‘Nature is our home,’ says Jochen Zeitz, CEO of PPR’s Sport and Lifestyle Group and Chief Sustainability Officer. ‘It’s something that we can all relate to.’ We’re ensconced in a suite at the company’s headquarters in Bavaria. Golden evening sunshine pours in through the windows, and the businessman’s words illuminate how a love of the natural world runs deep with him, just as a passion for sustainability drives him. This endlessly successful 48-year-old completely transformed the Puma brand’s fortunes in the years following his appointment as CEO at the pulse-quickening age of just 30. It goes without saying that a man of Zeitz’s achievements is a tireless worker, and there looks to be no relaxing of the pace in future. His business acumen is acute, just as his lean frame belies a commitment to the sporty lifestyle; yet the ecosphere, and our place as actors within it, remains his true guiding passion. That’s why Zeitz – a reader of Freud, a former medical student and sometime marathon runner – smiles when he makes a natural-world analogy on the coupling of Ferrari and Puma, a collaboration that has been in place since 2000, with the Herzogenaurachbased manufacturer providing technical performance apparel for the Scuderia.
‘They are iconic brands that represent both performance and style,’ Zeitz says. ‘And, you have two animals meeting – the cat and the horse. It is the perfect symbiosis where two brands come together to create something truly unique for the fan and the consumer. ’There’s a solid relationship between Ferrari and Puma today, and one that serves each party well. Ferrari has long been a byword for thrill, technical mastery and red-blooded glamour. ‘It’s the ultimate combination of high performance and style,’ Zeitz says. ‘Design meets special performance at a very high level, and the emotion that they create around the iconic brand is something you seldom see in the world. And of course, Ferrari does it in the luxury segment, so it is playing at the very high-end.’
Meanwhile, under Zeitz’s leadership, Puma has itself generated a new global élan. The company’s heritage encompasses technical innovation (they were the first to develop screw-in studs on football boots) and the stardust of sporting success (footballers Péle, Maradona and Eusebio were all Puma athletes, while more recently the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, has represented the brand); so too does Puma’s offer include a growing range of fashion and streetwear lines and collaborations with some of the world’s greatest sporting organisations. Of late, and building on Puma’s vast success, Zeitz has also been energetically implementing a more farreaching vision of business, one which has significance far beyond the world of sporting goods, and which has derived from some unlikely sources. Sustainability: it’s a big word and a broad concept, yet one that is often poorly understood. For Zeitz, however, it has a very clear meaning and along with it, a distinct application in business.
‘Often we refer to economic sustainability, meaning, can a company be successful in the long run,’ he says. ‘From my point of view, sustainability has to go well beyond that – we can’t be sustainable as a business if we’re not also sustainable from a social and environmental point of view. Rather than working against nature, we find ways to work with nature so that we can be sustainable on three legs – economically, socially and environmentally. That is what really defines the holistic idea of sustainability.’ At Puma, the commitment goes from the global to the granular. In May this year Zeitz was lauded by the business world for launching the first Environmental Profit & Loss Accounting initiative into its financial structuring – the notion that, in Zeitz’s own words, ‘If nature was a system, what would it charge for the services it provides to mankind? Right now, we are taking nature’s services for free. We don’t ask, what does pollution actually cost? If nature and earth were a shareholder, what would the shareholder require to actually charge for the services?’ It is a bold and visionary strategy in a business sphere where, it has to be said, not all leaders are as eco-aware as Zeitz. Sustainability is also a lived, day-to-day practice at Puma’s new HQ just outside Herzogenaurach, where in 1948, after parting company with his brother Adolf (who went on to form Adidas), Rudolf Dassler founded the brand. The vast steel-and-glass premises, emblazoned with the leaping predator logo, are impressive enough in themselves: each of the company’s sub-brands (golf, football, motorsport, athletics and so on) enjoy their own zen-like showrooms in the PumaVision Brand Centre, outside of which a “Walk of Fame” pavement bears the footprints of Bolt, Maradona, Armin Hary and the hurdler Colin Jackson.
Yet sustainability means thinking small as well as big. A charter, contained in a perspex presentation frame in the atrium, details the company’s progress in effecting environmentally-friendly changes: boxes are ticked with either “checked” or “working on it”. Corporate atria tend to be well-lit (and presumably, expensively-lit) places; one naturally wonders what the cost to the environment is of all those dramatic spotlit displays of the brand’s latest apparel.
