Shoemaker: The Untold Story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand, Co-Founder of Reebok Joe Foster describes the remarkable story of how he founded Reebok in 1958 with his late brother Jeff, following their family heritage back to 1895. From humble beginnings , they started from a small factory in Bolton and built a global brand with grit, persistence and focus. Joe’s Grandfather, Joseph W Foster founded J. W. Foster & Sons which pioneered the spiked running shoe and famously made shoes for the Worlds best athletes of the early 20th century, with World records and Olympics Gold Medals.
My story, the Reebok story, is not a standard business tale about how I worked hard, hunched over a shoe last for thirty-five years. Nor is it a linear journey along a well-thought-out path, or a tale of how I risked millions and came out smelling of shiny leather. It is a book about motivation and the importance of gripping onto an opportunity when Lady Luck presents it.
The Shoemaker by Joe Foster is a great story about how they built a global brand from humble beginnings. Inspired by their grandfather’s shoemaking company J. W. Foster & Sons, Joe and Jeff aspired to makes changes to the company but their father resisted their effort. They started out as Mercury but had to change brand name due to trademark infringement. The new name was called Reebok, African for Grey Rhebok, a type of African Antelope.
Joe shares the story of his growing up, trying to salvage the family business, having the courage to leave his comfort zone, starting reebok with his brother, the early struggles of building a brand. He also was vulnerable about his losses such as losing his brother to stomach cancer, losing daughter to leukaemia, his divorce and the toll that building a business could have on family life and relationships.
I was brought up in a world of the remarkably average, where aspiring to be better was frowned upon. It was an era of ‘know your place’, ‘don’t rock the boat’, and other edicts injected into the masses to keep society in order. And it was also a time when old-fashioned values were in place, when people were generally kind to their neighbours, their elders and even to their peers.
Decency was paramount, my mum had always instilled that in me, alongside respect for others. But in my mind, contrary to societal expectations, so was growth and Improvement through challenging myself, and it was on these foundations that my (eventual) success in industry was founded. The path to that success wasn’t straight, nor was it defined. A lot of it was based on decisions that were made on the hoof. Many of those decisions were reactive rather than proactive, but always with the same aim in mind: to sell more shoes than the day before.
31 years to become an overnight success
It seems to have worked, though it took thirty-one years to grow from a start-up to the world’s number one sports brand. Perhaps if I had made different decisions it would have arrived sooner, but I know for sure that, without the long and meandering journey, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the destination.
At the end of the day, many things needed to fall into place as I steered the Reebok ship along a path to success. Some of it was my doing, some of it was that of others. Some of it I’d like to call business acumen, but most of it was not. It was more a matter of good fortune, a dogged determination (some would say obsessive), and an ability to think creatively to turn misfortune into opportunity.
Some people run to beat others. I ran to beat myself.
J. W. Foster & Sons
I was from a family of shoemakers. Not an advantage in itself, admittedly, but this was no ordinary shoe- making family. This was J. W. Foster & Sons, makers of hand-sewn sports shoes.
Joe Foster – Grand Father
Towards the end of the nineteenth century my grandad, also called Joe Foster, became a purveyor of invention almost by accident. As a fifteen-year-old, he had two main interests in his life: running in his local athletics club, the Bolton Primrose Harriers, and repairing shoes and boots in his bedroom above his dad’s confectionery shop. The latter pursuit he was good at; the running, like me, not so much.
What Grandad Joe did have, though, was an inventive mind. Fed up with being a backmarker in every race, he figured he would combine his two skill sets to see if he could get to the finishing line quicker.
Grandad Joe likely learned his cobbling skills through visiting his grandfather Sam’s shoe workshop in Nottingham.
As it was, in his bedroom at 90 Dean Road, my grandad Joe set about designing a pair of spiked running shoes for himself. In 1895, to test their effectiveness, he decided to try them out at his local athletics club, in a middle- distance track event.
J. W. Foster
In no time at all, J. W. Foster had become the shoemaker for hand-sewn specialist running pumps. If you wanted the best, no matter where you were based in the UK, Joe was your man. Never in his wildest dreams could this Bolton cobbler have imagined that just four years later, in 1904, his running pumps would be instrumental in breaking three world records in one race.
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.
After Grandad died suddenly of a heart attack, Grandma Maria, rather reluctantly, took over the running of the business.
Bill and Jim feud
When not hungover, one of her most challenging roles at the factory had become keeping a lid on a sim- mering feud that was building up between her two sons, my dad, Jim, and his elder brother, Bill.
My sport of choice had become badminton, a game more suited to my genetic makeup. It requires short bursts of energy, extreme agility, fast reflexes (both physical and mental) and, just like in business, an ability to quickly analyse and formulate a tactical game plan while simultaneously coping with pressure. It was a game I could win, and often did.
Romance with Jean
I was seventeen, Jean sixteen, and our romance blossomed the way of many new amours of that age. We spent as much time together as possible, both in our social group and alone, showering each other with so much love and support that eventually we melded into one. She was my other half, and I hers, and at the time there was no way we could foresee it ending.
