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On’s Cloudsurfer shoe in Malibu Denim, a best seller in Switzerland

Is On Running the anti-Nike?

In the Zurich-based shoe company’s open-air, mod-industrial office in Northwest Portland, shoes hang from clouds suspended on the ceiling, and giant Toblerones and Lindt chocolates lie scattered on tables. Its 43 US employees answer to a democratic five-member board, in contrast to the imperial model that made Phil Knight the Oregon athletic industry’s forefather.

“We don’t have a CEO. We’re not a hierarchical organization,” says On “brand builder” Britt Olsen, who travels six times a year to the Zurich mothership. “We’re not interested in building kingdoms.”

Founded in 2010 by retired Swiss duathlon champion and Ironman runner Olivier Bernhard and two friends, the company specializes in colorful, nonpatterned designs, emphasizing stamina and agility over vague promises of “zooms” or “boosts.” On’s cushioned Cloud line is the no. 1–selling running shoe in the company’s native country, outselling Nike’s popular Free line and several Asics models in 2016. Even so, penetrating the US market is an exponential leap.

“When you go to Switzerland, our market is way higher there, right?” says Olsen, noting how relatively small it is. “It’s the home country. You see Ons everywhere!”

Opened in March 2013, the Portland office is the Swiss company’s push to get marketing and sales boots on the ground in this city’s already white-hot shoe design industry. Working with an nine-hour time difference is not easy, requiring many early mornings for Portlanders and late nights for the Zurich folks. But the cost is worth it.

“The talent pool here is so great. We are able to recruit a lot of smart people who have backgrounds working in this industry,” Olsen says, adding that the company hopes to double its stateside employee count by 2020.

Claiming a spot in the competitive athletic shoe market is a tough task. One way to find customers? Let them run in the shoes for free, like at last October’s 5k “Art Run” through the Pearl District, when the company lent trial shoes to participants.

Explains Olsen: “We function on a conversion-based model, so a trial opportunity is more important to us than general brand awareness.”

The Swiss touch at these events? Instead of the usual finish line beer and pizza, On gives runners wine, cheese, and Lindt. “We definitely keep the Swiss-ness,” Olsen says. “You see it in everything we do, even in the smallest things.”

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