Xavier Escales speaks well of his competitors because he considers them great allies in a noble project: helping to encourage people to do more sport. Escales is Country Manager for Spain and Portugal of the Japanese sports brand ASICS. He confesses that the three essential pillars of his life are family, work and sport and that the key to his happiness is having found the balance between them. We talk to him about the running fever, the beginnings of the brand in Spain and his experience at the UOC as a student of Business Administration and Management in the far off 1990s.
ASICS is the acronym of Anima sana in corpore sano. Perhaps we have recently been overly obsessed with the corpore sano?
More than being obsessed I think we have slightly lost sight of the distinction between what is and isn't healthy. Participating in an Ironman is fabulous for anyone with the physical capacity and willing to make sacrifices, but it is clear that it is not a discipline suited to everyone, and this leads us to the reflection that some people have a mistaken idea of what is healthy. For one person, health might be running a marathon, but for another it means walking 20 minutes a day. We must not lose sight of this. We must provide people with more information of this sort and involve everyone: companies, administration and the sports sector in general.
What is the fever for running all about? Is it a passing phenomenon or is it here to stay?
It is a sport open to all: you only need the will and some running shoes. It is inexpensive and, if you are determined, you get results very quickly. Finally, in a short time you achieve physical benefits and it adapts closely to today's pace of life. I think it's here for good, but the future also involves runners doing other activities. People are realizing that if you combine running with other exercise in the gym your performance will improve. The future involves complementing running with other activities.
"The future also involves runners doing other activities, such as going to the gym and thereby improving their performance."
How long has ASICS been aware of this boom in doing sport in the open air? It has probably resulted in a lot of sales.
I always say that 10 years ago when I walked down Diagonal in Barcelona and saw someone running it seemed strange, a bit out of place. Very few people did it. But over the last four or five years running has been socially accepted and has started to be seen as a discipline with positive values, associated with health.
But historically Catalonia has always been a very sporty country...
Yes, no doubt, it is a keen football-loving country, with great athletes, but sport was done mostly in the gym. This boom of going into the street is very recent and I link it very much with these other values of health, of taking care of yourself, and eating well. It is all connected.
What is the chronology of ASICS, how did it arrive in Spain and how did it become one of the leading brands in the sector?
The brand arrived over 20 years ago but always through distributors, without an official subsidiary in the territory. This was created in late 2005. In 2006, with the whole team set up, we were the 18th brand in Spain in sports shoes and today we have risen to third place. We are indisputable leaders in technical running, leaders in paddle tennis with a 75% market share, and also leaders in volleyball. Obviously we have benefitted greatly from this fever for sport we mentioned, but we have also done things well strategically, because the brands that at that time were alongside us in these positions are no longer among the first five.
One of the successes has been selling a lot despite the economic barrier of the price of many of your products.
More than 50% of running products in Spain are sold at a price above €50 and ASICS has no product below this amount. We are targeted at a market of people that greatly value the product and quality, which is why we have become leaders. According to our statistics, when they are more aware of the importance of equipping themselves well and when they have more information, clients choose ASICS.
And what is the added value of your brand over your competitors?
We are obsessed with two things: one is the quality of the product. We try to ensure, as far as possible, that competing with the same price our sports shoes have more features than those of our competitors. We have 60 engineers working in Japan to constantly improve our products. The other factor we take very seriously is the training of salespeople so they can explain each shoe and adapt to the needs of the clients.
"We have 60 engineers working in Japan to constantly improve our products."
How do you innovate in your business? Is it all a question of materials?
Innovation takes two forms: innovation of the product, which means making lighter shoes or shoes with more cushioning or stability and, in general, all the elements we call technical. In this area we are advancing enormously: you only have to compare the shoes of 10 years ago with today's. The quality leap is gigantic. The other line is innovation in design. There is an important trend which is athleisure, the mix between athletics and leisure. A few years ago sports shoes were boring, but today they come in bright colours, match clothes, are attractive and trendsetting. People want to run and look good.
The manufacturing processes of the big sports brands have been very controversial historically because of the working conditions of the employees or the lack of respect for the environment. Where and under what working conditions does ASICS manufacture?
The most important index in the world for controlling worker's conditions in Asia is the Dow Jones Sustainability Asia/Pacific Index. It lists all the companies with corporate social responsibility and that provide their workers with fair conditions and can be consulted on the Internet. We are one of the few companies in the sector to appear in this index. Not only do we comply with the regulations, but we also ensure that the companies we work with do the same. This concern is part of the foundational values of the company. When it was created after the WWII, the objective was not to do business at any price but to conserve some values.
Talking about history, ASICS was born in Japan, just after the Second World War, in a devastated country where the priority cannot have been sport...
Yes, the founder, Kihachiro Onitsuka, wanted to start a company after the war, when the country was completely destroyed, and he didn't want to start just any business but wanted his project to help lift up Japan. He thought that young people are happier when they do sport and learn the values of sacrifice, teamwork and health. And he created his first design, basketball shoes, in 1949. His values are still present in the company today.
You are one of the UOC students from the 1990s generation. How did you discover the University?
I was reading a press article about a pioneering and innovative Catalan university, with a method different from what was being done and it attracted my attention. I have always been restless and attracted by innovation. I was already working and I wanted to have a degree in Business Administration and Management and it was not easy but I did it in the end.