On March 29, roughly 400 people filed into the Onyx Room at the Park Hyatt Hotel in New York City to relive some of the most memorable moments in the storied career of Jon Epstein, the Fila president who died in February a week after having heart surgery in St. Louis.
By all accounts, the self-deprecating Epstein, who along with Gene Yoon built the company into a multibillion-dollar athletic powerhouse, would have chuckled at all the attention being showered on him. A gregarious man, Epstein would have been inclined to participate in the touching toasts and subtle roasts, as well.
“Jon was a winner. He liked to be No. 1. Years ago, we were having dinner, and he asked me who the No. 1 salesman in the industry was. Of course, he thought it had to be him,” Rick Mina, president of WSS and a lifelong friend, humorously recalled at the tribute ceremony and later with FN. “I answered really quick. I said Paul Fireman, [who built Reebok]. He couldn’t believe it. Then he said, ‘OK, so who is the second-greatest salesman in the industry?’ I immediately said, ‘Bobby Campbell.’ He would ask me that question almost every time we had dinner together. One day, expecting the answers were going to be the same, he asked me the question again. And I said, ‘I think you moved up. You’re now No. 2.’ Wondering what he had done better and how it had happened, I said, ‘Paul Fireman retired.’ That back and forth started when I was at Foot Locker and transpired all the way to the last time I had dinner with Jon in California.”
A longtime footwear executive, Epstein rose through the ranks at several companies (he spent 21 years at Adidas North America) before serving as the president and CEO of Fila from 1998 to 2003 and then returning for a second run as president of its North American business in 2007.
Epstein’s tenure at Fila was marked by two high points: He brought the label to cultural prominence in the late 1990s and then again in recent years, securing space in major retailers and by orchestrating high-profile partnerships with brands like Fendi, Urban Outfitters and Barneys New York. What’s more, he doubled down on Fila’s heritage styles by signing NBA legend and brand ambassador Grant Hill to a lifetime deal last year.
It was in 2018 that he realized how much success the brand had achieved. The firm’s classic Disruptor 2 had become the “it” sneaker for the fashion-influencer crowd and was a top seller at retail. FN selected the style as its Shoe of the Year.
“I would say that we owe a lot to the success of the Disruptor, and the Disruptor in some ways owes a lot to the people who believe in it,” Epstein told FN in December 2018. “It’s quintessential Fila.”
FN spoke with more than a dozen people in recent weeks who witnessed the leader’s dramatic career path. Here, an oral history of Jon Epstein.
THE EARLY YEARS
MICHAEL LETTIERI (VP of operations and sales administration, Fila): “In 1987, I was a warehouse employee at Adidas’ East Coast distributor. I was unpacking a 40-foot trailer by hand, loading it on skids at night. I was the only one there, and Jon tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ When I got done about 9 that night, he asked me to come to his office. He asked me the same question again. I said, ‘I want to work hard and make money.’ Then he said he wanted me to work for him. ‘Who are you?’ I said. I didn’t know who he was. He said, ‘I’m Jon Epstein, national sales manager for Adidas. You’re going to be my assistant, you’re going to work customer service, you’re going to work promotions, you’re going to work credit, you’re going to work logistics, you’re going to learn the business from bottom to top.’ From that day on, I’d been with him. I’ve worked with him everywhere he’s gone: Adidas, Le Coq Sportif and now Fila.”
GARY WAKLEY (SVP of global sourcing and development for footwear, Fila): “When we were first starting at Adidas, he and I would go into Foot Locker together. They were the biggest buyers of athletic footwear in the world — they knew it, and it could be a difficult place to do business. We were introducing a new outdoor basketball shoe, more durable than for use on a court indoors. It was about the late 1980s or 1990. At the time, Adidas was selling almost entirely black-colored basketball shoes — that’s what the market wanted from us. The parent company decided that we had too many eggs in one basket and were going to do this new shoe with a white upper. Jon and I knew this would be an issue, but we went to see the buyer. We sat there, and Jon said to explain the whole thing to him because I was the product guy, so I put the shoe on his desk in front of him. Usually, the buyer will pick it up, look at it, and listen and observe at the same time. But the buyer didn’t pick the shoe up, didn’t lean over to look at it — nothing; just let it sit there on his desk while I told the story. At the end, he asked the question that we expected: ‘Where’s the black one?’ We said we decided we were selling too many black basketball shoes; we want to sell white ones first, and we’ll come out with the black ones later. He picks up the shoe and throws it across the room into a trash can. He said, ‘Meeting’s over. Come back when you have the black one.’ I go over to pick up the basketball shoe, pack it back up in my bag, walk outside, and Jon looks at me and says, ‘Well, that went well.’ He never let anything bother him. He said, ‘We’ll figure out another way to skin this cat.’”
