Exclusive: How Heidi O’Neill Rose to Become Nike’s Most Powerful Woman Overseeing $40B in Annual Revenues
In our May “Women in Power” issue, six of Nike’s trailblazing execs at the center of the brand’s ambitious strategy sat down with FN for exclusive interviews to discuss their unique career paths, Nike’s 50th anniversary and lighting the path for the next generation.
Growing up in Northern Michigan, Heidi O’Neill got an early education about the highs and lows of retail while working in the back room at Port Side Sports, her parents’ sporting goods store.
When she was 12, her father decided to introduce cross-country skiing to the residents of Charlevoix, Mich., and on a particularly snowy day, he taught his daughter about the power of great storytelling. “He kicked me out the door and had me cross-country ski to school. Then he called the local newspaper and had them meet me on the way so he could get the cover story,” recalled the president of Nike Consumer and Marketplace.
Soon, the young athlete was holding ski clinics, which O’Neill likened to Nike Run Club. “My father had so much passion around sport and bringing it to the community, and I was part of that. Some of the fundamentals match what Nike’s trying to do — it is a bit timeless.”
But retail has never been an easy business, and the family ran into sizable challenges along the way. “We went bankrupt and lost the store during the energy crisis, and it was hard. We had a lot of setbacks. I went to eight different schools in eight years,” she remembered.
Those difficult times — and the lessons that came from them — helped shape the executive’s leadership philosophy. “What I love about my family is they dared for a comeback after a setback. A comeback requires heart and will and courage, and that’s what I take with me the most,” she said.
Despite her early exposure to athletic retail, O’Neill never had a grand plan to enter the industry. But the executive — who has been at Nike for almost half of its 50 years — is now front and center, overseeing $40 billion in annual revenue. Inside the company, she’s always been viewed as one of its brightest stars and adeptly carved out a path for herself at a time when few women were able to break through.
O’Neill talked candidly about early career struggles — she cut her teeth in the male-dominated advertising industry, where she couldn’t always find her voice.
Decades later, O’Neill is opening the door for the next generation of Nike leaders, and she’s made it her mission to help colleagues open up, no matter what title they hold. “I believe the coach is the most powerful model for leadership. A great coach helps all players achieve their full potential,” said Nike CEO John Donahoe. “Heidi is one of the world’s truly great coaches, always inviting in diverse opinions and insights to get the most from her team.”
O’Neill and the entire Nike C-suite have been working to cultivate female leadership inside the company — and within its athlete ranks — at a time when it’s critical for Nike to reassert itself as a champion for women.
For example, O’Neill said the brand’s equity investment in the WNBA, announced this year, is a “put your money where your mouth is” moment. “It’s a 25-year commitment, which is significant, and we’re just at the beginning,” said O’Neill. The WNBA also is the centerpiece of Women in Nike (WIN), a two-year program that launched in 2019 to provide relevant work experience for retired WNBA players.
O’Neill is fiercely passionate about the women’s category, which she led for seven years while climbing the ladder at Nike. And she has played a key role in leading almost every other part of the business, from marketing to apparel.
In April 2020, just as COVID took hold in the U.S., the executive was elevated to her current post after about four years at the helm of Nike Direct.
O’Neill has spent the past five years driving the Consumer Direct Acceleration strategy, which was revealed in 2017 and centers around building direct relationships with its consumers. It proved to be a powerful advantage as the landscape changed overnight during the pandemic.
“It starts with the commitment we made a few years ago. The company had the vision,” O’Neill said. “We’re seeing so much return from a member-centric, not a channel-centric, ecosystem that connects all the experiences,” said the exec, who oversees stores, e-commerce and apps and all four of the company’s geographic regions.
DTC and online sales continue to fuel Nike’s top and bottom lines, leading to the company’s strong Q3 beat despite supply chain challenges and uneven growth in Greater China. (Those obstacles show no signs of abating amid continuing lockdowns.)
Market watchers agree that the DTC plan is working and that Nike’s related decision to cut ties with many longtime retailers — it reduced the number of North American partners by 50% in the past four years — has disrupted and reshaped the entire athletic market.
O’Neill and team are crystal clear about the fact that their chief goal is to have direct relationships with consumers. But in recent months, they’ve also doubled down on their affirmations that top retailers still matter — a lot.
Lauren Hobart, president and CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, said O’Neill and Nike continue to put sport at the center of their strategy. “You can see that in the product, their partnerships and through the connected membership program we’ve formed together,” she said.
Tying their loyalty programs together is just one example of how Nike and Dick’s are innovating together — and O’Neill loves pushing the business in new directions. “I think we’ll look back and say the 2020s were a pretty explosive time of innovation,” she said.
The future of work is one of the most pressing topics for leaders right now, and Nike is adapting a hybrid structure that kicked off a few weeks ago. What is the key to making this new model work?
