Olivier Bernhard On
Text: editorial staff “ceo”/Images: Markus Bertschi

Turn it On

Top athletes and hobby joggers alike thrill to the revolutionary foot-feel of “On” lightweight running shoes – a Swiss work of genius, of course. Former world-class athlete Olivier Bernhard, together with his colleagues David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, puts a lot of energy into “running” this young company. After the first five years of going the distance, the trio can look back with pride on what they’ve achieved.

“Purchasing a running shoe is an emotional thing not just for top athletes.”

At a much-too-small head office situated in a residential hamlet on the outskirts of Zurich, we meet for a talk with Olivier Bernhard and David Allemann. Both of them effervesce energy. They apologise for the absence of On’s third founding father, Caspar Coppetti. “He’s in Tokyo today, probably gazing at the cherry blossoms and counting the On shoes worn by joggers in Yoyogi Park,” Allemann jests. A laid-back atmosphere prevails: no individual offices; instead, long tables where a mostly young team are busily tapping away at their computers. The walls are a veritable photo gallery of footwear. “The entire team appreciates this familiar yet entirely sporty spirit,” says marketing manager Allemann.

“The first thing we hear when an athlete tries on our shoes is Wow!,” chuckles Allemann. The flat tube-like “clouds” on the soles of these running shoes cushion the forces of the down-step and provide traction for the forward thrust. That appeals to hobbyists just as much as it does to the pros. Many of them run better with Ons and swear that henceforth they’ll rely on the “Engineered in Switzerland” technology. This footwear also stands out in another way: the airy pads and luminous colours of On shoes make them a real eye-catcher.

Understanding the difference

Lots of people want to try them. At dozens of running events – from Ironman on Hawaii to the Zurich Marathon just down the hill from the company’s headquarters in Zollikon – the young entrepreneurs invite passers-by to test how it feels to “Run on Clouds” (the company’s motto). Olivier Bernhard seeks closeness with his potential customers and listens to their initial impression. “We actually run a few laps with each of our new dealers; after all, they need to know the difference Ons offer in comparison to other products,” says the former top athlete.

The whole thing started with a wink from above: Bernhard, a three-time long distance duathlon world champion and multiple Ironman winner, coincidentally met an ETH engineer who’s working on a new technology for running shoes. The two of them cobbled together, tested and produced the first prototype. The result is convincing. Soon, what once was just an idea become a plan. During the prototype phase, Olivier Bernhard onboarded his friends David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti – the three of them knew each other from the time they spent together at a management consulting firm.

With a heap of energy and a healthy portion of enthusiasm, the trio founded Zurich-registered On AG in January 2010. Their goal: using their Swiss “CloudTec” technology to garner a foothold in the global market for running shoes. This 17 billion dollar business is dominated today by just a handful of major players, but the pace of growth (5–10 per cent p.a.) also allows room for newbies with new ideas.

“As a runner, when you slip into an On shoe you immedi­ately feel the difference.”

Lookin’ good at the point of sale

In its marketing efforts, On prioritises sport consultants and people who know what they’re talking about. Today, the brand is available at more than 1,500 specialised running sport retailers in 30+ countries. At trade fairs such as Ispo, the company regularly receives design and technology prizes and launches new products. Meanwhile, On now employs a workforce of 60 and has established a satellite office in Portland, Oregon. The company is present with its own sales team in the key European markets of Germany, France and Great Britain. In other countries, distributors are helping to market the On sensation. And the shoes shouldn’t just feel good – they also have to look good at the point of sale. With 50 of its own shop-in-shops, On is there where the rubber meets the road.

The shoes are produced in Vietnam, a country that many sporting goods manufacturers rely on not just out of cost considerations: it’s the hub of know-how and the supplier industry, and On’s partners are high-quality producers. The company drives the further development of materials and its globally patented shoe-sole technology through collaboration with specialists at the ETH in Zurich and the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Labs. While conventional running shoes are either soft-and-slow or hard-and-fast, On’s Cloud shoes are at once soft and fast. The patented CloudTec system converts running energy into forward movement.

Bernhard asserts that purchasing a running shoe is an emotional thing not just for top athletes: “As a runner, when you slip into an On shoe you immediately feel the difference.” Also for his team, everything revolves around that special feel. As an equaliser, the office crew at On get together during their lunch break and jog a few laps – because they like running on Clouds.

Olivier Bernhard, David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti

Former top athlete Olivier Bernhard (*1968) chanced upon the basic idea for a revolutionary running shoe thanks to a Swiss engineer. Subsequently, he and his friends David and Caspar mustered the courage to found an innovative company called “On”. After his career as a pro, Bernhard had worked as a coach and organisation consultant before turning his attention solely to On. Co-founder David Allemann (*1970) completed his law studies, began business life by working at Internet and advertising agencies, and went on to become a management consultant and marketing manager before devoting all of his efforts to the On project. The third member of this merry band, economist Caspar Coppetti (*1976), worked during his university years as a sport journalist, actively helped in the organisation of the Gigathlon Switzerland, and then moved to the consulting and marketing business. The trio received the 2014 Swiss Economic Award in the category “Product”.