Running In The Family – A Closer Look At ‘Shoe Maker’
October 29, 2020
In October’s monthly ‘Crowdown’, Tim Crow reviews ‘Shoe Maker’, Joe Foster’s new memoir of how he created Reebok and took it global.
To the two definitive accounts of the genesis of the sports shoe business – Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir ‘Shoe Dog’ and Barbara Smit’s history of Adidas and Puma ‘Pitch Invasion’ – we can now add a third: Reebok founder Joe Foster’s recently-published memoir ‘Shoe Maker’.
Foster’s evocation of the title of Knight’s memoir is as deliberate as it is appropriate. Whereas Knight was a Stanford MBA with a business idea of importing Japanese running shoes into the USA, Foster was a third- generation scion of a family of sports shoe makers who grew up in the business and its factory.
His invention of spiked running shoes revolutionised athletics and enabled him to dominate it for years, smashing world records and helping a long line of Olympians to gold.
The two men’s similarities are also profound, in the telling as in the lives. Both wanted to conquer America. Both did so, at the same time. But both only got there after years of struggle against the odds and, often, their own bad decisions. Like Knight, Foster often leaves you expecting his business to collapse in the next chapter.
Disaster follows triumph in the book’s early pages, as we watch the family business downed by the mismanagement of Joe’s father and uncle. But not before its spectacular rise under his grandfather, also named Joe. Joe senior comes across as a dazzling blend of Adi Dassler and his son Horst – genius shoe maker and pioneering sports marketer respectively – years before they arrived. His invention of spiked running shoes revolutionised athletics and enabled him to dominate it for years, smashing world records and helping a long line of Olympians to gold, including Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell of ‘Chariots Of Fire’ fame.
This and other stories in the book strongly evoke modern trends. The controversy caused by Joe senior’s introduction of spikes irresistible conjures today’s incendiary debate about Nike’s Vaporflys. Similarly, Reebok’s American breakthrough in the 1980s, achieved by becoming women’s brand of choice for the aerobics phenomenon which swept the US, irresistibly calls ahead to today’s renewed movement to empower and win the female consumer.
The story that above all drives you through the book is of course the creation of Reebok in the 1950s to its sale in the 1980s and the themes that Foster employs to tie this together.
But the story that above all drives you through the book is of course the creation of Reebok in the 1950s to its sale in the 1980s and the themes that Foster employs to tie this together: the relentless drive of the entrepreneur for whom ‘breakfast was a board meeting in my head’; the personal sacrifices he knows he is making as his family takes second place to his ‘eldest child’, Reebok; and the importance of spotting the big opportunities and the people – Foster calls them ‘gatekeepers’ – who will help make them happen.
Foster is a gifted, self-effacing storyteller, and he makes it all richly entertaining and occasionally, particularly when he writes about his family, deeply moving. He introduces a cast of characters, from eccentric northern lawyers to Hollywood celebrities, to rival any Dickens novel; shares vivid tales of despair and hope as he struggles to build the business; and finally – almost with a sense of disbelief – re-lives Reebok’s heady conquest of America.
It is one of the great sports business books, and whether you are an entrepreneur, a CEO, a sneakerhead, a sports exec or simply looking for a good read over Christmas, this should be on your list.
‘Shoe Maker’ by Joe Foster is published by Simon & Schuster.