ADİDAS TÜRKİYE

Adidas Back in the game the venerable German shoemaker has pulled its financial socks up. Now it's scoring some points in the U.S. market.

Charles P. Wallace

There isn't a Swoosh in sight. As a couple of hundred college coaches watch an exhibition game from wooden bleachers, the cream of American high school basketball prays for a smile or a nod. Sonny Vaccaro, the promoter who discovered Michael Jordan for Nike, works the floor like a politician. But instead of Nike's ubiquitous trademark, the three-stripe logo of Adidas, Germany's venerable sporting goods company and sponsor of this event, flutters from the rafters like a Teutonic battle flag. "Does Phil Knight want me dead?" crows Vaccaro, referring to Nike's billionaire chairman. "You bet."

Outflanking Nike with high school basketball summer camp might seem like a small skirmish in the multibillion-dollar global sneaker war, but it's part of a broad assault being mapped for Adidas by President Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the perpetually rumpled French financier who has engineered an impressive turnaround at the German shoemaker. Adidas has become that rare case study: a former market leader that's regaining its footing, after being all but crushed by an upstart rival like Nike. It's as if Apple Computer came back to challenge Compaq.

In a scant five years, Adidas has pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, gone public, and seen its stock price triple. Its revenue jumped from $1.7 billion in 1992 to $2.8 billion in 1996. Earnings per share rose 28% last year, and company officials insist that profits will keep expanding at a similar rate for at least three years more. Adidas has slimmed down its management ranks, moved manufacturing out of costly European plants, and undertaken a huge increase in spending on marketing. The 51-year-old Louis-Dreyfus, a sports fanatic with a Harvard MBA, has turned his $10,000 initial investment in Adidas into a prodigious personal fortune of some $390 million.

Now, having cleaned up the company's balance sheet (its debt will be paid down entirely in a couple of years), Louis-Dreyfus is pressing his U.S. executives to boost the company's performance in the all-important American market. They have a long way to go: Adidas still commands only 5% of the athletic shoe business in the U.S., compared with 40% for the fearsome Nike and 16% for Reebok International. But thanks to new blood like former Nike basketball chief Vaccaro--and some other talented apostates from that firm--Adidas is back on the playing field. Its logo is turning up once again on the shoes (and T-shirts and sweats) of American kids. Last summer it signed a $10 million promotional deal with Kobe Bryant, a teenage prodigy making his NBA debut. Then, a few months later, it trumped Nike with a $100 million agreement under which baseball's New York Yankees will wear the Adidas logo.

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