MARK EGGERT (SVP of design and advanced concepts for footwear, Fila): “He’d already built up Adidas and was incredibly significant in that brand’s growth, and then he left to do the same for Fila. There aren’t a lot of instances in this industry where a person has started over and built a brand up a second time. When he brought Fila back these past couple of years, there was a significant resurgence of this brand that was really important because it was his second time doing it here — I know that meant a lot to him. With Fila, he traveled at least five days a week every week, he lived in a hotel in New York for the most part, he was traveling the globe constantly trying to make Fila work. He took on, unquestionably, a real challenge. Fila was in a place where there wasn’t a lot of people saying there was a clear path to success with this brand; it was much more of a question in most everyone’s minds.”
TODD MARTIN (CEO of International Tennis Hall of Fame, former professional tennis player): “People who are natural salesmen are born that way. Jon certainly was. I can only imagine that Jon was exactly who he was when he was young as when he was giving my wife and I a quick but comprehensive tour of his beautiful house. He wasn’t trying to sell us anything other than sell us on knowing that we had a friend and welcoming us to the neighborhood. I’d have bought anything from him.”
MARK EGGERT: “He had the gift of gab, unquestionably. And he was incredibly smart. He was always a few steps ahead of whomever he was talking to. He also could read a room really well and figure out what someone was trying or hoping to get out of a given transaction, and provide something that worked for him and the given person. If the direction was unclear or a meeting wasn’t going that well, he had a way of speechifying, and when he was done speaking, everyone felt aligned and motivated to move to the next step, to move forward. It was the same whether that was internally with the product group getting rejuvenated by his energy to work on a new initiative or an external meeting with him creating interest on the buying side for a range of products we’ve been working on. He had an ability to energize a room that was infectious.”
ANGELO PARENTI (VP of heritage and East Coast sales, Fila): “Back in the Adidas days, Jon was in Penn Station [in New York] talking to a buyer, and the buyer was getting on the train. Jon lived in a completely different direction, but he was talking to the buyer about getting potential programs written. The buyer’s track number came up, so Jon just goes with the buyer to his train — he took the train south all the way to Hamilton, N.J. The buyer gets off at his station, which is an hour ride, and said, ‘Jon, where are you going? You live in the complete different direction.’ He said, ‘I know I do, but I wanted to stay on the train with you to make sure we ironed out the details in the program. I wanted to make sure I got the orders.’”
DICK JOHNSON (chairman and CEO, Foot Locker Inc.): “Right after I came back from Europe, when I started running Foot Locker in the U.S., he had me and my buyers up to the office. That was back in 2010, 2011. Jon is a shoe dog, so of course he had every sample in the building out on the table. Our guys were trying to narrow down the assortment, and Jon would just keep bringing in more stuff. Angelo [Parenti] and Jon were in the room, and Jon was on his A game, bringing out every sample they had — and every sample was the right sample for Foot Locker. He said, ‘This product is perfect for you guys.’ It just went on and on. It was at the time we got the business moving forward again, and it didn’t accelerate; it took a while for things to get back rolling again. After that, Fila got on such a roll — our team in Europe identified it early on. They got on the Disruptor early, and Fila started to do all sorts of great stuff.”
SAM POSER (analyst, Susquehanna Financial Group): “He was a salesman, bar none. He was always there, always engaged. And he was like the Energizer Bunny. He’d always be going from one thing to the next. But he truly understood his customer. He understood the differences not only among the retailers he sold to but the kid and person buying Fila. He knew that and said, ‘How do we make everybody feel it’s all about them?’ He did that in business and personally, as well. And it was exceptionally genuine.”
ANGELO PARENTI: “Prior to being a president, he was the greatest salesman to ever live — the best. There is nothing Jon wouldn’t do to make sure he was doing business and getting the orders he set out to get. He was focused at what he was doing, and there was nothing more important than get- ting the order. He wanted to do business, and this was the way he was his whole life.”
MARTIN MULLIGAN (global tennis liaison officer at Fila, former professional player): “I met Jon at the U.S. Open in 1998. He loved sports in general, but he really loved tennis. He got close to the sport because he wanted to know about the players. He wanted to know more intimate things than just signing a contract with a player. But he was often watching tennis on TV, and he would always call me during the middle of a match when I couldn’t talk; he’d want to know why some guy in the player’s box is not wearing Fila.”
