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Originally published Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Li Ning objective: Push the Swoosh

It's known as "the Nike of China. " Its red, aerodynamic logo bears an uncanny resemblance to Nike's ubiquitous Swoosh. Now, Li Ning Co...

Newhouse News Service

PORTLAND — It's known as "the Nike of China." Its red, aerodynamic logo bears an uncanny resemblance to Nike's ubiquitous Swoosh.

Now, Li Ning Co., the largest footwear and apparel maker in the world's fastest-growing economy, has planted its flag in Nike's backyard.

The company has quietly opened a design office in Portland.

It joins Nike and Columbia Sportswear, both headquartered outside nearby Beaverton, and Adidas America, based in Germany with U.S. headquarters in Portland.

It's the first U.S. office of Li Ning that many industry observers know about, though none could say for certain that it has not opened one elsewhere. Li Ning could not be reached for comment.

But industry sources note that the company has hired a designer with experience kicking out Nike and Converse running and basketball shoes.

Opening a U.S. outpost, industry observers say, indicates the fast-growing sporting-goods company wants to tap the pool of creative talent in the region, home to an increasing number of smaller outdoor and athletic-wear brands and supporting services.

Li Ning is the No. 3 manufacturer of sneakers sold in China, after Nike and Adidas, but only a sliver of its sales now comes from abroad.

"It's smart," said Rob Langstaff, past president of Adidas' North American unit. "They are a growing brand, and they want to have talented designers working on their products."

Li Ning, founded by China's Olympic gold-medal gymnast of the same name, also might be laying the groundwork for marketing products in the U.S., analysts and industry insiders say.

In 2006, the company signed an endorsement deal with its first NBA player — Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Damon Jones, who laces up Li Ning's "Feijia," or "Flying Armor," basketball shoes.

"Having expertise in a region you hope to expand into makes a world of sense," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

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Jennifer So, an analyst with CIMB-GK Securities in Hong Kong, said the company is the only Chinese sporting-goods firm with the vision to sell products globally while also competing neck-and-neck with Nike and Adidas in the rapidly growing Chinese market.

Li Ning aims to ride a marketing wave tied to this year's Beijing Olympics to open dozens of stores and catapult overall sales, all but 1 percent of which are in China.

"In the longer term, I believe the company has the ambition of entering into the international sportswear business," So wrote via e-mail. "The management told us that will be a plan beyond 2008."

Expanding globally won't be easy for any emerging Chinese company, but opening a U.S. design outpost is a good step, said Martin Roll, an Asian branding consultant based in Singapore.

Roll said South Korean electronics maker Samsung catapulted itself from a market unknown to a leading consumer brand in a matter of 10 years, partly by hiring hundreds of designers tuned in to consumer tastes and fashion trends.

Li Ning has hired Alan Hardy, formerly a senior designer at Nike and design director at Converse, who most recently served as design director for the American Sporting Goods (ASG) office in Portland until it closed last month.

ASG, based in Irvine, Calif., markets And 1 basketball shoes, Ryka women's footwear and Triple Five Soul shoes and apparel.

"He's ex-Nike and Converse and well-regarded," said Ross Regis, whose executive-recruiting firm, Search Synergy, targets the footwear and apparel industry.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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