Joe Foster, Reebok
Coming from a long line of shoemakers, it seemed only natural that Joe Foster follow in his family’s footsteps, but instead Foster decided to push his horizons even further and create a brand that would become a legacy. Listen in as Foster shares his incredible journey through generations of shoemakers to bring us the global brand we know today: Reebok.
Foster’s entrepreneurial journey is nothing short of inspiring, as he took the company through ups and downs, broke into competitive markets, and created a niche in the market for his brand. Acquired by Adidas in 2005 for a whopping $3.8 billion, Foster has since retired and authored a book: “Shoemaker: The Untold Story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand”.
In this astounding interview, Nathan Chan and Foster discuss the entrepreneurial journey, and everything Foster has learned along the way when it comes to business and brand.
- From a family of shoemakers and cobblers, how Joe Foster’s passion for shoes and entrepreneurship began from an early age
- The early days of Reebok, then named J.W Foster and Sons, and manufacturing post WW2
- Breaking into a new market, competing with Adidas and Nike, and how Foster carved a niche for Reebok
- How Runner’s World gave Reebok the opportunity they had been waiting for
- Becoming mainstream, and what solidified Reebok as a brand
- How Reebok was acquired by Adidas in 2005 for $3.8 billion
- Foster’s book “Shoemaker: The Untold Story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand”
- Foster’s advice to entrepreneurs and why they need to embrace complications and make them their own
Full Transcript of Podcast with Joe Foster
Nathan: So the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Joe: How did I get my job? I created it.
Nathan: How did you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today? How did you start Reebok?
Joe: Well, I mean, that’s a bigger question than you think. I started Reebok with my brother back in 1958. But it’s a family story. And the family story really starts with my grandfather back in 1895. At age 35, he made himself a pair of spiked running shoes. And in 1895, that was right at the beginning. He was either… some people say invented, I’m not too sure, but I’m pretty sure he was a pioneer, really was a pioneer. He was a cobbler, and he learned his trade from his grandfather, which goes back even further of course. But his grandfather was a cobbler in Nottingham. Joe lived in Bolton, which is about 60 miles apart. But he must have gone to see his grandfather because he preferred to be a cobbler than a confectioner. His father was a confectioner.
When he’s done with his grandfather, we’re pretty sure that [inaudible 00:04:43] his grandfather used to repair, being a cobbler, repair shoes, but also repaired cricket boots. And in those days, cricket boots had spikes in the bottom. We’re pretty sure he said to grandfather, “Why do you have spanks in the bottom of these boots?” And grandfather obviously said, it gives them grip when they’re batting, when they’re bowling, when they fielding, they need grip on grass, and this is what gives them grip.” Probably that was that light bulb moment then for grandfather. He was a member of the local athletics club in Bolton and not a good runner, but he enjoyed it. Made himself a pair of spikes there, a nice pair of shoes. And so with spikes at the bottom. And of course it moved him up the order when it came to racing, and he came a very unlikely second.
Now he wasn’t a big lad. He was not a big lad at all. So I’m sure his teammates must have said, “Hey Joe, what are those things you’re wearing?” And he probably had to admit it, own up to it. So that started his business because everybody wanted a pair of spikes to improve their running. That was in 1895. But 1900, he had his own business. So he was a cobbler and he did repairs, but he also had… and the front of his shop, he bought [inaudible 00:06:01] shop in Bolton. On one side of the shop, all about the price for cobblers, and on the other side, he also may have running shoes. So if you want a pair of running shoes, you’d buy a pair, often then 10 shillings and six pence, which I don’t know how that relates to the Australian dollar, but I’m sure it’s less than a dollar. That’s a very quite low price in those days.
By 1904 though, he actually had [inaudible 00:06:27] in Glasgow, [inaudible 00:06:31]. It was an hour race. And during that one hour race, he broke three world records, which is fantastic. Grandfather also got gold medals of Olympics during the first decade of the 20th century. Second decade, more or less wiped out with the war. World War one, they’re repairing army boots, and they’re scrubbing all the mother flounders off the boots and just repairing them.