MATT POWELL (VP and senior sports industry analyst, The NPD Group Inc.): “Years after I was doing business with him [at Sneaker Stadium, Modell’s or MVP], I was at the trade shows in Vegas — Platform, Magic, etc. — and was really impressed with what they were doing in terms of product. I tweeted out that Fila was one of the best brands at the show. Jon had my tweet blown up onto a poster, which he had in the sales office at Fila to share with everybody. Jon always appreciated people saying kind things about the brand, about himself. He saw himself as the extension of the brand. His level of appreciation for someone saying something nice was really above and beyond what one might expect.”
DICK JOHNSON: “When I was [running Foot Locker’s Europe business], Jon had come over to pitch us some shoes. We had some problems with some shoes because the glue wasn’t dried in the containers. The Dutch have different standards, so the shoes were late because they were sitting in the port — they had to clear the gases out of the container — and there was nothing Jon could do about it. So Jon came in, and my buyers at the time were beating him up pretty good — it was back-to-school season, probably 2008 or 2009 — and we needed the sales. Normally, Jon would start talking and not stop talking, but he took [my team’s chiding] for a while and then said, ‘OK, let’s go to dinner.’ He just completely ended the conversation. In Holland, dinners [are long] and very slow, so we then got to listen to Jon for a two-and-a-half- to three-hour dinner in Amsterdam. That sort of epitomizes Jon: He would control the conversation, he’d let you get your words in, and then he would figure out how to take the conversation over and steer it the way he wanted. But there were never any ill feelings. More than likely, our guys were positioning to get some markdown money at the end of the equation, and Jon was like, ‘The shoes are good; they just need to dry at the port.’”
GRANT HILL (Fila brand ambassador, former NBA player): “It’s funny — when I went into [Fila’s office not too long ago], I just wanted a velour sweatsuit. I wasn’t even thinking about a relationship; I was just thinking if I could get some swag, I’m good. The idea of reconnecting and becoming a global ambassador and relaunching my stuff was the furthest thing from my imagination. But Jon was like, ‘Let’s do more than a velour sweatsuit. We’ve got these anniversaries with your shoes; let’s put them back out there. Let’s figure out a way we could do it that it’s not for a period of time; it’s something we can sustain. Let’s be intentional in how we relaunch this and bring it back out.’ It wasn’t a: ‘We’ll do it for a couple of years’; this is a lifetime deal. We want it to be mutually beneficial. That didn’t come right away from the first meeting but from our conversations and our vibe — he was thinking bigger than I was thinking.”
PETER COWGILL (executive chairman, JD Sports): “It was probably December 2017 when we were at a function the night before, and Jon came and stayed with Gene in our hotel. We’d been out and had a few drinks with the JD team. I’d been out until something like 3 a.m., woke up, and there’s Jon and Gene waiting in the reception area all spruced up for an 8 a.m. meeting. They had flown in from the U.S. and stayed there overnight. I had to adjust myself, let’s put it that way, and we were laughing and joking about it. Because it was such a family relationship, he would adjust that to more banter, and it was a very productive meeting. In the beginning, the relationship was between a buyer and a customer, but over the extended period of our relationship, he ensured that the relation- ship developed to much greater than that. We understood each other’s characters. For a global brand, they developed a family relationship with their major customers. You’ll find that with all their major customers. They would work with the buyers and work with me as the executive chairman equally well. You felt part of the Fila family, and that was a very significant thing to do. You will not say that with many other brands. When I would travel to New York, Jon would always insist on meeting up. He’d invite the team, he’d take photographs with the team, he’d work with the team — he was an incredibly versatile, wide-ranging individual with a sensitivity about the game.”
RICK MINA: “We started to turn WSS around when I got here over three years ago, and Jon was a big part of helping us through that. We had some mismanagement at certain levels; there was some definite cash issues, but creatively, we worked through it. Both Jon and Gene were really helpful with product and giving us some payment options, but I remember when we started working together, Jon looked me in the eye and said, ‘Are you gonna pay us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and that was the beginning.”
THE WORK ETHIC
GENE YOON (chairman, Fila): “He worked damn hard. He and his wife, Carol, lived in St. Louis, and he would only go back to St. Louis from New York on Friday afternoon to see her until Sunday afternoon and then go back to New York. He stayed in the Eventi Hotel on 30th Street and Sixth Avenue, and he constantly traveled. And the effort he put in to build the business: He’d leave the New York office around 11 p.m. — I was in Korea talking with him almost every day, so I know he’s leaving the office at 11 p.m. — and there was a Korean gourmet shop near Sixth Avenue where he would go for a little bite at the end of the day. I don’t think he slept that much, and he’d get up around 5:30 a.m. and go to the office by 8 a.m. He was a workaholic.”
