Feet First

From kid entrepreneur to head of a $145 million sporting-goods empire, Michael Rubin has succeeded by staying one step ahead.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the November 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

As we near 2000, the spectrum of twentysomething iconography has shifted from cliché-laden labels and imagery to a focus on the astounding amount of power America's youth possesses. Slackerdom has become passé as an increasing number of young trailblazers infiltrate Silicon Valley to work atop makeshift desks and morph their Internet ventures into the next big thing.

Then you have today's rarity: those who build a $145 million company first and then delve into the Net for "evolutionary" purposes. Meet Michael Rubin, 27, who did just that. Formerly president and CEO of athletic and outdoor-footwear manufacturing company Global Sports Inc. in the Philadelphia suburb King of Prussia, Rubin recently decided to go e-commerce with a new sporting-goods company--Global Sports Interactive--effectively taking a stake in a much, much larger picture.

Rubin's a fast-talking, no-frills, get-to-the-point kind of guy, and because he's been an entrepreneur since the time he should've been playing with Hot Wheels, it's no wonder he's good at the game. Rather than recount a schoolyard tale or the time he finally got $1 for a lost tooth, Rubin remembers age 8 as the year his entrepreneurial nature took shape. "I always had a passion for business growing up, whether it was selling stationery or shoveling driveways with 10 kids working for me," he says. Entrepreneurship became a consuming hobby for Rubin--and his interest in it occasionally worried his psychiatrist mother and veterinarian father. Rubin's embrace of the mover-and-shaker mentality and his strong desire to earn a buck seemed somewhat peculiar at such a young age.

When asked if his solicitations (like the time he tried to sell baseball cards to his friends' dads at summer camp) ever landed his parents in hot water, Rubin responds, "I don't think I ever got my parents in trouble, but I always created stories to be told and situations to be dealt with." Ah, yes--the many situations. . . .

Teen Dreams

It was at the tender age of 13 that Rubin was first dubbed competition, resulting in his becoming the target of a smear campaign of sorts. According to Rubin, "a guy who'd been in business for 50 years" thought that if he tattled on the young entrepreneur, who was passing out fliers at the mall advertising his homebased ski-tuning shop, he might keep his clientele. Though Rubin was banned from the mall as a result of the competitor's campaign, he was already embarking on an ascension no one--not even a jealous rival--could halt.

By 14, the $2,500 in bar mitzvah money he'd used to open his ski repair business in the basement of the Rubin home (he had "zero interest" in spending his money on leisure) took on another zero, equaling profit and the yearning to open a real shop in a nearby Philadelphia-area strip mall. "I said, `Hey, Mom, I want to open a ski shop. I found this great store; it's $844 a month, and I can get it on a month-to-month lease,' " recalls Rubin. Mom was less than enthusiastic, so Rubin explored a different avenue: "I said, `Okay, Dad, I've got this great idea.' " Though not elevating one parent's authority over the other's, Rubin does think his approach illustrates his ever-evolving tact: "I'm just saying I was fast enough to get to my father before my mom got to [him]," he says.

Rubin won himself a cosigner--and his first shop--after promising his father a report card filled with As and Bs.

As he continued to make a business of his favorite hobby and open four additional ski shops over the next few years, Rubin became less and less like his peers, eventually enrolling in a school/work program that allowed him to leave high school after half a day.

All seemed cheery with the Doogie Howser-like Wunderkind until everything hit the fan in 1988. A bad ski season coupled with what Rubin calls "lack of experience, arrogance and lack of planning" left the 16-year-old $120,000 in the hole. Enter his saving grace (a.k.a. dear old dad), who put up money to pay off creditors. This time, the exchange wasn't so easy to negotiate, or to swallow--but then, higher education never is for those who feel they're doing fine without it.

By the time college rolled around, the lure of dorm-hall antics and frat parties wasn't enough to make the much-touted "overall experience" seem worthwhile to the kid who already knew about life, society and hard knocks. Rubin prefers not to expound on his college experience, except to say that it was "very short."

"Listen, I was 17 years old. I owned several ski shops and was doing a couple million dollars in business. I just wanted to move on with my business career," he explains. Who could blame him? Luckily for Rubin, Fate didn't and remained loyal.

Before even completing his first year at Pennsylvania's Villanova University, Rubin miraculously caught wind of a ski shop going out of business. Quickly spotting "the deal of a lifetime," he bought $200,000 worth of overstock ski equipment from the shop for $17,000 borrowed from a friend. He then sold the stuff for a profit--enough to call it even with his dad, pay back his pal and say goodbye to Scantrons forever.

