The interview
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A good sport

From world-class ice-hockey player to president of Adidas North America, Patrik Nilsson has been around sport for most of his life. Now he chairs Vitamin Well, the fast-growing, Bridgepoint-backed functional food and drinks group. 

A s a five-year-old boy, Patrik Nilsson would stand outside his house with a ball, waiting for the schoolchildren across the road to finish for the day. They were two or three years older than him, but he had a ball so, begrudgingly, they let him join their games.     

 

Spotted by a coach one afternoon, Nilsson was soon drafted into the local football team, even though he was younger than everyone else. That was in the summer of 1969. Come winter, football gave way to ice hockey and, by the early 1970s, he was playing in international tournaments.  

 

“Our junior team was the best in Sweden and we travelled to the US, Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic from when I was seven to about 15 or 16. We were one of the top teams in the world for our age group,” he says. 

 

Several of Nilsson’s teammates went on to become professional ice-hockey players. Nilsson decided to channel his energies into business instead.

 

“I had an offer to play for one of the top teams in Sweden, but I needed to do my military service and once I had done that, I realised that I didn’t really have the skills needed to go to the next level. My coach used to say that I could play with eggs in my pockets because I never went down into the corners and fought with the bigger guys!” Nilsson explains.  

 

Engaging attitude

Continuing to play at the second level, he decided to take a break before heading to university. He took some time out and started working at NK, the top department store in Stockholm.  

 

“It was there that I realised I was pretty good at selling. I was working in the sportswear department and one of the brands we stocked was New Balance. The guys there really engaged with us and talked to us about what the business was doing, which made me think that was the type of company I would like to work for. So when customers came in looking for Nike or Adidas trainers, I sold them New Balance ones instead. Sales spiked and when the company needed a travelling sales rep, they asked me,” says Nilsson.

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My coach used to say that I could play with eggs in my pockets because I never went down into the corners and fought with the bigger guys

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Name: Patrik Nilsson

Position: Chairman, Vitamin Well

Born: Just outside Stockholm

Education: Tibble Gymnasium

First job:  A lifeguard for a local

swimming pool when I was 15

Family: Met my wife Ulla in 1990 and we

have been together ever since. We have two

sons in their 20s, Caleb and Pelle

Home: We try to split our time

between the Algarve in Portugal and a

summerhouse in Sweden

Favourite sports:  Golf, tennis and

paddleboard

Car: Audi Q8

Unmissable opportunity

Higher education was left behind, as Nilsson worked first for New Balance and then for Asics. He was happy in his job but, in 1991, Adidas came knocking. 

 

“I had always been an Adidas fan because I played in Adidas shoes when I was young and the company was one of the best in the market. They offered me a job as head of sales and marketing for the sports part of the business in Sweden. This was a year before the UEFA European Football Championship took place in Sweden. It was too good anopportunity to miss so I moved to Adidas,” Nilsson explains. 

 

Nilsson went on to spend 23 years at Adidas, including 10 years in Germany and three years as managing director for the Nordics.

 

“When I arrived back in Sweden, Nike was 10 per cent ahead of us in terms of market share. There was no energy, no passion and people were pretty tired. They’d had three Germans and an American in charge, none of whom really understood the Nordic culture. On day one, I told everyone that we would be bigger than Nike within three years. I don’t think many of the 220 employees believed me, but we got there in two years and by the end of year three, we were 15 per cent ahead of them,” says Nilsson. Having gained a reputation as a trouble-shooter, Nilsson was asked if he would like to head up Adidas in North America, a business that had been through nine presidents in 13 years and was struggling against arch-competitor Nike. 

 

Disenchanted staff

“I talked about the move to my wife, Ulla, and we discussed it with our two boys, who were in their teens at the time. They all said yes so we set off for Portland, Oregon,” Nilsson says. 

 

The job was a tough one. Nike’s global headquarters are in the same city but, where the US group employed 8,000 people, Adidas had just 800, many of whom were disenchanted with the business. 

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You need to get everyone excited about where you are going, whether they are a team leader, a player on the field or taking care of stuff off pitch. Everyone is important, not not just you

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My coach used to say that I could play with eggs in my pockets because I never went down into the corners and fought with the bigger guys

speechmark_interview-2@2x.png

Name: Patrik Nilsson

Position: Chairman, Vitamin Well

Born: Just outside Stockholm

Education: Tibble Gymnasium

First job:  A lifeguard for a local

swimming pool when I was 15

Family: Met my wife Ulla in 1990 and we

have been together ever since. We have two

sons in their 20s, Caleb and Pelle

Home: We try to split our time

between the Algarve in Portugal and a

summerhouse in Sweden

Favourite sports:  Golf, tennis and

paddleboard

Car: Audi Q8

Cultural differences

“Nike people were very competitive too. If they heard that we were going to be at a party, for instance, they wouldn’t go. It was a difficult time but I learnt a lot and grew a lot. Leading Americans is very different from leading Germans or Scandinavians, so you have to be mindful of the different cultures and work with them. Fundamentally though, wherever you are, you have to inspire people. And for that, you have to be clear about the journey that the company needs to take and the part they can play in it, without being too rigid about what they need to do,” Nilsson explains.

