By Emma Thomasson
FUERTH, Germany (Reuters) - Adidas (ADSGn.DE) shareholders took aim at the management of the German sportswear company on Thursday, not convinced a new strategy would be enough to challenge the dominance of rival Nike (NKE.N).
"Adidas is panting behind the competition. Adidas lost the race, at least in 2014," Gerhard Jaeger, spokesman for the SdK investor association, told the firm's annual shareholder meeting in the southern town of Fuerth.
Long-serving Chief Executive Herbert Hainer, who faced calls to quit last year after Adidas was hit by falling golf sales and its heavy exposure to Russia, said the company was addressing problem areas and had made a good start to 2015.
But he added the firm had hired advisers Perella Weinberg Partners in the event of a more concerted campaign for change from an activist shareholder group, in a sign management is braced for more turmoil.
"It never feels good if you don't reach all of your goals, neither in sport, nor in business, nor in your personal life. But the key thing is to never give up," Hainer said.
"We have taken our learnings from 2014 and developed an exciting and promising strategy for the period up until 2020."
While Adidas shares tumbled 38 percent last year, they have rebounded this year, though helped by a buyback which some shareholders view as money that would be better invested.
FUTURE LEADERSHIP UNCERTAIN
Adidas reported better-than-expected first-quarter results on Tuesday as its struggling North America business showed signs of improvement after a big increase in marketing.
Hainer launched a five-year strategy in March to lift sales by almost half to above 22 billion euros ($25 billion), focused on speeding up the supply chain and success in the United States and the world's largest cities.
However, Marco Scherer, portfolio manager for Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management which holds a 1.7 percent stake in Adidas, said the strategy lacked credibility as the board was looking for a new CEO ahead of Hainer's contract expiring in 2017.
"What is missing from Adidas, is a clear direction ... Which management should lead this strategy ultimately to success? When will a decision come?" Scherer asked.
"Adidas responds to market conditions, but it seems to have forgotten how to set decisive trends itself," he added. "Where are the product innovations with which you want to take market share from Nike and Under Armour?"
Hainer, 14 years in the job and the longest-serving CEO of a German blue-chip, said the new strategy was developed by the whole top management team and was being implemented as a team.
Daniela Bergdolt, vice president of the Deutsche Schutzvereinigung fuer Wertpapierbesitz, Germany's largest association for private investors, welcomed the new direction but said it would take time to bear fruit.
She also called for Adidas to sell fitness brand Reebok, which it bought in 2006 but has failed to help Adidas grow its market share in the United States and is only now starting to recover after a long period of underperformance.
Hainer, who was the architect of the Reebok acquisition, said it would be wrong to sell the brand now it was growing again, especially given the booming popularity of fitness.
(Editing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter)