On deck as the next CEO of Nike: Brand president Trevor Edwards

On deck as the next CEO of Nike: Brand president Trevor Edwards

Trevor Edwards’ chair seemed to sit just a little higher than usual Thursday as Nike co-founder Phil Knight tossed him question after question.

Knight, chairman of the Nike board, concludes the company’s shareholder meeting each year with an executive question-and-answer session, allowing company leaders to field questions submitted by shareholders. The executive group is typically called up to the stage with the board of directors for the Qs and As.

Edwards, a 20-year Nike veteran, began work as the Nike Brand president in July, replacing the retired Charlie Denson. But Thursday might have been the day he really came into his own, at least in the eyes of analysts and others who watch Nike closely.

The Q & A session provided a powerful hint at what Nike watchers have suspected for some time: Edwards is the leading contender to succeed chief executive Mark Parker some day.

History and The Nike Way of preferring insiders provide clear indicators for Edwards’ inevitable ascension.

Parker would appear to be set as chief executive until at least 2017. In May 2012, the board granted Parker a $20 million “restricted stock unit retention award,” requiring five years of service to collect the full value. (Parker’s total compensation for the most recent fiscal year was $15.4 million; Edwards’ was just under $10 million.)

If Parker were to leave at some point in 2017, it’s unlikely the company would look anywhere other than its own backyard for a successor.

The company’s one experience at bringing in an outsider is regarded within The Berm as a disaster. Try as he might have, Bill Perez never quite grasped the Nike culture during his December 2004 to January 2006 tenure.

When Perez was shown the door, the obvious successor was the president of the Nike Brand. Problem was, two people had held that job since 2001: Parker and Denson.

Parker, who joined Nike almost directly out of Penn State University in 1979 as a shoe designer, got the nod. The Parker-Denson partnership endured the separate-and-not-equal job titles, as both executives appeared to have genuinely enjoyed their cooperative work.

Now, Denson is off playing golf and Edwards is Nike Brand president.

Nike declined a request this summer for an interview with Edwards.

Another executive elevated at the same time as Edwards, chief operating officer Eric Sprunk, has also been mentioned as a possible CEO candidate.

But on Thursday, the stools between Knight and the board of directors were filled by Edwards, Parker, chief financial officer Don Blair and Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation.

While Jones had a place on one of those stools, none of the company’s top-ranking female executives are generally regarded as having shot at the top job immediately after Parker. Those executives are formidable, including in addition to Jones: Hilary Krane, executive vice president, chief administrative officer and general counsel; and Jeanne P. Jackson, the one-time CEO of Walmart.com, The Gap, Direct and The Banana Republic.

The 12-member Nike board of directors includes two women: Elizabeth J. Comstock, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of General Electric Co.; and Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois.

This male-dominated situation, however, appears to go with the neighborhood. The world’s second largest sporting goods company, Adidas AG of Germany, does not include any women among its top executive ranks. Same goes for Kevin Plank’s Under Armour, based in Baltimore.

While Denson came to the Nike Brand job having risen through the company ranks, starting in retail sales, Edwards arrived from Colgate Palmolive, where he was a global business-development manager from 1986 to 1992.

Before that, he was a Goldman Sachs analyst, based in the United Kingdom.

Edwards is from England and Jamaica. In his chat Thursday, he noted his allegiance to England as it competes on one of Nike’s biggest world stages, the FIFA World Cup.

After 10 years with the company, working in Nike marketing jobs in London and Brussels, as well as its Beaverton-area headquarters, Edwards was reporting to Denson, serving as vice president of global brand and category management.

Edwards graduated from Baruch College in Manhattan in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in business. He earned master’s in business administration at Baruch, focused on international marketing and finance, in 1989. He turns 51 on November 28.

And for the past decade he has been at the forefront of Nike’s foray into digital products, e-commerce and customer interaction.

That focus came to the fore in one of the questions posed by Knight. While the question did not even mention the word “digital,” Edwards perceived an opening to drive his favorite topic.

“You know,” Edwards began, “one of the greatest things we’re seeing today and I think one of the things all of us as consumers are experiencing is around digital technology.”

He went on to talk about digital’s influence in social media, as the basis for new products, as an essential ingredient of e-commerce and a component of interaction with consumers at Nike stores.

“So,” Edwards concluded, “we’re really expanding out the idea of brand not only being about great products but also being about great services in terms of how we connect with our consumers.”

His remarks got an immediate endorsement from the co-worker to his right.

“I’ll just go a little step further and I’d say it’s one of the top priorities for the company,” said Parker. It’s about, said the CEO, “how digital technology will enable even more potential for Nike and our consumers around the world.”

— Allan Brettman