Date read: 02-05-2024

Author: Joe Foster

How strongly I recommend it: 5/10

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This is the founding story of Reebok, written by the founder, Joe Foster. Joe Foster came from a family of shoemakers; in fact, his grandfather (also Joe Foster) designed the earliest spiked running shoes, popularised it, and founded a business: J. W. Foster and Sons. The business was passed down to his sons (Joe Foster’s dad and uncle), but they were happy for it to stay small. Joe Foster (Reebok’s founder) had bigger plans and decided to break away with his brother, Jeff, founding Reebok in the process.

However, you’ll find that the reason you know Reebok today is not because of Joe himself. Joe sold the business to Paul Fireman in 1984 and that was when it really boomed and became international. That’s not to say Joe isn’t a good entrepreneur; he did indeed make the shoe popular in UK and good enough for the brand to be picked up by Paul Fireman. But making it global was not Joe.

My notes

Genius doesn’t just rely on creativity, invention and production. It also needs recognition. Without being recognised, you can’t be perceived as a genius.

New sports footwear companies had started to make their mark in the industry. While the likes of Adidas and Puma were rampant in taking new designs to the market, J. W. Foster & Sons were still operating on the thesis of ‘build it and they will come’, expecting the market to continue coming to them. If there was one constant still prevalent, it was the non-progressive attitude of my dad and uncle.

By now, for them, the goal was not to elevate the status of the company with new designs, improved models and more aggressive marketing. Their focus was on sustaining a nice, steady income for each of their families. It was no more than a job, a way to put food on our table, rum in their glasses. Anything that rocked the boat, that involved more thinking, was dismissed immediately. There was no passion, just a lust for comfort, contentment and security.

Hindsight can make any brand name seem like a stroke of marketing genius.

Many of the high-street sports shops that our agents approached in the early 1960s were owned by retired footballers. At that time, a footballer’s wage was capped at £20 per week. When they had to hang up their boots in their thirties or forties, they usually had very little in the way of savings and still needed to earn a living. The bright ones realised that, while their talents on the field had come to an end, they could still profit from their relative fame by opening a sports shop under their name, selling anything from football boots to snooker cue chalk.

There was only one thing for it, something I had been trying to persuade my dad to let me do when I worked for him at Foster & Sons. I would have to pound the streets myself, covering as much of the country as I could while Jeff looked after the factory. To cover the costs of travelling up and down the UK, and because I now had an extra mouth to feed, I decided it would be prudent to become a commission-only sales agent for two other companies at the same time. At least that way I’d have three stabs at bringing in an income. The other two companies were Fairbrother, a London-based business specialising in dart flights, card games and dominoes, and Louis Hoffman, a designer and manufacturer of women’s tennis dresses.

all the time I was thinking about how we could get more people to market Reebok across the country, with agents who were enthusiastic but who didn’t demand salaries we couldn’t afford. And then it hit me. I was looking at the answer right in front of me. Each and every dirt-stained runner was a potential sales agent. They were all amateurs, so they would all be happy for the chance to earn a bit of extra money within an activity they were passionate about. And each and every one had the potential to enlist a fellow athlete as a sales agent if there was enough incentive. In fact, I thought, why stop at the runners? Why not everybody involved in running and running clubs?

America was the trendsetter. Other countries around the world looked to it for innovation, new styles. There was also a culture of disposable commerce. The level of income, and the lifestyle this afforded, enabled people to take greater risks when purchasing something. They weren’t like Europeans, who thought twice, three times about buying shoes and clothes. The Americans were more impulsive. If they liked it, they bought it. If it proved to be a good purchase, they’d buy it again. If they didn’t like it, they moved on to something else, no refunds, no fuss, no hard feelings.

We were always the last two people to get paid – it was and always had been our owner ethic. We were responsible for the welfare of our staff, employees who were perpetually loyal and hardworking. The buck stopped with both Jeff and me if a decision was made that would affect their livelihood, for good or for bad

Such was the weight of the magazine in the late 1970s that Runner’s World was deciding what shoe the American market wanted. I’d been studying the high-scorers for three years. As long as we produced a shoe with the softest cushioning, the most flexibility, the lightest materials, and a sole that had long-lasting durability, we had a chance. More than a chance, I thought. Innovation was the key, but so was conformity. It was a tricky balance. The shoe had to be the same, but different. By that I mean, it had to tick all the boxes above, but also with new technology and a fresh look.

The Aztec had received a number one ranking for sole traction and rear-foot control, and immediately generated huge interest. We received a few orders from private individuals that we were able to supply and ship ourselves, but the incoming enquiries from the trade had begun to snowball. That five-star rating would prove to be a game-changer for Reebok.

There was no middle ground between success and failure. The greatest gave everything, left nothing behind. I had to do the same. It had to be all or nothing from now on. I didn’t want to be chasing the pack, I wanted them to be chasing me

Jeff had always shared my dream, and the two Jeans had been fully supportive when Reebok was striving for local, or even national greatness. But now… I felt they didn’t have the same vision as me, couldn’t see how far this company could go, its global potential. Or maybe they didn’t want to. Maybe that scale of success scared them. Either way, it had come to the point where every major decision that I believed would benefit our expansion, or every trip I made overseas in pursuit of progress, was being met with negative and contrary arguments. ‘It costs too much’, ‘There’s too much risk’, ‘We’re out of our comfort zone’. I’d heard them all recently, plus dozens more. I was beginning to feel alone in my passion, in my aspirations, in my belief in what we could achieve. I needed the enthusiastic support of someone with a similarly ambitious nature, someone experiencing the same excitement that we were on to something big.

It reminded me just how different Americans and the British are. Here in icy-cold Boston they embraced winter, rejoiced in the change of seasons. November brought new offerings to all the senses, with special tastes, sounds, smells and activities. Back in Bury, and the UK in general, winter was dreaded. When it arrived, the population hid behind closed doors, cursing the cold, wishing the time away. And when they had to emerge in public, they would moan, whine and dress in greys and blacks as if mourning the death of summer cheeriness.

In business, too, there was a feeling of anything is possible in this land of opportunity. Maybe it was my upbringing, but it always felt like there was a lid on success, a moral barrier to stop you reaching too far. Aspiring for greatness was frowned upon, discouraged almost, like it was arrogant and conceited. Striving for average was more the British way; attain mediocrity, be moderate, remain middle-of-the-road. Know your place.

But it had definitely been the right time to pull away. Reebok had changed. In my eyes, since going public in 1985, it had become a numbers company, and I was not a numbers man. Decisions were now based on reports from accountants and lawyers, the bottom line paramount, the personality absent. It had to be, now that shareholders needed to be appeased. But inevitably this had hammered a nail in the coffin of entrepreneurship, which was the lifeblood of business passion.