Heidi O’Neill: “There are some lessons in Zoom I don’t want to lose. For us, it flattened hierarchies. We listened to each other more. Even some of the techniques for people who want use their voices in different ways — polling, chat, a raised hand — those are ways Zoom made it easier. What I’m trying to think about is not return-to-work or back-to-work, but more forward-to-work. What can we take with us? For me, it’s some of the Zoom system of how we show up with each other.
I also thought about me as a manager, and I’ve been [understanding] in wanting to see people with balance in their lives. I hope we come back with a little more respect for that — you know, you see people’s kids and families in the background and life is real. It’s not going to stop.
The Zoom I had with [Greater China VP/GM] Angela [Dong] and her China team last night was because they have been in their homes for 30 days. They’re doing great, but it’s tough. I’ve never seen a time when we’ve reached out more to say, ‘Are you OK? Do you need some help?’ I hope forward-to-work has a little more of the empathy we saw.
You take all that — and then mix it with the energy you’re going to get when you see the campus full. I hope there’ll be some familiar and some new.”
As one of Nike’s top leaders, how are you driving the company’s commitment to equity and equality?
HO: “There’s no finish line, but at the same time, we’re a brand of action. When you think about driving equity and equality in a company with so many employees, so distributed, how do we line up together and how do we approach this? A framework and structure — not ours, we borrowed it — is this idea of ‘Be, Do, Say,’ and in that order.
The Be part is simply, ‘Who am I and how am I showing up?’ We’re asking each other. The message is, ‘How are you building an environment of inclusivity and voices?’ We’re all challenging ourselves to own that part.
The Do part is Nike’s action orientation. We’re proud of our representation targets — we’re putting it out there. One example, by 2025, our goal is to have 50% women in the corporate workforce, [but also 45%] in leadership roles — and we’re tying executive comp to that.
Say is putting our voice to our beliefs. I’m the executive sponsor of the Pride Network, and I spend a lot of time with that team and love what they’re doing. I’m deep in that, and one of my most proud moments at Nike as it relates to equality, it goes way back. We signed an emeritus brief for marriage equality — I was a big voice in that — which led to Supreme Court marriage equality. That’s a proud moment. We use our political capital and our voice to say and move things forward. We’re getting after it individually, but also together, and we’re feeling the progress.”
With so many stops and starts during COVID, from store closures to supply chain disruption, what was the key to managing for the long-term?
HO: “We dared to make some moves that weren’t about just being responsive — for example, the amount of innovation we’ve had in supply and demand planning. How do you plan demand when we don’t know if people will leave their homes and that changes over time? How do you plan supply when we don’t know if COVID will impact our transportation and factories? The way we innovated by using data science, leveraging the superpowers of our [predictive analytics company] Celect acquisition, and playing that against supply and demand planning, we will be forever better.
Something China helped us with [in early 2020] is consumer experiences. That’s when we were still living life big in the States. When we saw that sport went dark, the world went dark, our employees created new workouts, workouts in small spaces. We had never done livestream on any of our platforms. That team did it in two weeks. It probably would have taken us two years.”
The pandemic accelerated your focus on Nike Direct, and the strategy is clearly working: Sales hit $4.6 billion in Q3, up 17% on a currency-neutral basis. How, specifically, are you winning here?
HO: “We built this balance of friction fighting and consumer delighting. We learned we can’t do one or the other. We made a lot of changes around payment and checkout. If there’s friction there, you might lose [the customer]. I can serve you better at Nike House of Innovation in New York because I know what you prefer through your experience on the Nike app. If I know you’re training for a marathon, I can better serve you. What’s underlying those numbers is member growth. The percentages of revenue coming from members is at an all-time high, and it builds a healthy business. But it starts with the consumer. The ecosystem is working to be your personal shopper, but also to be your personal trainer, your running coach. People want more from Nike than buying stuff.”
After so much conversation about the future of physical stores, brick-and-mortar has bounced back strongly. How do you balance the IRL and digital experiences?
HO: “We are committed to stores, and we’ll be opening more over the next three to five years. There’s so much interplay — we did some studies where we found a person has between five and eight touchpoints before a purchase. Stores are an important part of that. We launched Nike Live around the world during the pandemic. We’ll be opening more. We opened Nike’s Paris House of Innovation, our third flagship, and Nike Rise in Seoul. The more we know our members, those stores are serving you so much better.”
What misconceptions do you want to clear up with the wholesale strategy?
HO: “First of all, we believe in direct relationships with consumers. We don’t see this as a binary strategy at all. In fact, I see partners being more important as we go forward — those who are really closely connected to their consumers and their communities in unique ways. We think we can do better serving our consumers if we apply the same principles together — putting our members in the center and connecting their experiences — so we can create a new sport marketplace.”
Every brand has made the female consumer a bigger priority in the past few years, and Lululemon has entered the shoe world for the first time. How do you address increased competition?
HO: “We’re always up for it. We are investing more in women’s than we ever have, in areas that are important to move that business forward: consumer insights, data science, designers. We’re going to get fit for women around the world right — from maternity to all sizes. We’re going to be on an innovation pipeline like no one else.”