By Jonathan Stempel
Dec 3 (Reuters) - The chief executive of Brooks Running is projecting double-digit sales growth through 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic spurs more people to run when they're not staying home.
Jim Weber, who has since 2001 led the maker of higher-end running shoes and apparel, part of billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc, said sales are rising even as runners seeking faster times feel "a little bit lost."
"Running is a tool for mental and physical health and wellness," even as COVID-19 for many goes in "the wrong direction," Weber said in a recent interview.
"Next year, hopefully when the Olympics will happen and people can sign up again for local races, it could be a turbocharger," he said. "Then the goal-oriented runners get back into that mode."
Brooks estimates it has added 1.6 million runners this year, and is projecting revenue of $850 million for 2020, up 27% from $667 million last year. Weber said revenue should reach $1 billion in 2021.
According to NPD Data, the Seattle-based company's athletic footwear sales by grew more than one-third from July to September, even as Adidas, Asics, New Balance and Under Armour posted declines. Nike had a small gain.
Brooks is also hiring. Unlike at some Berkshire units, its global workforce has grown 12% this year, to 980 people. Thousands more make its products in factories overseas.
Most Brooks shoes are now made in Vietnam after rising tariffs prompted Weber to exit China, which had accounted for 45% of production. He now expects Vietnam to account for 80% of production by next spring, with Indonesia generating the rest.
"We were always at that 20-25% (tariff) in running shoes out of China, from the 1930s," Weber said. "This additional tariff would have taken it to 45%. We just can't raise our prices."
Brooks is also focusing more on the interplay between how people shop online, which accounts for 42% of sales, and in stores. Weber said it helps manage inventory. "Virtual" shoe fittings are part of that process.
Weber, who turns 61 on Jan. 1, said he now runs more slowly following injuries and a full recovery from a bout with cancer, and uses a "neck tube" mask to cover most of his face when he approaches people on roads and trails.
He said he has "total" support from Berkshire Vice Chairman Greg Abel, 58, whom he reports to and is receiving sample gear in his size ahead of a video strategy session this month, and the 90-year-old Buffett.
"Obviously at 90, he's not putting in a lot of miles," Weber said. "But he's such a fan of building a brand with a moat around it that's unique." (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York Editing by Nick Zieminski)