But of course we get then to the 1920s. That was his [inaudible 00:07:01]. We have a letterhead which shows all the football teams that he was making football boots and trainers to the… You probably can’t name any that weren’t on the list in the United Kingdom. Man United, Man City, Arsenal, you name it. They’re all on this. They were making their shoes. Plus the fact they were supplying all the Olympic teams with the shoes, and he was the official supplier to the Olympics in Antwerp, in 1920. During the 20s, he had loads and loads of athletes winning gold medals. You may have heard of the film ‘Chariots Of Fire.’
Joe: Chariots Of Fire immortalized three athletes. Eric Lidell, Lord Burley, and Arthur… Was it Arthur? Harold … Abrahams. Harold Abrahams. They were immortalised in this film, but they wore Joe Foster’s shoes. So you see that business was where… He knew how to influences business. Unfortunately he died in 1933, and I wasn’t born until 1935. but I did happen to be born on his birthday, which was quite a coincidence. And my grandmother insisted I’m called Joe. So I am named after my grandfather because I was born on his birthday.
Four years, into my life, World War two. I’m only four when World War two comes up. And I’m 10 when its over in 1945. Okay I… I mean, we didn’t feel any difference. There was a war on. Blackout everything, we could see bombs dropping on Manchester. That [inaudible 00:08:49]… you’re a kid, so what? This is what happens. Is this not normal? I’m only four, five, six, seven, whatever it is.
But after the war, of course we… I think three years after the war, 1948, Jeff, my brother, he joined the family company. I went to college and stayed on a bit longer. It was 1952 before I joined the Joe Foster company. One year later, while Jeff and I are off doing national service. It’s compulsory, we’re conscripted for national service for two years. So we’ll leave the company for two years. Jeff spends his time in Germany. What does he see? Adidas, Puma, he sees a different side to the business.
We come back, and 1955 we’re back in the family company and saying, “Look, guys…” My father and uncle are still running the company by that time there, but they’re feuding, they’re falling out with each other, they don’t talk to each other. One is doing hands on shoes. The other one is doing machine made shoes. We can’t get them to speak. In fact, we’re pulling them apart, more often they’re fighting than they’re working together. Okay, we see this as a failing company, they’re making the same shoes that grandfather made in 1933, and they continued into the 40s. A World War intervened again. Which didn’t help as far as being an athletic shoe business. But after that, they’d not really got together to come back and say, well, what is this business now that we have after 1945 was over? Where are we going? No, it was just continuing with what had been there.
And then some …… representatives, they didn’t have any agents, they didn’t have any marketing plans, they had nothing. What came through the door, they just made it and sold it. And they’d become quite general. They’d become quite well known through the Commonwealth. I suppose in those days it was the empire, but the Commonwealth, this is what we would be selling. They would be selling shoes, Joe Foster’s, into Australia, New Zealand, Canada, you name any Commonwealth country. In fact, we used to get letters from Commonwealth countries, a lot of people, a lot in Africa. They used to send, because it was a way of learning English. We used to write letters for the catalogues, and they used to send catalogues off. Amazing that they had this wall next to the desk. We used to cut the stumps off these envelopes, that came in from all around the world and stick them on the wall. I wish I could have [inaudible 00:11:28] incredible, but we don’t have that wall.
Anyway, the history of the Foster company is fantastic, but father and uncle just didn’t get on together. So by 1958, we got tired of trying to get them to learn. We’d been to college to, not so much learn a bit more about how you make shoes, because all we knew was how to make athletic shoes, but also for the contacts. For the knowledge of the technology of making shoes. And we made an awful lot of contacts, which became very useful when we decided in 1958, we were leaving. Set ourselves in the town next six miles down the road, we set ourselves up. All secondhand machinery, a very old building, an old brewery, and it was only one floor that we could use and that was the middle floor.