JENNIFER ESTABROOK (newly named president of Fila North America): “Jon worked night and day to make Fila succeed again. Other than Kelly Funke, [Fila’s SVP of marketing], I’ve never met anyone who worked harder than Jon Epstein. Part of his drive, I think, was his need for redemption, the need to not let Gene Yoon down because he put so much faith in him. He also absolutely loved what he did and was bound and determined to succeed.”
MICHAEL YORMARK (president and chief of branding and strategy, Roc Nation): “I never got to meet Jon’s wife, but he talked about her often. Outside of his love for his wife, the next most-important thing in his life was making sure Fila was successful, that Fila was obtaining its goals and objectives, and that it was winning. Through his vision and his tireless effort, through his passion and the group of executives he assembled, they won. What they’ve done over the last couple of years has been absolutely amazing, to see the brand become so relevant. That’s what got him up every morning. Jon had a huge personality, and he owned the room because of his personality, because of his energy, because of his passion, because of his love for what he did. That always came through in every business conversation, every business meeting. And even though he had so much success in his career, the passion never subsided; he was so hungry to do more. He was always hungry to do more, to accomplish more, to win and win the right way.”
DANNY LIEBERMAN (SVP of apparel, Fila): “He had two stints at Fila, and he turned the company around twice. Jon puts his head down, he gets rid of the noise, the naysayers — it doesn’t matter what everybody else is saying. He had something in his mind, he needed to figure it out, the company needed to go in a certain direction, and it didn’t matter what the market was saying, it didn’t matter what people were saying, what the experts were saying — he had the innate ability to wipe all that out, to clear that noise and do what he felt was right. There was a period of time early on, 2007 and 2008, where people were like, ‘This thing is not going to work; you guys are not going to do it,’ and he was determined to make it happen. But you have to believe in yourself and others around you and not listen, and that’s what he did.”
JENNIFER ESTABROOK: “When he set his sights on something, you could not deter him. He had a lot of moments where only he saw it and everyone else thought he was nuts, but he saw it so clearly and followed his gut and his instinct. And if you wanted him to work harder, tell him that what- ever he was suggesting was not possible. There wasn’t any issue that Jon faced that he didn’t think he couldn’t solve.”
MICHAEL LETTIERI: “He was a man who always wanted to take something that people said would fail, or you’d never make it work, and make it work. He took that challenge and brought his team, which is the family you see here at Fila now, and said, ‘We’re going to make it work.’ Major retailers in America around 2007 and 2008 said many times, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It was a nonexistent brand then. It was losing a lot of money, we had a lot of inventory, we had a lot of product where it shouldn’t have been, and we cleaned it all up because of Jon’s drive, pride and competitiveness. And with the relationships we built over the years with every retailer in America, and the honesty and the partnerships that we asked for, every retailer knew that they could always call Jon or me or any of the other team members here with a problem and we’d be here to resolve the problem. We never said no, we never walked away, we never not took their phone calls.”
INGRID KOOGLE (senior executive assistant to Epstein): “Jon had an uncanny sense as to what the next shoe should be and the direction we should take. I don’t know if he had a crystal ball or something, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of what other companies were thinking. Every week, he’d be traveling around the globe, and every weekend, he’d go shop, he’d go to malls near his house, like the Galleria in St. Louis, and talk to people — kids, adults. He’d walk into a store and see if they were wearing Fila or another brand and ask, ’Why are you wearing those?’ That wasn’t just at the mall; he’d do that anywhere. He’d do it in a grocery store.”
GARY WAKLEY: “Jon was a naturally competitive person. He hated to lose, wouldn’t lose. He was like a boxer: He might lose a round, but he’d come back in the next round. We came into a situation with Fila where most of the retailers he would talk to told him, ‘Jon, this is impossible. You can’t bring this back; it’s not gonna happen.’ He would listen but wouldn’t pay attention. He never thought for a second that he wasn’t going to be able to do it. This was a reclamation project. It was basically dead — that’s the way people thought about it, the industry. To him, that’s just a bigger challenge. And he was proud of what we’ve been able to do. And then it became, ‘Now we have to do it better.’ It was never going to be good enough.”
THE MAGIC TOUCH
KEVIN YOON (president and CEO, Fila Korea): “In 2011, on one of the buying trips to China to place production orders for the following spring season, Jon observed a shortage in the market and wanted to place [an order for] about a half-million pairs. At that time, we had never placed a significantly large amount of pairs speculatively. We went into a meeting with people from a couple of factories, there was a price in his mind, and he told the people he would not leave the meeting room until we achieved the price target. For about five to six hours, he conducted all kinds of submeetings — pricing, material, cost engineering, development — and got to the level of the price we were targeting. We had to buy half a million pairs more at the end of the day, and we made the target price. We sold all pairs by the end of next season — this was a pivotal moment for us.”
