Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted Talks ‘Owning the Game’ and Sustainability at USF Muma College of Business Thought Leader Series
By Elizabeth L. Brown
TAMPA (March 31, 2022) -- During a wide-ranging informal discussion before a sold-out crowd, the head of one of the world’s most iconic brands spoke about having a mindset of innovation, being committed to sustainability, and leading a company where people always come first.
Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted, 60, leads one of the largest and oldest athletic wear companies in the world. He has been at the helm of the global sportswear giant since 2016.
“Innovation is what our company is about. We want the best athletes in the world wearing our products, and if they’re not wearing them, we’re building our products wrong,” he said.
Rørsted spoke to nearly 450 people on Thursday in the Marshall Student Center’s Oval Theater as part of the University of South Florida Muma College of Business Thought Leader Series.
Rørsted wore a grey hoodie, jeans, and the beta version of the company’s 4D running shoes that feature a 3D-printed midsole. He is also a person who notices footwear.
“When I walked in, I saw a lot of opportunities here,” he joked. “Brown shoes have been a declining trend for 20 years. I thought working from home would have taught you better.”
He said it was his first trip to the U.S. since before the pandemic in 2019.
In a 45-minute presentation, Rørsted talked about the company’s strategy of becoming the best sports brand in the world.
He is proud Adidas is a truly global and diverse multinational company and touted its laser-sharp focus on expanding the brand across the globe while putting its customers and employees first.
“For me, I have the greatest job in the world. I’m very honored to run this company. You are here as a temporary employee. Taking care of what you inherited is very important,” he said.
The company made Forbes’ 2022 list of America’s Best Large Employers and Fortune’s 2022 World’s Most Admired Companies.
In 2021, the German company had $23.6 billion in sales worldwide. The company employs 62,000 worldwide, with 2,100 retail stores in over 50 countries. Its employees represent 178 nationalities.
“Our team is truly a global team. If we don’t have a team that is a mirror of the world, then that is an issue,” he said.
In 2021, women made up 37% of executive leadership roles, an increase of 2 percentage points from the prior year. Last September the company organized its second global week of inclusion.
Rørsted spoke about how the company has a deep and broad mindset of innovation. In fact, its founder Adi Dassler was the embodiment of an innovator. He registered more than 800 patents with most innovations inspired by an athlete’s needs.
“You have to lead with innovation in sport,” he said.
Among its manufacturing innovations, Rørsted mentioned its Futurecraft STRUNG, the industry’s first fully data-driven shoe that combines athlete data and 3D printing.
The company has also made a sustainability pledge, vowing to make 9 out of 10 products sustainable by 2025. Last year, they achieved a 69% share of sustainable Adidas products. It also plans to reach climate neutrality by 2050.
Rørsted explained that the company is helping to end plastic waste with a three-pronged strategy. They are making sneakers from recycled materials, making products that are worn, returned, ground up, and then remade into new products, and using natural and renewable materials, such as the mushroom-based Stan Smith Mylo.
Rørsted also talked about the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian border is 1,000 miles from the company’s headquarters in Germany. Adidas suspended the operations of its stores and e-commerce site in Russia. Rørsted said he didn’t know when retail operations would resume.
“There are no human winners in this game. Of course, we’re against the war. This is a no-win proposition for everybody,” he said.
The company has continued to pay employees in Russia and has donated $1 million in humanitarian aid to refugees and children’s charities, as well as supporting employees in the region with housing, food, clothes, and other basic needs.
At USF, the athletics department is in the fourth year of an eight-year partnership deal with Adidas.
Rørsted said collegiate partnerships such as the one with USF help the company reach American sports fans.
During a Q&A session following his presentation, USF student-athletes asked Rørsted questions pre-submitted by the audience.
On his greatest accomplishment outside of work, he shared that he has been married for 32 years and has four kids. “Family for me is more important than the job,” he said.
On finding the right career, he said, “If you work for a company, you have to embody what they stand for. And if you can’t do that, you can’t be there as an employee. For me, I have the greatest job in the world.”
On his favorite job, aside from his current one, he said he loved working at Compaq. “It was totally undisciplined. It was a very can-do attitude. There were no rules. You were constantly understaffed. It was great fun.”
On being a digitally enabled company, he said, “At the end of the day, we sell cool t-shirts and cool sneakers.”
At a private breakfast with Executive Bulls donors, someone asked if he prefers people to use the American pronunciation of "Ah-DEE-dus" or the European version of “AH-dee-dahs.” He quipped, “As long as you buy it, I don’t care.”
Before joining Adidas, Rørsted was the CEO at Henkel from 2008 to 2016. Rørsted started at Henkel in 2005 as the executive vice president for human resources management, procurement, IT, and infrastructure services.
Since 2018, Rørsted has served on the board of directors at Nestlé, but the company announced that he is not running for re-election and is stepping down from that role in April.
Kim Ross, a USF Muma College of Business alumna who sits on the college’s Executive Advisory Council, serves on the Nestlé board alongside Rørsted and was instrumental in getting Rørsted as a featured speaker.
The Muma College of Business Thought Leader Series began in 2018 to attract nationally recognized speakers, entrepreneurs, and innovators in business and industry for informal conversations that cover a wide range of topics.