Bottom floor had no windows at all. It must’ve been something to do with brewing beer or whatever. The top floor, the roof was shuttered. There was no… The roof was useless, and it was raining through all the time. So the top floor was occupied with buckets, tins, and everything to catch the water. And once a week we’d have to go up there and empty these out. So we had the middle floor, and it wasn’t very secure. So the machine was round the sides, just to make sure that we didn’t drop through the middle. So we set up and then we started our company as Mercury Sports Footwear. Mercury Sports Footwear, very nice, and we’re doing quite well. And we started as cycling shoes of all the things. We didn’t want to compete too much with the Foster family, so we would do cycling shoes.
For 18 months we were doing quite nicely, and our accountant said, “Well, you better register your name.” Oh, right. Okay. Why would we need to do that? “Well, you’re now called called Mercury and if other people start making cycle shoes in the name Mercury, they’re trading off of the good work that you’re doing, and you’d have a great deal of trouble stopping them if you’re not registered. It’d become a court… It could get to court, and that would cost money.” Okay. So we had to use a patent agent, and a patent agent, they’re the people who would check out whether something’s registered. And so we use this guy and he checked it out and he said, “No Mercury is preregistered. You can’t have it for footwear.” And that was Lotus and Delta I believe. They were part of British shoe cooperation, big company.
They offered it to us for 1000 pounds. We didn’t have 1000 pounds. We were a fledgling company. We were barely sort of eating, never mind being able to buy a name. So this patent agent said, “Oh, you’ll have to change it.” And he said that, “Bring me 10 names, not one. We’ve got to check these. And we don’t want to time because it’s such a low named preregister.” He pointed through a window to a sign. The sign was Kodak. And I said, “Why Kodak?” “[inaudible 00:14:20] some made up name.” Says, “Doesn’t belong to anybody.” And he said “It’s their name, they make it up. If you can make one up, fine, its great.”
So we went back in the office and we’re sitting down, and meant to trying to think of a new name for your company. So we had bird names, animal names. And during 1943, I was only eight years old, in a race, I’d won a race. And the prize for this race was a dictionary, a Webster’s dictionary. And a Webster’s dictionary is an American dictionary, not an English dictionary. I don’t know how they came out with American dictionary became the winner prize. However, whilst we were looking for these names, I liked the letter R, I said “Nice strong letter, that.” So I pick up my Webster’s American dictionary, and I’m thumbing through it. And I came across Reebok, R, double E-B-O-K. A small South African gazelle. Well, great. That goes to the top of the list. Right.
So I go along to the patent agent and say, “Look, you’ve got your 10 names here, but I want that one.” We’ve got to be in love with this. It’s our future. We just loved the idea that we could be Reebok.
As …… came back, the only one that was free that we could use. We had a couple of not objections, we had a couple of considerations that the patent agent thought somebody might challenge them. One was called Reebo, but they were a woman’s underwear company, which he said, “No, they won’t bother.” And it’s only phonetics we’re talking about at this point. The other one was Rail Brook. Rail Brook were Tootles. Tootles were a manufacturer of shirts for men. And he said, “But that’s all kind of right, because I’m their agents as well. So we won’t complain.” So we got Reebok. But the registrar said, “Well, I can only put you in the B section.” What’s the B section? The B section means that if anybody comes along to me and say, “I want to make ……, stop them.” Oh, right. And you can’t stop them either. Right. However, 20 years later, the registrar came back again to say, “We’ve moved you to the A section,” He said, “because right now Reebok is a shoe, it’s no longer an animal.” So that’s how we became Reebok.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. crazy. And it was a family… So it was a Foster family hand-making running shoe business that your father passed to you which was going bankrupt. Right?
Joe: Well, they didn’t owe any money, but they were not making many shoes. So what was happening with the company is that the orders were coming fewer and fewer, and they used to make track shoes for schools. And those reports started in the early part of the season, for us that would be March and April. And those started to get smaller and smaller. They also did the rugby boots, and they had quite a decent business, but it was just being eroded away. It was going. And that business was… we saw it, it was going down. The thing is there was nothing wrong with the business, but they weren’t going forward. And it eventually it would fail. It would fail because the orders would just finish altogether.
