“It’s about time the media discovered Mark Parker,” says Phil Knight. “It’s like, where have you been? He’s been a nine-year sensation.”
So begins an interview with the legendary co-founder of Nike (NKE), the 77-year-old former accountant who commissioned the ubiquitous “swoosh” logo for $35 and then built a global sneaker empire around it. Knight is still chairman of Nike, but he doesn’t talk much anymore to the news media. For that matter, he doesn’t do much of anything not of his choosing these days. Heck, he didn’t even bother to show up for Nike’s biannual meeting with investors, a mid-October celebration of his company’s accomplishments. At that gathering Knight’s successor, the insufficiently celebrated Parker, made an audacious claim, particularly for such a low-key CEO: He promised to boost Nike’s revenue by $20 billion—to $50 billion—by 2020.
When it comes to discussing Parker, though, Knight is more than willing to talk. Since taking over in 2006 from the outsider Knight first recruited for the job, Parker has overseen a more than doubling of Nike’s sales. To outward appearances, Knight and Parker are a study in contrasts. Knight is an MBA and still an irascible presence around Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., corporate campus. Parker is a soft-spoken shoe designer, known for a thoughtful if demanding management style.
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Yet the two are more alike than not. “We’re both sort of introverted,” says Knight, who is given to terse responses, no matter the question. Asked to explain the current CEO’s achievements, he observes that Parker was one of Nike’s earliest recruits—he joined a design outpost in New Hampshire in 1979—and has succeeded at every task assigned to him since. “He was one of the first guys we recruited out of college,” recalls Knight. “So we’ve kind of had our eye on him for almost 40 years.” Knight recently said he’ll relinquish the chairman’s post to Parker next year.
Knight, who still controls 20% of Nike, is so in tune with Parker that sometimes they go a month without talking. “I usually know what he’s thinking and vice versa,” he says. Knight acknowledges initially having had a tough time letting go, and his famous managerial bark endures, including with Parker. “My usual question,” he says, “is, ‘Why the hell did you do that?’ ”
By all accounts, Parker’s answers have been more than satisfactory. Indeed, the 60-year-old former collegiate runner has ably carried the founder’s baton. Of course, the company Parker inherited was no longer the scrappy underdog to global titans like Adidas. Parker has faced the trickier task of finding growth in a wildly successful mature company.
It’s fair to say Parker has mostly lapped the competition. Nike today is the world leader across multiple athletic-shoe categories, notably running, basketball, and soccer. Its share of the U.S. athletic shoe market is 62%, according to reports earlier this year. No. 2 Skechers (SKX) has just 5%. Behind the scenes, Nike is an operations machine known for crisp inventory management and shrewd dealings with retailers. The company is famed for its ability to sell, but increasingly Nike is standing out in its commitment to technology, whether in design, in manufacturing, in marketing, and as we’ll see, soon in retailing.
Uppers for Nike Flyknit shoes at the company’s Blue Ribbon Studios. Nike spent heavily in time and money to develop the ultra-lightweight technology which has become a big hit.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Nike also grows astoundingly fast for a company its size. It has been generating steady annual sales growth of 8.5%, and its $50 billion revenue target implies it can kick that up to 10%, all while fending off Under Armour (UA) and Lululemon (LULU), which have assumed Nike’s former challenger mantle. Nike prints profits too: more than $3 billion in fiscal 2015, nearly 11% of sales.
Parker is something of an oddity in a world of big-ego, headline-grabbing CEOs. Introverts, after all, aren’t the norm in the executive suite. But people like Parker and Apple’s Tim Cook (AAPL) are showing that reserved types can deliver. Parker’s meticulous approach to product development, known as “design thinking,” is all the rage, thanks to the acclaim of Apple’s products under its famed designer Jony Ive. Parker remains committed to his original craft: He still noodles on two limited-run sneaker lines with famed Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, one of them with Nike spokes-icon Michael Jordan and the other with Japanese stylemaker Hiroshi Fujiwara.
Nike’s performance, like a seasoned champion that continues to steamroll the competition, has prompted Fortune to name Parker its Businessperson of the Year for 2015. Given that students of management are always looking for role models, it’s also a good excuse to investigate what makes Parker tick. After all, he is the rare successor of a celebrated founder who has taken his company to new heights. It is time, as Phil Knight tersely observed, to discover how Mark Parker does it.
