An Interview with On’s Olivier Bernhard
It’s a perfect late-summer morning and the sunlight is bouncing off Albert Park Lake. Beyond the water, Melbourne’s skyline seldom looks as good as it does from this vantage point.
We’re at Albert Park for the launch of On Athletics Club Oceania, a new elite training initiative that, for its inaugural squad, brings together five middle-distance champions – Keely Small, Claudia Hollingsworth, Maudie Skyring, Tess Kirsopp-Cole and Ben Buckingham – and track legend Craig Mottram as coach.
Standing in front of us, squinting into the sun, is On’s affable co-founder, Olivier Bernhard. Along with David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, Olivier – a three-time world duathlon champion and multiple Ironman winner – launched On in 2010 with the idea to engineer a Swiss-designed shoe that would create the feeling of running on clouds.
From the sports design award the brand won just a month after its launch to its partnership with tennis player Roger Federer and a successful NYSE public offering in 2021, On has become a major global sports brand in a little over a decade.
Olivier was pleased to talk about the brand’s growth, his hopes for OAC Oceania and beyond, and how having an athlete’s outlook shapes his business leadership.
“We want to be impossible. If it's possible, then anyone can do it – our competition can do it. But if it's impossible, then let's try.”
You said you've only been in Melbourne for two days. What do you think of the city so far?
It's absolutely great. I was here 10 years ago and, driving from the airport to the city, the skyline has changed so much since then. It's not what I had memorised, to be honest. I put my stuff in at the hotel, got on my running shoes and went for a run – and I was so pleased, because I went to the Botanic Gardens and that was still exactly the same. As a runner it's cool; you go places and they usually don't change because they are in nature.
It hit me again, coming to Melbourne, that everything and everybody seems to move here. It's swimming, the Formula One is coming up, then it's running, it's rowing. And it's right in the city. It's the thing that struck me 10 years ago and it's still the same.
Let's talk a little bit about the On Athletics Club. We're here now at the launch for OAC Oceania – why did you choose to base it in Melbourne?
I think one of the reasons is, as I just said, it's always appeared to me as a very active sports city – and I haven't even mentioned the tennis! Roger [Federer] became not only a partner in our business but also a very close friend for me, personally. We're both athletes – I mean, I'm not a tennis player and not on his level but I think in some ways athletes just talk the same language.
I think we chose Melbourne because of its diversity and the craziness about sports, movement and health that it’s always had.
The initiative with setting up these teams, you started off with the US (in Boulder, Colorado) and then you've set one up in Europe (St Moritz in summer and Berlin as well as Leipzig in winter). And here we are in Melbourne, where you’ve just started with a dynamic and youthful team.
Where to from here? Are there plans to roll out more teams globally?
I think it's definitely not the end. As you say, we started with the US, which is really the first team we've built, and we want to try and see how far we can take it and how the proper mix of athletes and talents and coach can work out. And I think we’ve succeeded, by the way.
So we duplicated that and brought it to Europe, but with the mindset that it wouldn’t be with the same calibre of athletes. We wanted to add more young talents that we could build for the Olympics in LA, which is only in five years. But now we see some of those young athletes, they're delivering results and they probably won't have to wait until the Olympics in LA. They're probably going to end up racing at the Olympics in Paris, in a year from now. So this is not the end and Australia, or Oceania – we call it the OAC Oceania, so it's including Japan and New Zealand and some other countries – has athletes that we want to join.
Then, I think, obviously there's room to expand – we have another two continents which are also very strong in running. Especially Africa. That's the heritage of running in itself. So we want to have an OAC Africa, as well as we also want to have an OAC in Asia.
We're learning while we are building this, but I think we'll probably have a core team of OAC athletes and then we'll have a youth team that we want to develop. Young athletes from 13 to 14 years old and give them the chance and the time to properly develop. That's something that I would envision.
And the Melbourne-based OAC will be for Oceania and open to athletes from other countries in the region?
Absolutely. Even in the US when we kicked it off, even if it's called OAC USA, I wanted to have athletes visit from Europe, from Australia. I mean we have Ollie [Hoare] on the team, right? Who's one of the great members of that team.