That’s why we left. And I think it was about 18 months after we left that… because my father had said to us, “Look, when [Billard 00:18:02] gone and I have gone, this company is going to be yours.” And I was saying, “Well dad, we don’t want you to go, but this business will be gone before you go.” And we’ll be far too old to do anything about it. I’d say about 18 months after we had left, Billard died. My father went on until 1976. So we left in 58, and we were waiting until 1976, for my father to go. And there would definitely have been no business at all. And when we left, all the football teams that grandfather had been dealing with, they were no longer dealing with them. So they missed an opportunity though. So we… It was obvious to us that, why had we we lost this opportunity? What had happened? And when we left, the football business was then in the hands of Adidas, Puma, and one or two others, too difficult for us to break into.
We needed more influence, but we were good on athletics. We were okay. We got into athletics. And I used to do a ….. I’d go around to retailers and present my products and Reebok, and a retailer, he would look at me and say, “Who’s Reebok?” “You know what, we’re this, we’re doing something, whatever.” And he’d say, “Well, I’ve got Adidas, and I’ve got……, why do I need Reebok?” That stuck on. Why do I need Reebok? He didn’t need Reebok. As …… as he was good to, yeah. He just didn’t need it. So I realised then that I shouldn’t be selling to a retailer. I should be selling to a consumer. I needed to sell to athletes. Those are my customers. And if the customer wanted it, they would ask for it, and the retailer would have to stock it. So he became a facilitator as it were. To me, then that’s what the retail trade was. They were facility.
But fortunately in the UK, we had the three A’s, the Amateur Athletic Association, and they had a handbook, and every athletic club in the country were in this book. The name of the secretary and his address, A letter, few letters went out of there. I think maybe 200 or 300 letters went out of that, and I offered a 15% discount, that if anybody wants to buy, or anybody in the club wanted to buy a shoe, a 15% discount to buy direct. Or we could appoint agents within the club and the agent would get the 15%. So, right, I got a lot of agents. A lot came to me and our business really took off very well. I even got phone calls then from retailers who were obviously quite close to the club and knew you’re selling direct to the athletic club. If you stop doing that, we’ll stock your shoes
Well that’s a victory. But I said, “Well, no, this is how we’re selling these days. We only offer a small discount. If you want to buy them, you’ll get them at wholesale price. And we’ll send everybody to you. Don’t worry about it, but we’re not stopping our [inaudible 00:21:19].” Which was fantastic. This is growing nice. But as the athletics business in the UK small compared to football. And if I wanted to get my business bigger, I had to get to the States. The United States, at every college, every university there was coach, and coach was God. And if you get to to the… if you’ve any athletics ability, you went to university on that, same with the colleges. So that was a big market. And I knew that was a big market.
So in 1968, the British government in their wisdom decided they’d like to assess the sport straight to export, start exporting. So what we’ll do, we will pay for a stand, we’ll pay for return fare, and we’ll pay half of your hotel bill for you to go to America, to the [NSGA 00:22:11] show, which is the national sporting goods show in Chicago in February. …..February, it’s cold, cold, cold, cold in Chicago. I’ve never been this cold in my life, but it’s cold. However, the show was brilliant. I got a lot of people interested and they said, “Where do we buy your shoes?” And I said, “England.”…… “New England?” “No, no, no, England across the water.” “Well, well, no, if you can get somebody in America, we’ll buy your shoes.”
Okay. So the same thing, what I needed to do was to get them to want my shoes, but they didn’t want them, they didn’t look very interested. So I needed to keep. At that time in America, running as a category was growing and growing fast. I mean, it was driven by Runner’s World, which was the magazine. And that magazine, that was a Bible. So we have the ties in the magazine, which we got some nice direct sales into America, but this is not what we wanted, wanted distribution. And this is 1968. It took me until 1979 to get that distribution. But in between time with Runner’s World promoting running, and running growing incredibly. Along came Nike, and Nike grew with this growth of running. Nike grew tremendous, and Runner’s World started then to rate the shoes. And you could be in the number one shoe at a time, that’s about two or three years, the number one shoe, the demand for that shoe was immense.