“I’m inspired by visual stimulation,” says Parker. He is sitting ramrod straight on a couch in his art-strewn office in the John McEnroe Building on Nike’s 394-acre corporate complex, a five-minute walk from Knight’s office in the Mia Hamm Building. There is plenty for Parker to be visually stimulated by here. Indeed, the eclectic profusion of the lowbrow (and plenty of higher-brow) art Parker collects is overwhelming. There are busts of Abraham Lincoln, scores of miniature Nike sneakers, sculptures by the renowned Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin, a couple of Warhols, and coffee-table books about art and Nike. It’s all a bit much, even for Parker—or at least his wife. “Things wind up here that my wife doesn’t want at home,” he says. “I’ve got to have a little purge.”
Parker, who is 6-foot-4 and still distance-runner lean, wears an untucked deep-blue dress shirt, pressed jeans, and black sneakers of his own design. He sports a scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard and speaks in a slightly quizzical tone, as if he’s not completely certain how the words will sound. Parker equates his managerial style with being an editor, with his process focused on helping subordinates hone their ideas. He even edits himself. At one point he halts after beginning a sentence with the word “honestly” and continues: “I don’t like when I say ‘honestly’—not to imply that I’m otherwise not honest.” It’s the sign of an analytical mind; Parker is commenting on, and honing, his thoughts even as he expresses them.
Mannequins inside Nike’s sewing studio await designers’ latest apparel ideas.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Editing, in fact, is a constant process for Nike, and Parker’s impulse-control struggle with art collecting suggests it’s hard to balance that with Nike’s seemingly all-encompassing ambitions for global domination. Through its pan-sport Nike and basketball-focused Jordan brands and to a lesser extent its Converse and Hurley sportswear labels, the company wants to be all things to all people engaged in any athletic activity, including spectating. Moreover, its strongest products beget its next products. Like Google (GOOG) with its search-ads business and Apple with its iPhones, Nike is blessed with a handful of cash cows—basketball shoes being the most obvious—that fund its explorations.
Parker, as it happens, had a hand in several of Nike’s greatest shoes, including as part of the Air Jordan development team. A few years later he got his name (alongside that of Air Jordan designer Hatfield) on a patent for his role in creating the technology behind “Visible Air,” which lets athletes see their shoe’s cushioning.
Despite his design credentials, Parker moved into the management ranks and proved highly successful. He headed global footwear, then became co-president of the Nike brand. He shared the latter job with a sales executive, Charlie Denson, and the two formed a classic Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside duo, with the quiet designer in the former role. Parker wasn’t wholly internally focused, though, and as a lifer with serious product cred he excelled at spinning Nike’s narrative as a personal-achievement crusade and not merely that of a shoe peddler. Says David Stern, commissioner emeritus of the NBA, who once appeared on a panel with Parker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “He understands the potential for a great brand to have an impact far beyond the verticals in which it sells goods.”
When Knight decided to retire in 2004, he was excited by the notion of bringing in the fresh view of an outsider. He hired an executive from the Midwestern consumer products company S.C. Johnson, William Perez, passing over Parker. It wasn’t a good fit, and barely a year later Perez was out and Parker was in. (Denson became sole head of the Nike brand under Parker and retired last year, after 34 years with Nike.)
It turns out an insider has a huge advantage running Nike, a “matrixed” organization where playing nice across organizations is required. “Those who are not at Nike would look at the matrix and say, ‘I need control,’ ” says Jan Singer, a former head of global footwear at Nike and now CEO of women’s apparel maker Spanx. “You often have more than one boss, and even if you don’t, you have multiple stakeholders.”
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As Nike’s boss, Parker is relentlessly inquisitive. “Mark’s questions are often either leading or directive,” says Andy Campion, Nike’s chief financial officer and a former Disney executive. “What’s fascinating about his use of questions is that it leaves other leaders empowered to find the answers themselves and act on them.” Parker has a penchant, as well, for managing by aphorism. Spanx’s Singer recalls him waxing sagacious on the question of talent management by comparing someone on Singer’s team to an oak tree. “He told me, ‘Trying to turn it into a pine tree isn’t going to help anyone. But making it into the best oak tree possible is the goal.’ ”
Nurturing the whole Nike forest is Parker’s remit. “We are complex,” he says. “We’re in 190-ish countries around the world, 13 sport categories. When you add it all up, we’re really talking billions of product units. It’s a big, fast-paced, complex business to run. So you have to always keep boiling it down to what’s really most important in terms of really moving this business forward, but with the consumer ultimately in mind first and foremost. And that helps us to edit.”
