A pair of Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylors is sold every 2.5 seconds, which amounts to about 100 million pairs a year. “Chucks” have been synonymous with the company for decades, and they’re more popular than ever, according to Converse President and CEO Jim Calhoun. So it’s fitting, then, that this sneaker was at the center of the company’s transformational shift in recent years.
Calhoun, who served as the keynote speaker Thursday morning at Northeastern University’s CEO Breakfast Forum, said the counter-culture movement adopted Converse and its Chuck Taylors in the 1970s. The “punk scene,” he said, commandeered the product and made it its own.
“That marked a shift away from being an athletic company to a youth culture company,” Calhoun said. “In many respects, we’ve never looked back.”
Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the CEO Breakfast Forum series, in which leading CEOs share their expertise with audiences of other CEOs and senior executives from the Greater Boston area.
Converse was founded in 1908 in Malden, Massachusetts, as a rubber shoe company specializing in galoshes. The canvas-and-rubber sneaker, dubbed Converse All-Stars, debuted in 1917, and everyone from actors and musicians to professional basketball stars started sporting the shoe. The company faced bankruptcy in the 1990s—complacency and falling behind in the global manufacturing movement were factors, Calhoun said—and Nike purchased the company in 2003. Calhoun took over as CEO in 2011.
The company, which has added apparel and other accessories to its brand, now operates in 160 countries with more than 3,000 employees. It’s also the No. 3 brand in the world on Facebook with more than 37 million “likes.” This summer, Converse launched the Chuck Taylor All-Star II, an upgrade of the original.
“We’re a young person’s brand,” Calhoun said. “We often call ourselves, even as a company, a 108-year-old teenager because we’re evolving. We’re changing from the Converse we once were to the Converse we’re trying to be.”
Converse has been rooted in Massachusetts throughout its history, and this past April it completed a three-year construction project to move its headquarters to Boston’s North End neighborhood. When Calhoun began leading Converse in 2011, one of his first charges was identifying the new headquarters site, and the first property he looked at was this old building that had once housed a methadone clinic. But there was something appealing about it, he said, including that it was built the same year Converse was founded.
“It had seen better days, but we’d hoped that, like the company, with a little love and vision it could be brought back to life to celebrate the past but do so in a forward looking way,” said Calhoun, adding that the relocation is his proudest accomplishment since taking over Converse.
Converse’s move to Boston has also marked a return home of sorts for Calhoun, who began his college career living in Stetson West at Northeastern. His father, also Jim Calhoun, was named head coach of the Northeastern men’s basketball team in 1972 and spent 14 seasons patrolling the sidelines, leading the team to four NCAA Division I tournament appearances before taking over at the University of Connecticut.
“Northeastern has been in the hearts of the Calhoun family for more than 40 years,” Calhoun said. He added that it’s been thrilling to see Northeastern’s own transformation and global profile rise over the years, particularly noting that the impact of the university’s signature co-op program has been “far ahead of its time.”
We often call ourselves, even as a company, a 108-year-old teenager because we’re evolving. We’re changing from the Converse we once were to the Converse we’re trying to be.
— Converse President and CEO Jim Calhoun
Calhoun’s previous leadership expertise includes top roles at Nike, the Walt Disney Company, and Levi Strauss and Co., and he noted that he’s always had a passion for working in “product” but discovered unexpectedly that he “found a greater fulfillment in that aspects of managing and leading people.” During the Q&A, Aoun asked him about the similarities between leadership in business and athletics.
“We try to assemble the best teams, build the best program and system, get the most out of people, and make the total greater than the sum of its parts,” he said. “And we do it largely from the sidelines. The people are what make us successful.”
One audience member asked about how the Boston headquarters features a recording studio. Converse operates a free studio there and at its Brooklyn, New York, store for serious artists who aren’t signed to a label and need a place to record and rehearse. In short, they need a break.
“We’re not in the music business, but music has been an incredibly important part of our company and our history,” he explained. “Music, musicians, and the creative community kept our company alive when we were still struggling to hang on to sports (like basketball). …This was a chance for us to give back.”