Jochen Zeitz is the sort of CEO you heard about in the heady days of the dot-com boom. The handsome, stylish business leader who shirked stiff suits for fitted shirts and probably opened and closed a working day with a mini-marathon on the treadmill. And then sped away in his Lamborghini for a nightclub opening. Most of those CEOs disappeared along with their dot-com stock prices.
Zeitz, however, is not the head of a Web 2.0 start-up with a rich buyout offer from Google but CEO and chairman of Puma, an iconic 60-year-old sports goods manufacturer that is now getting a stylish new lease of life. All largely thanks to Zeitz’s acclaimed strategy and management skills.
I sit down with Zeitz for a tête-à-tête at the Vie Lounge and Bar in Juhu on a hot afternoon, just moments after Zeitz unveils Puma’s new ocean racing line. The announcement and subsequent fashion show are timed to coincide with the Volvo Ocean Race, the third leg of which takes off from Kochi the next day, 13 December. The Puma Racing Team’s yacht, Il Mostro, features prominently on the hoardings and LCD display screens at the venue.
Sportstar: Zeitz was a surprise pick for CEO and was chosen on the strength of his analysis on what was wrong with Puma. Jayachandran / Mint
Zeitz is dressed for the occasion in signature all-black—from the shiny, fitted shirt to the shoes and the sporty Tissot watch. He looks like he’s stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. At 45, Zeitz is, and looks, remarkably young for the head of a large global brand. But then, the astonishing fact is this: Zeitz has been head of Puma since 1993—when he became the youngest CEO of a listed company in German history at just 30.
“When I joined in 1990, as they say in the sport of sailing, Puma was in the doldrums. It was a difficult time and Puma had gone to sleep,” Zeitz recalls as we sit hunched in conversation over plates of food from the buffet. We lean towards each other as outside our little room the after party, complete with thumping music, continues in full swing.
I ask him the secret behind his meteoric rise from marketing manager to CEO in three years. “I guess I was in the right place in the right time. I knew when I joined that the brand was very good…it had great potential. I was educated both in finance and marketing and that really helped.”
Zeitz is unwaveringly modest, but concedes, “Every time a new CEO came, I got a promotion till I was made CEO myself.”
It is an unlikely story for a man who comes from a family of doctors living near the town of Heidelberg, in south-west Germany. Zeitz makes it clear that he, too, was expected to follow the medical path: “I was actually accepted into medical school in Italy. But then I wanted to come back and learn medicine in Germany. And while waiting, I decided to join a business school. I figured it would be useful for doctors to know some business as well!”
The budding doctor-manager never went back to medical school. After business school, and a brief stint with Colgate-Palmolive, Zeitz found his way to Puma and business celebrityhood.
Every few minutes his minders keep asking Zeitz to wrap up our conversation—he has a flight to Kochi where Puma’s Il Mostro will soon set sail as part of the Volvo Race—but the friendly, intense but soft-spoken CEO holds them at bay. In deference to time, though, we ditch our half-eaten plates and concentrate on the interview.
While becoming a CEO at such a young age is exciting, I ask him how he manages the ambitions of those beneath him. What about all the other young managers in Puma who know that Zeitz is young enough to continue as CEO for another two decades?
Zeitz, who has so far been responding to questions instantly, smiles and thinks a while.
“Well, first of all, we are a much bigger brand. We used to be a €200 million (about Rs1,300 crore) brand. Now we’re a €2.6 billion brand. We had 700 employees, now we have 10,000. So, we’ve been growing and people who came with us on this ride have had a chance to grow so much as well. People have a great chance to do new things and evolve,” Zeitz explains. And this opportunity, he believes, keeps many of his best managers very happy on their jobs.
And how would he encapsulate the change he brought to Puma? What’s the secret behind the Financial Times, Germany awarding him “Strategist of the Year” three times in a row?
“When I took over Puma was all about function. About performance. People thought that fashion had no place in a sports brand. But we changed all that. We worked and persevered and made Puma a sports lifestyle brand. That is an important reason for our success.”
He points to the Puma logo on a board outside: “The puma…the cat…is not just about power and speed and strength…but it is also a very elegant animal. That’s what we’ve tried to reflect in our products.”
I point out that he always talks about “we” and “my team”. Surely Jochen Zeitz had a role to play? “No, no. It was a team effort. I don’t like this ‘I-talk’.”
Zeitz looks a little sheepish when he says that this is his first visit to the country. “I admit it. This is a first time. I’ve travelled all over the world and two years ago we’ve begun to focus on India as well. But I will come much more often!”
And what about life outside work? Is there any room for fun in his schedule? Zeitz waves away the question with disdain—and his reply has a very German ethos about it: “I don’t differentiate between work and life. Work is life for me. My private and professional life is very intertwined.”
But surely there must be something he does on the weekends? Read books? Watch movies? I am not to be beaten easily. Zeitz shrugs his shoulders as we get up and his minders converge upon us: “On the weekends…I work.”
Curriculum Vitae | Jochen Zeitz
Born: 6 April 1963
Education: Degree in International Marketing and Finance, European Business School of Oestrich-Winkel, Germany
Current Designation: CEO and chairman
Work Profile: Zeitz joined Colgate-Palmolive in 1986, straight from business school. He moved to Puma as marketing manager in 1990. After stints as head of marketing and vice-president of international marketing and sales, he was appointed CEO in 1993.
African Story: Zeitz has a particular passion for Africa and has travelled there several times. Puma not only clothes several African sports teams but is also involved with sports development programmes all over the continent.