Nike is the kind of company where executives will unabashedly work the corporate mission statement into regular conversation. The effect is something like actors in a musical suddenly breaking out into song: You know you’re witnessing a rehearsed performance, but it’s an effective one. “Eager Beavertons,” as prominent sports-industry newsletter writer John Horan calls them, abound among Nike employees. Their mission statement is catchy, and it has a clever twist: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Nike places an asterisk next to the word “athlete.” That’s a quote from the great University of Oregon running coach Bill Bowerman, whom Phil Knight recruited to start the company: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
How Nike segments and serves those athletes is part of what it considers its edge. Through an approach it calls “category offense,” Nike divides the world into sporting endeavors as well as geographies, the theory being that, say, golf lovers share more traits than do residents of neighboring countries. According to the company, Nike sales have risen 70% since the company shifted to that philosophy in 2008. By emphasizing categories over regions, Nike ends up winning the geographies it most wants anyway.
Nike pays methodical attention to how its sells its products. Jeanne Jackson, president of product and merchandising, describes an analysis Nike did of the Stratford Westfield Mall in England, which has 14 retailers, including a Nike store, selling Nike branded merchandise. Nike reckoned that too many retailers were selling duplicate products—a classic editing opportunity. For example, it will allocate skating apparel to a store that’s strong in skating but withhold basketball shoes from that shop. Nike has used this approach already in North America and China, Jackson says, and based on its experiences it expects to increase Nike’s sales in the English mall by nearly 20%.
There’s an old industry line about Nike’s selling acumen:
Nike uses its size—and a marketing budget of 10% of sales, bigger than most of its competitors’ revenues—to muscle its ways into new markets. For example, “global football” (soccer, in American English), is a category Nike has pursued everywhere, primarily by paying top dollar (and euro and pounds sterling and so on) to sponsor the most important national and professional clubs. It’s working. At its October meeting with analysts, for example, Jackson noted that Nike had become No. 1 in global football, “even in Germany,” a bald swipe at longtime leader Adidas.
But Nike is not purely a marketing operation. It also spends heavily on footwear technology, a point of pride for Parker. “We’ve two-exed our innovation investment surgically, to focus on what matters,” he says. Because Nike can spend for the long haul, its innovation investments are real, and new technologies represent another facet of its segmentation. It spent years, for example, developing Flyknit, a lightweight, seamless sneaker. “Flyknit was priced high and was slow to get going,” says Christopher Svezia, an analyst with brokerage Susquehanna Financial Group. “But it was great technology. Three years later it’s a billion-dollar business with lower price points. Other companies might have just sat on it and tried to figure out something else.”
Some of the fabrics that Nike designers can work with at the Blue Ribbon Studio.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
That’s the easy-to-express, hard-to-execute nub of Nike’s formula: Consistently come up with new ideas, then market full-out. Having institutionalized the process for innovating, the company has a long list of growth opportunities. It has all but promised, for example, that it will debut an entirely new shoe for the 2016 Rio Olympics, just as it launched its Flyknit technology at the 2012 Games in London. Nike has identified its women’s category as ripe for growth: Women’s shoes and apparel account for only 20% of revenue. Noting that the Jordan brand is overwhelmingly U.S., male, and related to basketball, the company thinks it can expand beyond all three. It recently dispatched Michael Jordan himself to China to celebrate the brand’s 30th anniversary and raise its profile.
Nike even thinks that having replaced Adidas by paying $1 billion to slap its swoosh on all NBA jerseys for eight years will lead to new Nike-powered technological advances. “I’ve talked with commissioner Adam Silver about our role enriching the fan experience,” Parker told investors in October. “What can we do to digitally connect the fan to the action they see on the court? How can we learn more about the athlete, real-time? I think sitting courtside might feel a lot different in years to come.”
Technology is a differentiator for Nike. In October the company announced that it is working with the Silicon Valley contract manufacturer Flex (formerly called Flextronics) (FLEX), which is better known for making electronics, medical, and automotive devices. It’s a significant move because Nike plans to infuse Flex’s high-tech expertise with its apparel factory partners in Asia. (The companies first became aware of each other because Flex manufactured Nike’s doomed FuelBand fitness tracker.) The shoemaker also plans to open the 125,000-square-foot Nike Advanced Product Creation Center at its headquarters, where it will work with partners like Flex on techniques such as 3D printing, next-generation knitting technologies, and new methods for automation.
Nearly four years ago Fortune described a tectonic digital shift at the company, calling it “the biggest change in Beaverton since the creation of ‘Just do it.’ ” Nike had slashed its print and TV advertising spending by 40% and shifted that money—and more—to digital marketing. A key part of the shift was using the new means to reach consumers directly.
