Since the late 19th century, the Foster family had been hand-making running shoes, supplying the likes of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams – later immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire – as well as providing boots to most Football League clubs. But a family feud between Foster’s father and uncle about the direction of their business led to Joe and his brother Jeff setting up a new company, inspired by the success of Adidas and Puma, and so Reebok was born.
At first, money was so short that Joe and his wife had to live in their rundown factory, while the machinery that made the shoes was placed around the edge of the floor, because it was so weak it could have collapsed if they’d been positioned in the middle. But, from this inauspicious start, a major new player in the sports equipment field began to emerge, inspired by Joe’s marketing vision. By the 1980s, Reebok had become a global phenomenon, when they were the first to latch onto the potential of the aerobics craze inspired by Jane Fonda. Soon, Reeboks were being seen on Hollywood red carpets and even in the film Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver wore a pair of Reebok Alien Stompers.
In his book Shoemaker, Joe Foster tells the powerful tale of triumph against all the odds, revealing the challenges and sacrifices that go into creating a world-beating brand; it is also the story of how a small local business can transform itself, with the right products and the right vision, into something much, much bigger.
In this interview, I spoke to Joe Foster about the remarkable story of how he turned a small factory in Bolton into one of the world’s most famous sports brands, Reebok.
Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?
[Joe Foster]: I’d never even heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ growing up – I didn’t know what that meant. If I go back to my grandfather – he was the real entrepreneur. He developed things… he made spiked running shoes when he was only 15 (in 1895!). My grandfather died in 1933, I was born in 1935 and my grandmother insisted I brought his name with me – so I became the next Joe Foster. His two sons (my uncles) weren’t interested on the idea of growing a business, they just worked in it – and I had only worked in the business for a year before being taken away to do national service – which taught me a lot about self-reliance and how to look at life a different way.
When I came back, it didn’t take me and my brother (Jeff) long to see that this was a failing business. It had been making the same product since the 1930s. My father and uncle feuded – a bit like Adi and Rudy Dassler (who founded Adidas). In that case, Rudy decided to leave and set up Puma.
Jeff and I tried our best but all our father could say is, ‘when I’m gone, the business is yours…’ – number 1, we didn’t want our Dad to go.. and number 2, it was clear the business would be gone before he was. The business was dying.
Since we couldn’t do anything, we went to college at night to learn shoemaking. We made some amazing contacts and started from there. We set up a little factory in Bury, and I guess we became entrepreneurs!
Q: How did you create the Reebok brand?
[Joe Foster]: Our family business was J.W. Foster & Sons. When we left, I was a J.W. Foster, and Jeff was a J.W. Foster, you couldn’t have two! So, we thought of the name Mercury. We wanted something separate from the family name. 18 months into the journey, our accountant said we should register the brand and we found it was already pre-registered by the British Shoe Corporation. They weren’t using it, tried to sell it to us for £1000, but we simply didn’t have that kind of money. We decided to look for a new name – and went through a lot of ideas… Cougar, Falcon, names which we thought sounded great.
Let me take you back to 1943. I was 8 years old and was entered into a local running race in Bolton. I won the race! …I did have an advantage, Fosters made spiked running shoes, and nobody who was running against me had a pair. I went to collect my prize… it was an American dictionary! Well…when we were looking for a name, I picked up this dictionary and started to flick through. I remember the letter ‘R’ felt like a good, strong letter and I was flicking through I got to the word R-E-E-B-O-K – a small African gazelle! Well, that felt like us! Had I used the Oxford English Dictionary, I would have found the spelling to be ‘rhebok’ and maybe it would have slipped past me.
We registered it – initially just in ‘section B’ of the register which meant that we were exposed to the fact that someone could have come along and said they were making shoes out of Reebok skin… well, we thought the chances of that were impossible, so we went with it. 20 years later, the registrar moved us from ‘section B’ to ‘section A’ of the register because everyone now recognized the shoe brand more than the animal!
Q: What was the scale journey of Reebok?