SAM POSER: “When places like Urban Outfitters were bringing back retro, Jon realized there was opportunity in places he hadn’t looked. He had people on his team who appreciated the opportunities for the brand from a higher-end perspective, but Jon realized quickly there was something else to be done with the brand.”
TODD KIRSSIN (EVP and GMM, DTLR): “Jon was an amazing partner and mentor to me and DTLR. He had one of the best guts and vision in the industry for the next item, color direction, market niche, etc. He was incredibly hands-on, sitting in all the meetings with my crew, and he made everyone feel like the most important person in the room. Jon built an incredible team, teaching and instilling his market and industry knowledge into each and every player.”
JOHN KERNAN (managing director, Cowen and Co.): “Jon was at the forefront of the conversation around the ’90s retro movement — he sensed it early and was leading it because of the initiatives he had put into place. He had a lot of shoe silhouettes ready, and he put in a lot of new colorways with fresh marketing. [In addition], he had insight into what was happening at retail, where the consumer was moving and within the industry.”
GARY WAKLEY: “When we came in here in 2007, the previous management had an idea on how to build the business in the U.S. They wanted to build it from the top down, this idea of reintroducing it as a luxury brand with the Bloomingdale’s and Saks world, and over time have it drift down to the middle market. Jon always said the problem with that is, you run out of time or money, or both, and that’s exactly the situation they had — the losses were piling up, nobody wanted to take those losses anymore, and they decided they would sell the company. Jon was more of a middle-up kind of guy; he didn’t feel there was enough volume at the top of the market to run a business like this. And in the case of Fila, there was no demand, and many customers had been told that Fila didn’t want to do business with them anymore, that they had a whole different direction that they wanted to go. Jon had to repair all of the retail relationships that we had over the years. He had to come back and repair the relationships — start over, essentially, including apologizing to people and begging them to give us another chance.”
DANNY LIEBERMAN: “He was a calculated risk-taker, and a lot of our success was because he was willing to do what others in the market weren’t willing to do. 2008 and 2009 were bad years economically, and people were not putting product on the shelf during that time. But we made big buys, super buys at that time, to put product on the shelf when others weren’t doing it. At that time, we were a brand that nobody really wanted, but by having product on the shelf — nice new product, not old inventory — people needed us because they couldn’t get it from our competition. That strategy led to relationships with retailers, having product for people, and people understanding what we were willing to do. It engaged us with retailers and at retail when everyone else was being conservative. Our retailers started to take us a little bit more seriously at that point. Jon was always a couple of steps ahead of everybody. That was a big moment in our turnaround.”
MATT POWELL: “From 2015 to 2018, Fila really started to get some momentum behind the brand, and it was such a positive thing. Jon was as commercial as anybody in the industry — if you had any open-to-buy dollars, he would find it; if you didn’t have open-to-buy dollars, he would help you figure out how to manufacture it. He ended up with a great business that way. He had things from Barneys to Urban Outfitters to commercialized Foot Locker all over the globe. That’s why I would think his last years were his best, because all of that hard work he put in for years started to pay benefits. Think about the dichotomy of having something for sale in Barneys and Famous Footwear, and have everybody in between be happy with the relationship and the product.”
ANGELO PARENTI: “I believe the defining moment for Jon came at the end of 2017. He called us all into the room and told us that he did not want any more Disruptor orders. Now, anyone who knows Jon knows he doesn’t pull back. He likes to sell a lot of product and do a lot of business, and it has always worked for us. We have been in a constant selling mode while at the same time managing each area of the business properly. Jon was now looking at the business in a different way. This was phenomenal to hear because it meant that our business, including the apparel, had the growth we wanted and we were in the right channels of distribution for our brand. We could make the right decisions for the moment, for the future and for the good of the business. We weren’t just trying to get to a number like we had done in the past from time to time. Now the business was healthier in all areas. This was not only the case for Disruptor but for other areas of the overall business.”
MATT POWELL: “The last time I saw him was in the New York offices, which was in the last 18 months or so. It was after Disruptor had taken off and Fila was back on the map, and the Fendi fashion show happened, and retailers like Urban Outfitters were picking up the brand. He was just so excited that all of these things were starting to fall into place, and yet he was very humble about his role about it. He kept bringing more and more people into the room to introduce them to me, saying this person did that and that person did this. It was never about Jon; it was always about the team. And to see him so excited that the brand was really starting to wake up and make some noise again was great to see.”
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