I think it's probably one of the ingredients that made this initiative into a success. If you have athletes in the same team that all are doing 1500s, but one is from Costa Rica, the other one is from the US, another one is from Mexico and one is from Australia, they don't compete, they just try to help each other to reach that level – so they can then compete in the final at the Olympics, right?
And it's these little tricks that we try to apply. And this is only the start. We have Ben and these four wonderful female athletes. We will mix it up to make sure that we have the right ingredients. As I said, this mixing is a big part of the success, I believe.
Shifting away from OAC, let's talk a little bit more about On and what you’re doing now within the company. From designing the early prototypes – there's that wonderful story of how you used some gardening hose to cobble together a prototype – to where the brand is now and the ranges that you're rolling out, how has your role changed?
To be honest, in some ways not many things have changed. I still use my garage and go tinker on shoes, and I still love it. And I'm still an athlete. I mean, I'm not racing, but in terms of an athlete's mindset, you know, I tinker on my shoes, go for a run, come back, and I think, "Oh, that could be improved." So, I tinker some more and then I go around again, so that hasn't changed.
I also take that into the company. So, I'm very close to product. As in shoes, as in apparel. I'm very close to athletes, like what we are doing right now with OAC Oceania. So that still means everything to me, to help athletes perform at their peak levels, to enable athletes so they can deliver the best.
Other things, obviously, have changed drastically. Like, at the beginning you do everything. You're an accountant, you're a marketer, you're a salesperson, you're a developer, you're an engineer; you're everything, which is great. But – and maybe it started around five years ago – there comes a time when you realise that you can't control everything anymore. You're about 250 people in the company, and there's so much more expertise in the team, right?
I've never had issues or problems to let go and to give these experts more power, more responsibility. I think that's one of the keys of success: to let go. And then step out a bit more from the operational functions. I’m happy that I don't have to be so close to operational stuff anymore and instead can focus on strategics and athletes.
But when it comes to product, I still want to be super close. It still means everything when it comes to technology, design, picking the right materials, quality.
And then one topic that's super important to me is sustainability. And to us it's not only just another word that many in the industry or now globally are using, even in politics. It's really something that we know we have to make an impact with in our industry. For too long it's been a fossil-based industry, and we want to move away from that and become a fossil-free and even circular brand. And that's a challenge. But again, we love challenges, right? I haven't lost my athlete's mindset …
Let's talk about that. Sustainability is certainly a topic that's on everyone's mind and it's great to hear that you're taking that circular approach, but let's talk about that athlete's mindset.
How have you used that in what you're doing in your day-to-day? Beyond how having competed at the highest levels can help inform product development, do you tap into any of that spiritual side of what athletes do?
Absolutely, absolutely. To be honest, I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur – I still feel like an athlete, 100%. And I apply everything I learned to become a world champion now as an entrepreneur.
The first time we went to China is an example, right? We unfolded the product drawings, we had the ideas, and we had all these people who had been in the industry for 30, 40 years looking at the drawings. They said, "This cannot be done. And if you want to do it, it costs like tenfold. A shoe would have to sell for like 800 bucks. Actually, it can't be done." And then I say, “Okay, so tell us how to do it.”
I love impossible. And just to overcome those challenges. And now it still applies after 13 years in the business. It applies with my team in innovation but, beyond that, we want to be impossible. If it's possible, then anyone can do it – our competition can do it. But if it's impossible, then let's try. Let's find what it needs to be, what needs to be done so we can actually make it.
And what comes with that is that we have to accept failure. As an athlete, you train, you fail almost every day. But it's not a bad thing, it's not negative. Failing … it's just another step to success. And I think often, in business, failing is not allowed; it has very negative connotations, which as an athlete you're just very used to. I think persistence is another thing. You just don't give up. You stick with it. You believe in it. You set goals and vision and you go. I think there are so many things that I still apply nowadays – with my team, with the organisation – that are truly based and rooted in my athlete's background.