[Joe Foster]: Building a business is about perseverance. When Jeff and I set off in late 1958, the sport of the world was football. Adidas had claimed that – and sports stores didn’t need another brand in that category. We had to make customers and stores need our brand. Growing Reebok took years, and years, of hard slog. We went to so many meetings and were selling from the back of a car. It was around that time I realised that athletes were my customers- they were the people I wanted to sell too. Luckily, the Amateur Athletic Association produced a handbook which contained the name and address of every club in the country. We wrote to them with a 15% discount offer, and the chance to become an agent to help fund their club. I must have got 200 agents signed-up and the business started to grow. I even got a distributor in the UK, but I needed a bigger market. Fosters had been sending 200 pairs of hand-sewn shoes to Yale University every month… Athletics is huge in the USA and every college has a coach and a team. I remember reading a magazine and there was an article about how the British Government wanted to encourage sports businesses to export, and to that end they were willing to supply a stand, pay for return airfare and hotel bills for British businesses to attend the NSGA show in Chicago. I went with a friend in 1968- he picked up some business- but people kept asking me, ‘I love your product, where can I get them?’ the answer? England! That was a big put-off, none of these guys wanted to import. 11 years later, in 1979 we got a distributor…. During the 1970s, road running booked in America – it was the fuel that helped Nike grow. One of the most important magazines at the time was Runners World – a sheet of A4 in the 1960s, and a full glossy magazine by the 1970s. This was the magazine which people used to decide what shoe to buy and every year, in August, they named their number one shoe. Nike were sourcing them from Japan (from Onitsuka, which is now Asics) and even with this manufacturing capacity they couldn’t deal with the spike of orders. If you were Runners World number 1, you’d get an order for a million pairs! The magazine changed their rating system to ‘stars’ and the dream was then to be a 5-star shoe. If we could get that, we were made. I knew we could do it. We made Aztec (our trainer), Midas (our running shoe) and Inca (our spike), we tested them out at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games and got lots of gold medals. By February 1979 I’m back at the NSGA show with my gold-range, we were starting to get orders for 20,000 pairs here, 25,000 there. I simply couldn’t’ make these at our small factory in the UK! Fortunately… I had some friends. Bata are the biggest shoemakers in the world, they had a unit in Tilbury and said they would make our shoes for us – and eventually we started working with manufactures in South Korea. At this show Paul Fireman came along, he was the CEO of a very small camping business in Boston. He was a bit fed-up of his current business and wanted a new challenge – he asked if he could distribute for us, but said he’d need a 5-star shoe. I said, ‘leave it with me…’ fast-forward to the last week in July that year… I picked-up the phone to Paul Fireman, it was midday in the UK and early morning in the USA. I said, ‘Paul, can you nip down to the local kiosk, they must have a Runners World in there… we need to know if we got 5-stars…’ an hour later Paul came back… ‘Joe! Aztec got 5-stars!’ brilliant – but what we didn’t expect was that our other products Midas and Inca also got 5-stars in their own categories. We had 3 5-star shoes! That was the hook for the USA, it took us a long time to get there, but that’s how we initially broke into the USA.
Around 1982, we met a guy called Angel Martinez. He was a technical-rep in LA and his wife Frankie had started to go to aerobics classes. She loved them and Angel decided to go see what the fuss was about. He sees the instructor in running shoes and half the class were wearing trainers. He dashed off to Paul and said, ‘something great is happening here, we should make aerobics shoes…’ We were doing really well with running, we had our 5-star shoes, business was growing and Paul was initially reluctant. Angel went straight to Steve Ligett who knew production and asked for 200 pairs of shoes – with glove leather and a cushion sole, in female sizes. He gave these away to the instructors and some of the girls at the front of the class – they loved them! They were made of glove-leather, they fell apart after 6-weeks but the girls loved them so much that they just went out and bought another pair. It took a while to get the leather right, but when you’ve got Jane Fonda turning up doing her workouts in Reebok shoes she bought, that was it… women started wearing our shoes out and about… they wore them to work and put their heels in a bag… it became fashion… it became style. Everyone knew Nike and Adidas were male and sweaty. This was Reebok. We became a woman’s company overnight and hit the streets.
At the time our revenues were around $9 million, in 12 months we became a $30 million business, then $90 million, then $300 million eventually we grew to around $4 billion. As the company grew, my role changed. There was a layer of accountants and lawyers between me and the business – the company was driving us, not the other way around. I’d been round the world with the business, we experienced the fastest growth of any company in America – all before computers and social media. I was being picked up in limousines, going to things like the Princess Grace tennis tournament in Monte Carlo… we were a brand loved by Hollywood and people like Roger Moore, Sean Connery were around us. We even made shoes for Princess Diane, Harry and William. They were wearing our shoes but there was a point where I had to step-off this crazy thing.
There are so many proud moments for me on the Reebok journey – we beat Adidas, we beat Nike, we became bigger than them. We took-on the American market, and we won!
Q: What can we take from your journey, and apply to our own?
[Joe Foster]: As a founder, you’re not God. You’re a mere piece of the puzzle. To have a company grow, it has to have a lot of people and those people need to feel ownership. You need a winning culture to keep people driving forward. It’s not just about loving each other’s company, it’s about winning together.
Many people say that if you’re the brightest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room – that’s totally right. You need to bring in people with much more expertise than you to take the business forward. I started out making shoes by hand – I’m a shoemaker, not an intellectual. I’m not a finance man, or a lawyer, but I know the right people, I love to learn, and I can network.
As an entrepreneur you have to know your market. You shouldn’t take too much advice, and you need to believe in your own ability and be ready to tackle problems. You also have to be prepared for the fact that it may not work! When Jeff and myself started-out, we were 23 and 25- we thought we were indestructible. What’s the worst that could happen, right? We could make it, or not. We got a lot of luck, we got a lot of sorrow and tragedy on our journey, but we had a lot of fun along the way – and that’s so important, you have to enjoy what you do.