Zeitz likens his vision of corporate sustainability to driving a Formula One car. ‘It as if you can only seethe cockpit – and you don’t see the other two thirds of the car,’ he says. ‘If you want to drive sustainably, you have to look at every part of the equation. What you don’t measure, you don’t manage. Putting an economic value on the service we take from nature and the footprint we leave behind means doing business in more holistic terms.’ Motorsport has been under pressure to improve its environmental record, while struggling to overturn its legacy reputation as a profligate, petrol-guzzling spectacle. ‘One big difference betweens most sports and F1 is that humans don’t need petrol to run on,’ Zeitz contends. ‘Eating beef being not very healthy for the environment means the car and human can have very negative effects on the environment.’ Yet Zeitz yearns for ‘the positive aspects’ of F1 to contribute to sustainability, and, ever the innovationseeker and technological evolutionist, he sees it within the power of organisations like Ferrari to effect the changes that need to happen within the CO2-belching world of F1. The challenges of the sport may be both technical and human – but so are its strengths. ‘F1 is the epitome of technology where man and machine get together to perform on an extremely high level. It’s a platform for tremendous innovation, but ultimately it’s also the link between the team behind the driver which has to function cohesively to bring the technology to life. That is where Ferrari has always played such an amazing role, showing the passion for sport on one side, and translating that into the ultimate in technology on the other.’ It should be added that Puma’s collaboration with Ferrari has yielded no shortage of its own innovations, including the Kraftek SF performance racing shoe – ‘the epitome of minimalism and functionality of footwear for the race professional’, according to the brand’s marketers – along with the weight-saving, fireproof racewear apparel that protects the skins of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Puma, says Zeitz, offers ‘Innovations in safety and innovation in performance.’ Jochen Zeitz is an atypical businessman for whom there is no typical working day; business takes him across the world. Nor, he says, does he ever relax in the traditional sense, but instead, driven by curiosity and a yen for diversity, he travels in Africa (where he keeps a farm and runs sustainable enterprises under his Zeitz Foundation non-profit organisation), studies psychology and keeps alive a passion for Italy. ‘I’m an avid fan,’ he admits, ‘not only because I studied 12 years of Latin, I also started to prepare for medical school in Florence for a year. The passion, the food… some of my best friends are Italian. It’s a fantastic country, my favourite in Europe.’ More than Germany? ‘Probably,’ he concedes with a glint in his eye. ‘Italians have a bit more of a positive mindset overall. Of course, I grew up here [in Germany] so I’m biased, but overall I would say I feel as at home in Italy as I do in Germany today. I consider myself a cosmopolitan traveller – a globetrotter, maybe.’ Far from being a business buzzword, sustainability for Zeitz is instead a fully-articulated worldview which, he feels, should be applied rigorously to commerce. His grounding in ethics can hardly be in doubt – but where precisely does it come from? In 2009 Zeitz coauthored a book, comprising a series of dialogues, entitled Gott, Geld & Gewissen (Prayer, Profit & Principles), with Father Anselm Grün, a Benedictine monk and theologian of the Münsterschwarzbach Abbey in Bavaria. The project arose after the two shared the podium at a business conference, and Zeitz answered the urge to explore in greater depth the overlaps between business and religion. There are plenty, he contends, in particular for bodies that strive to be sustainable. ‘Religion preaches ethics and how the human race should treat each other and mother nature, and also how we then live ethics on a day-to-day basis. Business without ethics doesn’t work. Benedictine monasteries tend to be very sustainable because they are in place for hundreds if not thousand of years. There is an inherent base for sustainability in religions. A company is not a religious institution, but it still needs the values and a lot of the things that religion brings.’
‘We grow up, in a way, thinking in boxes,’ Zeitz adds. For instance, ‘Religion looks after ethics, government sets the rules, civil society raises a finger when something goes wrong, and business makes money and creates job: that is the boxed thinking I was exposed to in studies. But it’s not the way the next generation needs to think. They need to think much more holistically. We have to open our minds to understand the effect of our actions on society and on nature as a whole – only then will we find sustainable solutions.’ It’s a given that sport needs to develop in a sustainable way, he argues: ‘If you do sport, as an athlete you want to breathe clean air. Ultimately, if nature is not sustainable, will we stay healthy? We want to survive and enjoy nature.’ At the same time, while he is a leader in the grand, pluralistic global culture of sport, Zeitz also regards playing as a deeply humanistic endeavour: something simple, essential, and containing the capacity for positive change. ‘Maybe in F1, sport is all about places one, two and three on the podium. But for us as humans, it’s not only about that. It’s about enjoyment, giving our best.
We enjoy the sizzle of competition, and we love playing it, watching it, staying healthy. Sport has a tremendous relevance in society today, whether for fun or to compete on a high level – it can teach a lot of values. The idea of the Olympics is to come together and compete in a peaceful way. Sport can lead to a better world.’ If there is a touch of idealism in Zeitz, then it’s surely what business needs in its era of pessimism and problems. His vision for sustainabilty in sport and business, his ideas on commerce as an ethical and human project, and his fundamental humility in regard to man’s position in the ecosphere, can perhaps all be tied back to his love of nature. Businessmen are encouraged to masquerade as hunters – killers, even – today. Yet how many of those ersatz predators ever really understood how actual hunters pursue their prey with complete respect for it and the biodiverse world it inhabits? Zeitz, on the other hand, grew up in a family where hunting was a tradition, and his early appreciation for nature was forged in the fields and forests of Germany and later on the plains of Africa. ‘When you spend a lot of time in nature, it defines you,’ he says. What also sprang from his immersion in the laws of evolution was, ‘the realisation that business can no longer continue to take from nature for the sake of profit. If you have any ethics in your bones, you have to not just do business as usual – you have to ask questions and innovate to find way to help business work with nature, instead of against it.’ Puma is named after an iconic symbol of the natural world, combining aggression, speed and beauty. In the end it seems only natural, too, that the company sites itself within the evolving mass of the ecosphere.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 15 issue March 2012