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An Estonian will work in Nike's head office

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PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Kristjan Luha, who has been connected with Nike for 20 years, will be the company’s global vice-president for football marketplace from September this year. He and his wife Age will move for the fifth time, so as to start working in Nike's head office.

They will be leaving behind their recently completed house in Tammneeme near Tallinn. Kristjan admits in his living room with a great view of the sea that this is a drawback of international career – one loses the roots. But there is a lot for self-realization.

You were one of the vice-presidents of Nike and headed the Russia division. Now you will move to a global role. How will this change your work?

This role is at a different level, and a completely new experience for us. We have moved a number of times when working with Nike: from Estonia to the Netherlands, from Netherlands to Russia, then to Greece and back to Russia. We will now be moving to Portland, USA, to work at Nike’s Global HQ. In some way, Portland has turned into a Silicon Valley of sports industry with a number of sports brands there, all seeking the talents in the same sphere.

How many VPs are there at this level?

I really do not know the precise number. The enterprise is large, more than 70,000 people. This is a completely different job. When leading a subsidiary in a country you can realize plans and see the results of your work immediately. It is like you are at one end of a long line and the consumer is right in front of you. But now you shift all the way upstream. A job at the global HQ is much more about defining a vision and direction. This work requires more experience and maturity.

Nike is a huge enterprise; how much can one establish his vision there?

As the enterprise is truly large and there are many categories in which we serve the consumer, specific strategies are unique to each category. What matters is the ability to create innovative products that help the athlete to perform better.

How fierce is the competition between large sports brands?

Of course they look at market shares and, for example, how many footballers are playing in your boots. And while Nike is a long-time leader, larger than any of the competitors, it is much more inspiring to focus on realizing one's potential than beating the competition.

At Nike we say that the difference between you and your potential is much larger than the difference between you and your competition. In addition, we all care about developing sports and growing sports participation.

Nike has a brilliant slogan: «Just do it!» Have they ever considered changing it?

I think there was a debate somewhere in the ‘90s that “Just Do It” may be too focused on winning. You can also simply interpret it as – “Just start a work out!” Of course, everyone can define their own meaning. But there was a new slogan for a moment – “You can!” It largely failed to inspire. Perhaps because it lacked the impulse that motivates you to take the initiative and make an effort to reach your goals.

How will joining the Nike HQ influence your income? Does it mean a major rise?

Money is not a driving factor. Nike has competitive remuneration and takes great care of its employees. We’re also fortunate not having to worry about many things such as moving, finding a place to live or a health insurance for example.

What has one to do right to become a vice-president at Nike?

There must be some luck, of course. It is not easy to get started from Estonia, because large companies are mostly not present there. A great first step would be to go and study abroad, then find opportunities for internships.

But moving around like this brings its own challenges and may not suit everyone. It’s great to begin with your personal values, what kind of environment you like, and consider the long run, where would you have opportunities to grow in the long term. If your values and the firm’s values are aligned, you can stay there for a long time and develop. If you are successful in an international enterprise, the runway never ends.

Self-help books focus on finding your passion. I believe that passion comes from something you are already doing. Just like the old Estonian saying “Work hard and love will follow”. It is more important just to get started.

You have been with Nike for 20 years?

Including the time with Jalajälg (Nike's Distributor in Estonia – Ed.), then yes, it’s 20 years now. Meeting Are Altraja (one of the owners of Jalajälg – Ed.) in a gym, just when he was looking for the 1st employee to join the company, that was pure chance.

This must have been the luck you mentioned?

(Laughs) There really are no short-cuts. You need some sense of urgency and drive to get out of bed in the morning and get things done. I recently read an interview with the CEO of Burger King, who said that you have to work really hard to put yourself in a position to be lucky.

What are your professional dreams? What is your next goal?

There is a lot of room for personal growth at Nike. It’s not as important to plan some ten years ahead, as it is to focus on the next 2-3 years. We may return to Europe in a couple of years, where there are many interesting things to do. Perhaps we’ll be staying in Portland for a longer time. We’ll find out as we go.

How long are your workdays?

At Nike we don’t measure when you came to work or left exactly. Mails from Europe and Moscow come from the morning, then from Portland in the afternoon until late at night. I have not used the ‘out of office’ note for a long time as I’m almost always online and on the go.

How much sports do you do and how does participation differ in various countries?

We have horses and my wife Age trains and competes. We had our horses with us in Moscow as well and now Portland is fantastic for all kinds of sports.

In Russia, overall sports participation has grown incredibly over the recent years and Gorky Park today is filled with runners, skateboarders and cyclists.

International career is not easy.

When moving around internationally, it is difficult for both members of the family to work, and so it is a challenge building two careers in parallel.

Imagine traveling for a few weeks or months, but being on such a path for years is a different thing. It’s as if you’re losing your roots. Age has built our home here, while we don’t know whether we actually get to live here. We may be coming back, but in five or twenty years... I do not know.

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