The rush Rubin experienced after the aforementioned deal catalyzed his desire to make a change from retail. Buying manufacturers' overruns and discontinued products to sell to retailers appealed to him, and by 1991, he had sold his ski shops and formed Nationwide Liquidators (changing the name to KPR Sports in 1993).

Since he emerged from his cocoon of wildly successful kid entrepreneur to compete with the big boys and girls who dominate the highly competitive footwear industry, events in Rubin's life have exhibited nothing less than a domino effect. In 1995, he expanded KPR into the realm of branded footwear with the introduction of Yukon, a line of hiking boots and "outdoor-inspired" shoes. The same year, he kept '80s women's athletic footwear leader Ryka Inc. from becoming a '90s failure by purchasing 40 percent of the company and marketing it to new heights. Today, both Yukon and Ryka brands are sold in major chains, including Lady Foot Locker, The Athlete's Foot and The Sports Authority.

Apparently, Rubin had yet to be fulfilled. In 1996, KPR purchased the Apex name after the world-famous licensed-products brand filed for bankruptcy. After establishing Apex as a recognizable athletic footwear brand, he merged KPR with Ryka in 1997 to create a 200-employee empire of branded athletic, off-price and action sports footwear, Global Sports.

In May of this year, with the launch of Global Sports Interactive, everything changed. Rubin, who never needed the Internet, decided to take a "leading position" in its sporting-goods category (projected worth in 2003: upward of $3 billion). "It's not that we change direction every three years," he says, "it's that we've always found a way to evolve our business, and [the Internet] is the greatest evolution in the world." After selling its branded, off-price and action-sports divisions, Global Sports' business will now exclusively revolve around an e-commerce business model that will not only sell and distribute products of partners The Sports Authority, The Athlete's Foot, Sport Chalet, MC Sports, and Sports & Recreation, but also design and maintain the Web sites of smaller sporting goods retailers wanting to enter the market.

Playing Hardball

It's hard not to survey Rubin's list of accomplishments and wonder if he still has time for a life. From what he says, the answer's debatable. "I'll have to refer you to my girlfriend on that one," he laughs. "I probably work more than most people you know, but I really love it. I spend most of my free time with my girlfriend, my two Labs and my parents. I do have a bunch of friends and see them as much as I can, but it's not as much as I'd like." That's no wonder--when he briefly mentions that he's been working "18, 20 hours a day for the past several months," it's delivered matter-of-factly, as if everybody does it.

But it's that kind of backbreaking dedication that makes Rubin the go-getter he is. His mile-a-minute East Coast accent alone could put a person in check instantaneously. And judging from his forwardness and overall gusto, he seems to know it. After all, when asked to sum himself up in three words, it didn't take him long to come up with "passionate, aggressive and street-smart." But as a disclaimer, he adds, "Now that's a nice compliment to give myself--I don't want to be perceived as arrogant."

Even though I overheard Rubin refer to me as "just a reporter" as I waited for him to get Global Sports' sales figures from his assistant, I held onto my dignity by remembering that this is a person with whom I could've gone to high school, a person who's responsible for the total vision behind a thriving, multimillion-dollar company. To him, an interview probably fits into his schedule somewhere between breakfast and working out. He also has to play boss to members of a management team years his senior and compete with industry tough-guys who've been around a lot longer than he has.

So what's it really like playing hardball in business when you're barely old enough to rent a car without a lot of hassle? "While most people are excited to be associated with the company and really like what we're doing," Rubin says, "there are others who are simply not feeling great about me being such a young guy and the way our company has grown."

But because support from within his company (especially his elders) remains solid, all Rubin can do is continue to extend his goals and grow his business, working to evolve into a strong CEO in the process. "I love to learn, so any time I think someone can add value to me, I'm a sponge to them," he says. "When I was 14 or 15, I was a lot more stubborn and cocky than I am today. I've made mistakes and have probably been humbled. I think I've wised up." Wise is an understatement.

"I forget how old I am sometimes" is one of the last observations Michael Rubin makes about himself during our interview. In hindsight, one has to ponder whether he feels older or younger than his 27 years. Preferring not to make "forward-looking statements" regarding Global Sports Interactive, the kid from Philadelphia who always did what was best for his business regardless of his parents' concerns simply says we should expect his company to reach phenomenal heights.

With the ease of a guy who's found his niche, he says, "It's good to be young, eh?" Sure, Michael. It's definitely great to be young--but being young in your shoes sounds even better.

Contact Source

Global Sports Interactive, http://www.gs-interactive.com


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