 

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. The leaders provide the framework and paint the picture of what the finished work will look like but everyone puts their own pieces in their own way,” he adds. 

 

Nilsson’s jigsaw worked well. Between 2007 and 2014, Adidas North America doubled its turnover and grew EBITDA margins from nothing to around 15 per cent.

 

Doubling profits

“More than that though, we built a culture where people believed in the business and believed in the brand. And some of the people I recruited are now in leadership positions at the company. That’s what I am most proud of because that’s how you build a sustainable business, one that can be successful over the long term,” says Nilsson. 

 

By 2014, Nilsson had taken on new responsibilities within Adidas. He found himself travelling much of the time, leaving his wife alone, as one son had returned to Sweden and the other was at college. It was time for a change and that materialised in the form of an offer to become CEO of Gant, the designer fashion group headquartered in Sweden.

 

Another company that needed fresh blood, Gant gave Nilsson the opportunity to lead an entire business and return home. Within four years, profits had doubled and Nilsson had again managed to build a strong culture that exists to this day. 

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Jonas and the team are super-impressive, they’ve created an incredible business and no one’s told them how to do it. It’s in their DNA 

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Creating magic

A sportsman at heart, Nilsson believes the locker room has taught him invaluable lessons about leadership and the importance of teamwork. 

 

“You need to get everyone excited about where you are going, whether they are a team leader, a player on the field or taking care of stuff off pitch. Everyone is important, not just you. And if you all work together and you all have conviction, that’s when you can create magic,” he explains.

 

And that is what he found when he joined Vitamin Well. 

 

“I was approached to chair the company in 2017, just after Bridgepoint acquired it. I knew the business, of course, because I’d been using their products for years and really liked them. I met the Bridgepoint team and we got on so then I went to meet the founder, Jonas Pettersson. We really hit it off, even though we support arch-rival football teams in Stockholm,” Nilsson jokes.

 

Used to joining companies as a problem-solver, Nilsson has taken a very different approach at Vitamin Well. 

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It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. The leaders provide the framework and paint the picture of what the finished work will look like, but everyone puts in their own pieces in their own way

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Sounding board

“I’ve spent my life coming into businesses that are in a mess. Vitamin Well is completely different. Jonas and the team are super-impressive, they’ve created an incredible business and no one’s told them how to do it. It’s in their DNA. They’ve worked together for such a long time they can finish each other’s sentences because they know where they are, they know where they came from and they know where they are going,” he says. 

 

“Jonas already knows about strategy, he knows about sales and marketing and he knows about leadership so I don’t need to talk to him about any of that. I just act as a sounding board for him and, if he wants to talk about anything, I am here to give my point of view. He doesn’t have to agree with me but I can offer a different perspective,” he adds.

 

Nilsson believes that the relationship between the management team and Bridgepoint has proved highly effective too. Vitamin Well has grown significantly under Bridgepoint’s ownership, moving from 80 employees to around 300 and expanding into dozens of markets worldwide, including recent moves into the US, Germany, France and the UK. 

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On day one, I told everyone that we would be bigger than Nike within three years. I don’t think many of the 220 employees believed me, but we got there in two years and by the end of year three, we were 15 per cent ahead of them

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Active lifestyle

“Bridgepoint seem to have a culture of supporting and helping companies rather than rigidly controlling them and that really works well here,” says Nilsson. 

 

The firm recently made a fresh investment in Vitamin Well, a move that should drive further growth over the next few years. 

 

“We now have even more opportunity to develop in the markets that we have recently moved into, such as the US. And I believe that we will continue to take market share and grow, sustainably into the future. 

 

There is a genuine desire across the company to make the world a better place by creating products that support a more active lifestyle. And that passion has a tangible impact on the people and the culture,” says Nilsson.

 

“The innovation, speed and courage within this business make it really stand out. And they are building communities within their brands, which in turn generates huge loyalty among consumers,” he adds. Today, around half the group’s sales are generated outside Sweden and the product range has expanded too. 

 

New brands

From an initial focus on the core Vitamin Well brand – flavoured water with added vitamins and minerals – the business has moved into new brands, such as the energy drink Nocco and Barebells, a protein bar and milkshake division. 

 

“Vitamin Well tends to build its brands by first selling to gyms, golf clubs, trendy cafes and other premium spots. Only once they have established a certain brand image, do they distribute more widely, to supermarkets and online platforms, such as Amazon. 

 

“Of course, many of their premium distribution avenues have been largely closed through the pandemic, but the company still managed to record its best ever year in 2020. That underlines the resilience of this business and the performance of its people. I could not be prouder of their efforts,” says Nilsson n