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Today “digital” is a catchall term that represents one of the company’s biggest opportunities. It vows to grow digital revenue—primarily Nike.com—to $7 billion in 2020, up from $1 billion this year. Such an expansion of what it calls its “direct-to-consumer” business, which includes its retail stores, is potentially revolutionary for Nike. The company is making noises about expanding a nascent program to personalize shoes for individual consumers. In theory Nike could use its physical stores to fit feet and then record the files digitally for repeat purchases on Nike.com. “Digital is almost taking us back to our roots,” says Andy Campion, Nike’s CFO, a nod to the days when Knight and Bowerman peddled sneakers to runners out of the trunk of Knight’s car.
Upside for Nike isn’t necessarily a boon for all its partners. Direct sales represent an existential threat to Nike’s vast network of retail relationships. A sevenfold expansion of digital revenue doesn’t bode well for stores that rely on Nike’s favor for their allocations of hot sneakers. Indeed, Nike is such a dominant wholesaler that its key partners can only hope the rising tide lifts its boat too. As an example, Nike accounted for 73% of Foot Locker’s (FL) sales last year, certainly a blessing and a curse for the retailer. “I think of it as a blessing,” says Dick Johnson, Foot Locker’s CEO. “They are the best in the business. We’ve invested with Nike to create premium retail destinations like House of Hoops, the Nike Fly Zone, and Jordan Flight 23.”
Nike dominates, but it isn’t immune to competition. Its chief antagonist is Under Armour, a smaller (2014 sales were $3 billion) but pesky rival. Under Armour has scored big with athletic apparel and has had good luck too, signing up-and-coming stars like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and golfer Jordan Spieth just before each became champions. Nike’s own list of sponsored athletes features megastars for whom one name suffices, including LeBron, Kobe, Cristiano, Serena, and Roger.
Parker is said to have a fiercely competitive streak. Yet getting him to discuss any competitor by name is futile. “We’re totally focused on what we can do,” he says, declining to swing at a softball offer to opine on how Under Armour affects Nike. “We like a good fight” is about the most he will give up on the subject, adding, “I learn a lot from all our competitors.”
Mark Parker wears a black stainless-steel Apple Watch, on one wrist and a Nike FuelBand fitness tracker, which the company discontinued last year, on the other. He isn’t enthusiastic about either. “A good first step” he calls Apple’s product, misidentifying it as an iWatch. (This might displease Apple CEO Cook, a 10-year member of Nike’s board and chairman of its compensation committee.) As for Nike’s own wearable, Parker says he decided it wasn’t a core product. “Our presence is going to be an experience that is on a wearable like a watch,” he says, noting that for now Nike will keep integrating with tracker products from Apple, Google, Samsung, TomTom, and others. It also continues to support the FuelBand. (Call it corporate editing or realism, but Parker has also shown a willingness to shed acquisitions—such as Bauer Hockey, Cole Haan, and Umbro—that didn’t pan out.)
Nike’s board recently acknowledged the success of Parker, who turned 60 in October, with a $30 million bonus in return for staying on five more years. For his own part, Parker celebrated his birthday by presenting Michael J. Fox with a pair of real self-lacing sneakers, just like the fictional pair Fox’s character, Marty McFly, wore in the film Back to the Future 30 years ago.
Parker shows few signs of slowing down. Earlier in the year Phil Knight created a company, Swoosh Inc., to hold his $22 billion stake in Nike, and he named Parker one of Swoosh’s directors. (Nike also named Knight’s 41-year-old son, Travis, a film animator, to its board.) Parker says he still runs, but only recreationally. His current fitness regimen also includes hiking, walking, weight-lifting, and spinning. “My wife is a spin instructor, so she kicks my ass,” he says. “She used to be a world-record holder in the 5,000 meters. We walk every night. She’s two steps ahead of me.”
And just as Knight is pleased that Parker has finally been discovered, Parker is on an endless quest to discover other creative talent. “When I travel I connect with creative people in all different fields and disciplines,” he says. “It’s sort of just to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. I think that’s important. I tend to gravitate toward people who are a bit more eccentric and creative and artistic in some ways. And I like bringing disparate kinds of creative people together to create some great work, even to share points of view on a new direction.”
Another of Parker’s inspirational management aphorisms, this one a sports metaphor, is that “at Nike, there is no finish line.” Perhaps not, but it would feel mighty sweet to break through the banner of his $50 billion revenue goal. Till then, there will be many miles to run till Parker can sleep.
To see the full Businessperson of the Year list, visit fortune.com/businessperson-of-the-year.
A version of this article appears in the December 1, 2015 issue of Fortune. Update: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the location of the 2012 Olympic games.