by Jeff Henderson·
About a year ago I started receiving phone calls from area codes I hadn’t heard from in years.
I left Oregon in 2011 and Nike, Inc in 2013. I couldn’t have hoped for a better 16 years with a single company so it was tough to leave the nest. My wife had a great opportunity in NYC and we wanted to grow, so off we went.
Like most alumni it took a little time to allow myself to wear ‘competitor’ product. The athletic footwear industry is extremely competitive so the brands you wear become the friends you keep.
Of course, a few paychecks here and there and your tunnel vision disappears. As the shoe wall of our apartment expanded beyond Nike, Inc, so did my growth as a creative, as a business mind and as a friend. Living on the ‘outside’ of Nike, Inc comes with the realization that almost every other brand on the planet has enough alumni to start an affinity group.
My personal and business social media feeds were a mix of Nike, Nike alumni and never-been-Nike so I tried to remain nondenominational as I floated from project to project. Whether I was working with startups in Soho or commuting to Calabasas, I tried to keep my naturally low-profile lower.
But folks knew.
So I was pleasantly surprised when the conversations started popping up about a little extra work with Converse. My last Inc boss at Cole Haan, Phil Russo, reached out with Andrea Correani, a powerful mentor from my Tokyo and NSW days.
While I shared an alumni status with Phil, the AC connection was a question mark. AC was influential in allowing me to succeed in NSW as a creative that drove the business agenda while wading through an evolving leadership paradigm. While the folks at the top — AC, Phil Dickinson and Andreas Harlow — sorted out the ugliness at the top, I focused on giving our design team the room to create Roshe Runs and 3-Year line plans. We transformed a $2B business in 9 months. Or as AC put it, “We changed the engines on a 747 midflight.”
Then I left.
When I first saw AC in Boston I was speechless.
“You know I almost died,” AC said with a hug and a smile. I couldn’t let go. He talked for about 5 minutes before I focused. If I was a crier, that would have been the time.
AC had a stroke and nearly died. I learned about it like everyone else on Facebook. As he recovered I sent kind words, but I assumed he was fielding hundreds of ‘get well’ messages so I let him be.
So when I saw him in the flesh I immediately went back to my days in Tokyo when I would tour his Global Football crew through Harajuku and Daikanyama.
I had missed the Nike family.
A week later my son and I were on the campus where he graduated from daycare — in Beaverton. One Bowerman Drive. Jream was interning for me during his gap year prior to NC State Design School. The project that I’d be helping with had it’s roots in the Kitchen.
So AC started our meetings with new folks like Jimmy Manley & Kaigin Olafson and folks I’d known since 1996 like Steve Mellor, Jeff Spanks and Michael Donaghu. While Jream took notes and photos I kept bumping into old family members. Amy, Mike and Tanya from the model shop were all social media friends but I hadn’t seen them in person in years.
The priority of the trip was scheduled for that afternoon. In walks Tinker Hatfield and the tiny office gets awkward.
“Before we start,” Tinker announces, ”are you still working in Calabasas?”
I laughed because I know how that rumor was planted — same old Beaverton — and expected it.
“All clear,” I promised.
That was it. No more proof was needed because Tinker essentially hired me 20+ years ago with about as much effort.
In 1997 I was trying to wedge my way into footwear design. I was already working in the Michael Jordan Building doing blueprints. I took any project I could to get my foot into the design door. I was told no repeatedly and with good reason.
Then Tinker found me because I was playing with 3D modeling and footwear. I worked on a couple of projects with his team. MJ was retiring and there was a host of projects headed their way. He asked me if I’d like to join his group and my obvious answer was “yes”. The reality was that I wasn’t getting a job with the regular design squad, so I didn’t really have choice.
Somewhere along the way the ‘leadership meetings’ decided that I would be better off on the Kids Footwear team and I could work on extra credit projects with Tinker — which I did for years.
So 20+ years later here I was assisting Tinker on another project. This project was much like my current projects outside of corporate bubbles. I’d text questions and sketches at any hour of the day and Tinker would simply text me back. No email threads or meetings.
The project finally hit stores as an affordable collection of athletic product — just as Tinker planned. The sell-through was extremely positive and the high-five emails from the team were great to see. The Nike, Inc squad knows how to appreciate a good win.
Then I received personal emails/texts from both Tinker and AC. These weren’t corporate acknowledgements of great work. These were the kind of personal notes you get from family and friends. I’ve gotten similar notes from Calabasas and San Francisco and it was all good. But there’s something different when you revisit an old home and they treat you like you never left.