After returning from airforce service, Joe had a paradigm shift:
Breaking free from parochial view of the world
And so I returned to Bolton in September 1955. Once again, I took my place in the family business. Many things had changed in those two years away, myself included. I’d finally broken free of the parochial mentality that insulated you from a view of the wider world. I could see beyond the smoking mill towers of Bolton, the redbrick Victoriana and the preordained treadmill of a Lancashire lifespan – birth, labour, death – interspersed with football devotion on the first day of the weekend, religious veneration the next.
Leave your comfort zone
I now knew there was a big, wide world out there, that the focus of my yearning for attention, praise and approval had turned 180 degrees from my inner sanctum to the outer world. I wanted to prove myself, be part of the global evolution; I just wasn’t sure how yet, even though it was right under my nose.
There were so many things we could have done that would have made a difference, but again they refused to listen. To them we were just two young kids trying to make a mark, thinking we knew it all, that we could teach the masters.
My dad and uncle were trapped in a bubble of complacency, oblivious to the shifting commercial scene. 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.
Expansion was out of the window. It was hard enough maintaining the status quo. They couldn’t agree on anything, from where to order leather to what packaging should be used for the shoes. For every decision that had to be made, the other broth- er had a counterargument, essentially causing delay after delay in whatever action was needed.
Joe and his brother Jeff broke away from family business to start Mercury:
Go Backwards to move Forward
The only way of raising enough money to be able to rent a factory was to sell my bungalow. This would mean Jean and I moving back in with her parents for a while until we located a suitable factory and could find somewhere else to call home. Lodging with the in-laws was not something I particularly yearned for, especially after getting used to cosy family life in our own home. But, again,
I knew it was necessary to first go backwards before we could move forwards.
Jean’s Uncle Loan
It was a further loan of £500 from Jean’s uncle that supplied a modicum of stability to our wobbling ship. He thoroughly believed in Mercury and was happy to provide the money interest free. Such was his enthusiasm for our exploits, and possibly also because of a burning desire to see his money re- turned, he would regularly turn up at the factory on his bike and ask if we needed him to do anything.
Along with luck and timing, it was the people I encountered who made the difference between moderate achievement and monstrous success.
Mercury already registered
Mercury is a registered name of Lotus and Delta, a division of the British Shoe Corporation,’ he said. I turned back to him. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Mercury has already been registered,’ he said calmly. ‘Oh.’ ‘Yes. Oh,’ he repeated. ‘So what do I do?’ ‘You have two options. You can buy the name from the British Shoe Corporation, or you can challenge their regis- tration, because of their lack of use. They call themselves Lotus and Delta, not Mercury.’
I flopped into my armchair and grabbed the first book I could reach from half a dozen titles filed on a small bookshelf. I smiled. It was an American Webster’s New School and Office Dictionary, which I had accepted with feigned gratitude as a prize at an annual athletics event when I was seven. I let the pages riffle through my fingers then stopped, opened a random page. I ran my index finger down the columns… clum, clumber spaniel, clump – God no! I opened another page…mamushi… I mouthed the word repeatedly and looked up. It had a nice ring to it, was pleasing to say… but people would think it was Japanese. My finger scrolled down… mamzer, man. I took a swig of beer and riffled to another section… red- wood, redye, ree.
Hindsight can make any brand name seem like a stroke of marketing genius.
My finger paused on the next word. There was a vague as- sociation between athletic shoes and the definition: ‘a light colored antelope; reebok’. Hmmm. Reebok. It was short, catchy, easy to pronounce. Reebok. It suggested light, but fast, agile. Reebok. Reebok. Reebok. I liked that. I wrote it down. Only nine more possible names to find… I searched the dictionary, wrote down nine more animal-related contenders –Cheetah, Falcon, Cougar etc. – and fired off a letter to Mr Ellis in Manchester.
I wanted to be challenged, to take on not just local companies, but world brands. I wanted to prove to myself that I could win.
Study your Industry
I was an avid reader of all the sporting goods magazines. I had to be. It was the best way of keeping up with the latest trends.
It was the Foster culture, a misnomer if ever there was one. The only ‘fostering’ done was to look after the wellbeing of my business. The nurturing of my family had become secondary. It was the way it had been with my own dad, whose priority had been his social life at the pub. Now I was following the same path, the price of which I had yet to pay.
Fear of Losing it
My thinking time at weekends was essential for Reebok’s progress, but it was a sacrifice of family time that, although of my doing, meant it was Jean and the kids who suffered the most. There’s no denying that I was preoccupied with a business that consumed every waking moment, often while asleep as well.
That’s not to say I’m defending my actions; it was just the way the company had grown and was still growing. I was juggling so many balls that, if I lost my concentration for just a second, I feared it would all come tumbling down. I was already a prisoner of my own rising success, a real danger for any flourishing entrepreneur.
Dealing with Gatekeepers
As is the way with many quests in stories, fables and folklore, the journey along that winding road often involves encounters with gatekeepers, people who hold the keys that enable you to continue towards your destiny. Without these people, the road becomes a never-ending circle, like a roundabout without exits. The challenge for protagonists along this journey is that, although they meet a lot of people, they don’t know which ones hold the keys. They don’t know what they look like, or where they’re based. It’s often fate – or good fortune – that enables the encounter.
