is all he has got'."
Armstrong's schooling at Kelston Boy's High came to an end in 1992.
By 17 he had his first job, packing shoes in an Auckland warehouse.
Though he never excelled in the classroom, it was a different story on the track.
And it is what sport did for his own life – both while competing, and with the doors it later opened up to him in his fledgling career – that makes adidas' "Creating the New" strategy, which states "through sport, we have the to change lives", so incredibly personal to him.
Earlier in his teenage years Armstrong "ended up in trouble" with police.
He credits then West Auckland police officer Ross Dallow – a future Waitakere City Councillor who in 2013 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the community – for putting him on the right track.
Dallow was Armstrong's first athletics coach and set him on the course that would see him proudly represent New Zealand on the international track and field stage.
"My mum did an amazing job but I ended up making some wrong choices at a very young age, around 14 or 15, but got into track and the rest is history," Armstrong says.
"I am actually blessed I had that opportunity for [Ross] to get me off the streets, into sport and really focused on it.
"I have never thought 'What could have been if I didn't do that?'. That would be complete speculation. But what I can say without a doubt, is thanks to the family support, and particularly Ross - who became my second family - they were able to provide me those learnings of hard work, putting everything in and never giving up. It certainly set me up for this amazing life that I have been able to live."
Armstrong signalled his arrival on the sprint circuit when he was a member of the New Zealand team that finished fourth in the final of the 4x400m at the 1994 World Junior Games in Lisbon, Portugal.
He went on to break a number of records and represent New Zealand at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.
Two years later, he was cash-strapped and living in a caravan. But Armstrong chased his Olympic dreams, thanks the public and supporters who donated the several thousand dollars he required to travel to Europe to try to qualify for the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Though he made it to Europe for a series of events where he hoped to achieve the New Zealand qualifying standards, injury curtailed his bid.
But he has never forgotten the generosity he received from others.
"At that stage of life I had no money to my name," he says. "When you get in a situation where I am now, where I am fortunate, you try to never forget that and you try to give back to others who are going through those same things."
One of those moments came after a chance meeting in late 2017 with Kiwi actor and stuntman Phil Somerville who was about to embark on a 10,500km sailing journey from Los Angeles to New Zealand to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans.
Somerville's mission struck a nerve with Armstrong who told him how "passionate" he was about the steps toward sustainability that adidas was taking.
"I asked him how he was funding it. He said, 'Let's just say there is a lot of money on my credit card'. I told him if I could ever help just to let me know," Armstrong says.
During the first leg of the voyage Armstrong fielded a call from Somerville asking for financial help after his boat suffered mast damage.
"I said, 'I've got you', sent him the money and they got back on their way," he says.
Armstrong was first hired by adidas shortly after he qualified for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
He got his break after cold-calling the company's then-New Zealand managing director Craig Lawson, and being hired as a sales rep focusing on adidas' running shoes.
"Back in those days [working for adidas in New Zealand] did I ever see myself working in the US? Absolutely not."
In 1999 he took charge of the company's New Zealand footwear division.
In 2003 he relocated to Herzogenaurach, Germany, to be senior product manager at adidas' global HQ. Then followed a decade in Asia, working in Hong Kong and Korea, before his first role in North America as brand director in July 2014.
In August 2015 Armstrong was promoted to North America general manager, before being appointed president in June 2018.
When he arrived the company was in a "very challenging spot" compared to some of its competitors. He believes adidas was "a distant four or five brand" in North America at the time.
Talented staff were leaving to work for rivals, companies more entrenched in the psyche of sports fans.
"The first challenge was, 'Hey we need to address that we can not only compete across North America, but we can win'," he says.
"One of the big challenges was turning the tide and that meant we had to start winning across American sport and American sport culture. There is no other place in the world like the US, where sport really drives so much . . . nothing can compare to it.
"When you go into a high school in Texas and they have a US$55 million (NZ$85.9m) stadium for their football team, it starts giving you a scale of what sport means to this country."
As 2020 nears, Armstrong says the company is now regarded as a "strong No 2". Nike is widely regarded as the continent's biggest brand.
adidas has quadruppled its roster of athletes in the NFL – including reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes – as well as signing some of Major League Baseball's biggest names. All teams in the NHL and Major League Soccer competitions wear adidas-branded gear.
It's not just sports stars who are now linked to adidas. Kanye West has collaborated for the company's Yeezy range.
And earlier this year it signed a deal with Beyonce for a range of "athleisure" clothing and footwear.
"She is the biggest and most influential female influencer in the world . . . hands down."
