Behind the Technology is an ongoing series of questions posed to the people responsible for developing product at the top running brands in the industry.
Tony Brancaleone works in Saucony product engineering where he, along with product engineers, test potential running shoes. We asked Tony some questions about his job at Saucony, the research behind Saucony’s footwear technology, as well as any other insider information that he could divulge.
What is your official title and what are your current responsibilities?
My official job title is “Product Manager: Racing” at Saucony. My main responsibilities consist of the product marketing and development of all competition footwear. That also includes any custom footwear for our athletes. Secondary responsibilities are working closely with our sales team to drive and implement a specific sales program for T&F and XC, and I spend most of my fall working with key accounts at any of the 50+ XC races we sponsor every year. I also get to work with our digital team to help manage Saucony Racing on social media.
Who do you work with closest in developing product?
There are more than a few hands, but two of our footwear designers are most active in the Racing category. Chris Mahoney who is the brand creative director for footwear and apparel (who lucky for me has a soft spot for racing), and Brian Therriault who has designed half of our T&F line and all of our XC spikes for the last 3 years. They are also heavily influenced from our Team Saucony elites.
As a general rule, most designers enjoy working on spikes as it gives them more creative license. With training shoes, you don’t always have the luxury of flipping the world upside down, or you risk chasing away a loyal customer. Spikes are always an opportunity to try anything and everything; they are concept cars really.
What’s your running background?
Well I was never elite but have always had a strong passion for the sport. I ran in middle school and high school on some very competitive teams in Gloucester, Mass, a seaside town with some great running heritage and pride. We won our share of Team state titles and it was a ton of fun. When I transitioned to a local state school it just wasn’t the same. But as a result of knowing people on the team, I did get a job at a local running store, which ultimately allowed me to get my foot in the door at Saucony.
One amazing aspect of the job for me is going back. For the last 10 years, Saucony has sponsored the middle school championship I ran in 25 years ago. When I first got involved with my old coach, we sponsored a championship and an invite with a few hundred kids. Now we see 1600-2000 kids every year at one of the more scenic parks in Gloucester, MA. Watching those kids rep their town and push to their limits is what the sport is all about.
How did you get into your current position?
In college, an old friend asked me if I was busy one afternoon and told me to meet up with him. I had no idea he was working at a running store and needed help that day. Years later as I look back on it, the customer service skills I learned in the retail environment proved to be invaluable.
A few years later some of the guys I knew from the store mentioned there was a position open at Saucony, essentially answering the phones to help walk people through the fit process and their needs. I was 22 years old and it was my first office job. After getting to know more people in the company, I had a few requests from the fit and wear test manager to find more local runners. Having been on a well-known local team and having run my share of races gave me a wide population of potential testers for them to contact. So later, when a job opened up on the product team, it turned out to be a great fit.
I had worked in R&D with different roles since 2003, and as part of that, worked on the development of the majority of our competition line. In 2011, Saucony had grown to the point where they needed a dedicated role for racing, and I fit the bill. At the time I was working with many of our athletes to meet their specific competition needs, so it was a pretty smooth transition.
Who influences you?
My main influences come from two groups. The first group is one we refer to internally as the “scholastic runner”. More simply stated, high school runners. I spend my fall every year standing in the rain, the snow, and the mud to see and understand just how the sport is evolving and how best to meet their needs. The product team at Saucony has this phrase hammered into them: How does it help the runner?
The second and obvious one, would be our competitors in the industry. When I see another brand try something really cool, it keeps me on my toes. There’s a competitive front-runner mentality at Saucony, and those with that will to win know that you can never get left behind in any race.
Any particular products or brands that you are impressed with?
Well obviously Nike was one of the first brands to really push and innovate in the competition category, which has absolutely challenged us to find many different ways to up our game.
What unique inspiration outside of running shoes inspires your design of shoes?
I always like to look at presentation. A well known example of this is how the packaging you see with apple products is extremely clean and always appealing. As a new homeowner, I’ve recently been intrigued by certain brands of power tools, like the iconic black and yellow Dewalt tools. The blocky color scheme seems to promise toughness and reliability. It’s nice to feel that type of assurance in a product. Brian, our spike designer, pays attention to material development outside of the footwear industry too. He’ll draw inspiration from the ballistic material on a pack, or the interior of a new car, for example. As a group, the designers at Saucony love automobiles, whether it be cars, snow mobiles, ATVs, etc. Basically, if it goes fast, they’re into it.
What sort of research goes into the design and development process?
First and foremost, understanding the needs of the runner. Who exactly is the spike for and what are their challenges? What other spikes has this specific runner had success with, and what new materials are available? What didn’t work last time? When there’s something that bothered people, it is easy to fix it and call it better. What if it did well and there are no consistent complaints? Improving on an already good shoe is actually much harder.
After that, it comes down to testing, testing and more testing. Our designs start on screens and 3D CADs, so it’s imperative that as soon as we have prototypes, we get them on real runners’ feet. For me, that means starting with our elites. Our new mid distance spike, the Ballista, was first tested on Duane Solomon. He came to our office to talk about what he liked and didn’t like on the Endorphin MD. Our designer Brian sketched up some shoes based on his feedback. From there, another team member (Lucile, our Fit and Wear Coordinator) volunteered to meet Duane in FL to get his feedback on a few different options. We then went back to the drawing board on Duane’s preferred options, but that’s where the plot thickens. With spikes, 99% of our customers are under the age of 22, and not everyone is a world caliber track athlete trying to cut fractions of a second off their time. So in the later stage, we focus a lot of our testing on high school and college runners. Having the creation process come from our elites and the optimization come from scholastic runners is one of the key reasons we’ve been able to capture a good chunk of the market.
What were the design goals of the new Havok?
My goal was to make a spike for the Varsity runner, aka the top 7. That group wants light and fast. At the same time, the designer Brian wanted to focus on creating a more sock like fit than our previous models. By only using Flex Film in key areas and adding an inner sock layer, we were able to achieve a much more seamless fit that our testers were ecstatic about.
What do you see as the greatest innovations potentially taking place in running shoes in the next 2-5 years?
In training shoes right now it seems the race is on to develop a lighter foam with more cushion and durability. Those answers are found with a background in chemistry and no small amount of testing. In my corner of the building the focus is a bit different. Sure, I need to keep making shoes lighter and more durable, but through different means. Spikes don’t generally have very thick midsoles so more often we’re looking at new spike plate designs and materials. New synthetics and textiles for stronger and lighter uppers. I’ll tell you what I would like to see: A legit new lacing system. There are a few speed lace systems out there, but really since the dawn of modern running we have still not found a better, cost effective and reliable alternative to the classic shoelace. And trust me, you don’t want to race in a pair of Velcro spikes.
3D printing is also an exciting area. We have a 3D print studio in the office and we’ve already been able to cut down on development time by having visual samples in hand, almost overnight. Once that technology is far enough along to create consumer-ready shoes, we could see a boom in customization as well as speed to market.
Any exciting projects you are currently working on that you can share?
We are currently working on product for Fall 2017 that I’m really excited about. We will have the 3rd iteration of the Carrera XC coming out, and the gloves are off for this one. New spike plate compounds, new iterations of ISOfit, and more stuff I can’t talk about are all on the table. You’ll just have to wait and see!