Even then they don’t know if they’re false guides, ready to lead them along the wrong path even if they have the best intentions in mind. There are endless obstacles that could de-rail the protagonist, so it’s a minor miracle when everything comes together and the next door is opened. There’s only one way to find the right key holder, and that’s to put yourself in as many situations as you can, where you get to meet as many people as possible.
Networking, Luck and Patience
Networking can be a numbers game. Sometimes you’re lucky and meet the right person at the right time within minutes. Sometimes it can take years. But you have to fully believe that the gatekeeper is out there somewhere, and it’s your job to find him or her.
No matter how well you plan and make contingency plans, external factors could easily derail you at any time.
Maybe it was the power of Hollywood, the influence of Ginger Rogers. 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. It was time to be the reebok – nimble, streamlined and adaptable, always setting the pace and forever elusive, keeping one step ahead of competitors.
In my mind, I was laser-focused. I could see the success, feel the glory.
Feeling alone in vision – Partners not seeing his vision
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 con- trary arguments. ‘It costs too much’, ‘There’s too much risk’, ‘We’re out of our comfort zone’. I’d heard them all re- cently, 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.
Cultural Difference – USA vs Britain
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.
In business, you have to use all the weapons you’ve got when you’re going onto the battlefield, even if they’re not strictly your own.
Losing Brother to Cancer
Jeff had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was having an emergency operation the next morning. In the meantime, he’d arranged for a friend to run the factory in his absence. If I was floored from jet lag, I was devastated when I got the news. How could someone as fit and healthy as Jeff get cancer?
Dead at 47
I never saw my brother again. A few days later, Jeff died from complications following the operation.
Jeff and I had been a natural team. We had both taken the hard decision to leave our family business, J. W. Foster & Sons, twenty-two years earlier. We had created Reebok from nothing, in a run-down factory in Bury, and although it was still struggling cash-wise in the UK, we had finally got a foot in the door on the other side of the Atlantic, where the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow lay.
Together we had educated ourselves for it, worked long and hard, suffered when seemingly insurmountable obstacles had arisen. We had both battled legal challenges, sales drying up, and the collapse of our revenue provider, but as brothers and partners we had always found a way through and Jeff deserved to see the outcome.
I needed him there to share the successes, mourn the losses. I needed him to run the factory, to find remedies when spikes in demand put impossible strains on the pro- duction line, then subsequent lulls forced even more pain on the staff who had to be laid off temporarily. I needed him to be the anchor while I was away, the voice of reason, the practical problem-solver. But, most of all, I needed him to be my brother, my rock. And now, without him, I felt fearful, like a tightrope walker without a safety net.
Business is supposed to be fun andenjoyable. There’s no point in doing it if it’s not.
Every obstacle, every problem, every challenge had provided a lesson, something that I could take away and use to my advantage in the future: having the courage to walk away from J. W. Foster & Sons; learning to live with the worry while waiting to find out if we were going to be closed down over the unpaid name registration bill; taking advantage of that first opportunity to visit America and the NSGA; being forced to find a way forward after the collapse of Lawrence Sports; learning patience through Shu Lang and his incessant letters; learning to trust my gut instinct after that first meeting with Paul Fireman; and now, knowing that Reebok was not about me, or Jeff – it was about the success of the company.
What I had learned over and over was that this business required finance and availability of the product. Thanks to Stephen, we now had the finance, so we were at least in the game. In the end, getting the product had proved to be harder. We had been blessed with timely good fortune, and not for the first time in Reebok’s history. If Nike hadn’t taken their eye off the ball at that precise moment, they would have kept all their production lines running at full capacity in South Korea and we wouldn’t have been able to get enough product.
In 1984 I agreed to sell the intellectual property (brand) of Reebok International Limited, plus all the shares of Reebok Sports Limited, to a new company set up by Stephen’s Pentland Group. This new company now be- came Reebok International Ltd, licenced for the USA, Canada and Mexico, with me employed as president of the International Division, looking after the rest of the world.
The twentieth of October 1988 was the last day that my heart would ever be whole. I was at a Reebok event in the USA when the news came through. Kay had died suddenly. There was no gradual or even rapid decline. Had I known she was at death’s door, obviously I wouldn’t have travelled. She had just slipped away.
If Kay’s death had taught me anything, it was that spending time with people you cared for – and who cared for you – was truly the most important thing.
Unfortunately, and somewhat understandably, Jean’s tolerance for my single-minded focus on business waned in the later years and our marriage reached the end of the road in 1993.
Finally, at the risk of sounding like an Oscar winner, I’d like to thank Lady Luck. Without her on my side, none of this would have been possible. Every entrepreneur, without exception, needs a little good fortune their way. I had plenty, and from the bottom of my heart, I hope you do too.
I guess some people set a cap on their goals, while others seek the moon and beyond. I think you have to know from the outset exactly what you’re striving for depending on your mindset. For me, it was taking the company as far as it could go, and, for that, it had to enter the big arena to take on the A-list sports shoemakers.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.