Armstrong's position at the sporting gear giants gives him a unique chance to meet and work with some of the biggest names in American sporting and pop-culture.
Though he says that is obviously a "buzz", he is acutely aware he has a job to do and respects the space of adidas' star partners.
"I have a business to run and my job is really about our own culture and ensuring we are delivering what we need to do."
He says "without a doubt" being an athlete helped with securing his first job at adidas, but from then it was proving to his bosses that he had the business acumen to shine.
"We have the core belief that sport has the power to change lives," Armstrong says.
"Without being corny, I am living proof of that."
Promoting what sport can do for people is something he is both "passionate" and "proud" to be involved in.
"It is not just words in a powerpoint [presentation]. We truly try to bring this to life within everything that we do," he said.
Initiatives adidas has rolled out to live up to that philosophy include leaving specially-built basketball courts in Los Angeles after the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend to give young people access to the sport that they wouldn't normally have.
Students from several high schools in "underprivileged areas" were given adidas gear.
"Yes we are here to obviously create a stronger business, but at the same time what we want to do is make sure we give kids the chance to participate in sports and games," Armstrong says.
Promoting female sport is also high on the agenda for Armstrong and adidas.
As part of the company's "She Breaks Barriers" initiative, adidas this year teamed up with Twitter to livestream girl's high school volleyball and soccer games.
There were two main goals; giving female sport a much-needed lift in coverage and encouraging girls to stay involved in sport.
"The most recent example I can give you [with media coverage] is only 4 per cent goes to female sport. Four . . . it is tiny."
The initiative has resulted in more than 24 million views.
So how much pressure does Armstrong feel steering adidas' North American operation – which generated more than NZ$8 billion in sales in 2018 ?
"Pressure is a privilege. And it is very important to separate pressure and stress," he says.
"The day that you become stressed is not a good thing.
"Of course you feel the pressure, but at the same time it is your obligation to make sure you handle that with calmness . . . How you come across is so important because obviously your team is looking up towards you."
A single father, Armstrong's No 1 pressure relief is spending quality time with his young children – 8-year-old Zavier, who was born in South Korea, and 4-year-old US-born Kaia.
"My children come first and foremost," he says. "Every available weekend I have I try to dedicate to my kids."
Apart from quality family time, he also ensures he takes "regular breaks", including those that enable him to pursue his love of country music.
And though he has defied the odds to ascend the corporate ladder at one of the world's most iconic sporting brands, he says his journey is not yet over.
"Right now it is still head-down and continue to take us to the next level.
"I have never worried about what is next. It is just 'do your job and good things will come'."
Saving the environment – one shoe at a time
Sportswear giant adidas is doing its bit to save the environment – one pair of shoes at a time.
The company recently revealed its 100 per cent recyclable performance shoe; Futurecraft.Loop.
Marketing states it is a "performance shoe made to be remade" and among numerous initiatives adidas is working on to tackle the issue of plastic waste.
This is just the beginning. [FUTURECRAFT.LOOP] Gen 2 is proof of progress for our first ever 100% recyclable, high-performance running shoe. Bringing us one step closer to a circular future and a world without plastic waste.— adidas (@adidas) November 18, 2019
[FUTURECRAFT.LOOP] Made to be remade. pic.twitter.com/lwXYME9rKL
Each component in the shoes is 100 per cent reusable. Owners are urged to return them to adidas at the end of their use, where they will be washed, ground to pellets and melted into material for a new pair of shoes.
"The ultimate goal is you won't need to use more and more material," says Zion Armstrong, adidas' North America president and former New Zealand Commonwealth Games sprinter.
"You will use the material once, we bring it back, grind it down and repurpose it for the next piece. That is when you truly change the game. It will completely overhaul the way the supply chain has traditionally been done."
The shoe was developed by adidas after almost 10 years of research with its material development, manufacturing and recycling partners across Asia, Europe and North America.
That R&D process included how to manufacture shoes without relying on previous complex material mixes and gluing.
The shoe was last month named one of Time magazine's best inventions of 2019.
And American cable sports channel ESPN earlier this year presented adidas with its first Sports Sustainability Leadership award for its work aimed at protecting and improving the environment.
A lot of that is centred on reducing marine plastic waste. This year the company will produce 11 million pairs of shoes containing recycled ocean plastic which has been removed from beaches, remote islands and coastal communities.
"There are more micro-plastics and plastics going into the ocean than there are fish in the ocean," Armstrong says. "If we don't fix it, the world environment is in a dangerous situation."