So big that nobody could get the shoes and the retailer just couldn’t get it. Nike couldn’t make them if it was Nike, I think might be Nike new balance, but Nike couldn’t make the shoes quicker. They were buying them from abroad. So of course you got to set things up. So six months, nine months before the stocks really came in to fill that demand. After three years, [Bob Anderson 00:24:18] had more or less been battered to submission. So you can’t do this to the retail trade. And so he changed it, and he changed it to a star rating. So if you’ve got five stars, it could be three or four shoes would get five stars and they’re the top shoes. So instead of just a one shoe getting all demand, this would be spread across three or four shoes, so much better. So I realised that what we needed was a five-star shoe. And if we could do that, that would be the key.
So I worked on that, work hard on that, and came up with a final statute. By 1978, we had the shoe at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. And we did well. We got some gold medals. We had capes, we had a few top athletes in our shoes. So by February of ’79, I had my shoe. I got some good results on it, knew where we’re going. And I exhibited this at Chicago in 1979. I had came up, came along, and they wanted 25,000 pairs. That’s about six months work for our factory. But I knew that if we got someone to America we’d need help, and I already had help put one side though with Bata, I had a good friend at Bata. We could get some production. But also we wanted a better price, which was not surprising because we knew at that time, production was going to the far East. There you could get the shoe made for less than half the price we could make them in the UK, or even Bata. So we were a bit prepared, or getting prepared for that.
And so we now had to wait from February to August, when the new ratings came out. And [Paul Feinman 00:26:03] had also shown good interest in February, and said, “I’d love to distribute shoes, but we need a five-star shoe, we need to get… That would help us get onto the market.” So in August, early August, I think maybe in the end of July, I phoned Paul because I knew him at Runner’s World [inaudible 00:26:25] but [inaudible 00:26:28] get a magazine. An hour later he came back, and he came back and said, “Joe, Aztec, five stars. Fantastic.” That’s it, we’ve made it. He said, “But also, your track spike and your racing shoe, both got five stars as well.” So we got three, five star shoes. So we really had the key. And with Paul Feinman, he was the door, he was a gateway.
Nathan: Interesting. So for a long time you were producing the shoes locally. In the 1978, how many shoes would you move per year? And how many people… How big was your team, and so what did staff look like back then?
Joe: Well, back then we probably had about 25 staff, and we were making probably 2000 pairs a month. It wasn’t big, …… like that, ….. 2000 a week. It wasn’t very big. But I mean, I’m looking at, look, if we’re going to expand our company, we know we’re going to have better volumes, and we know we have good at best price. So it was with that knowledge, and with that knowledge, just having got America on board with Paul Feinman, he is ready to go. And of course, regrettably, we had this young …… Jeff in Florence and became ill, and he died. So right at that time, and it was quite incredible time that we really… Because Jeff would have been going down to Bata, taken the production, because he looked after the factory. What he wanted to do was to look after the production factory. He was very happy doing that.
I could do everything else, which is what I was doing. So Jeff would have then taken the transfer packages down to Bata, and stay with Bata, getting them to work. Unfortunately, because he wasn’t able to do that, we had to get a young guy from Bata who came and did some production, but Bata changed the shoe. Bata gave us a big problem. It was a big problem in another way it was a bit of luck because they had their own rubber factory at Bata. And EVA was a new cushion material, and it was made the same as rubber and made in the same factory, but they hadn’t had any experience with this. So they’d obviously, they made a batch which didn’t cure good enough. And so the shoes at the centre of America where, 20,000 pairs went to America, and a big proportion of those shoes, they were failing because it was collapsing. The mid sole.
They end up… Paul was… disaster but more than that, they changed the shape of the shoe as well. We’d had an aggressive look to the shoes. The silhouette was more aggressive, and they changed it because they were shoe producers and what they’d done to make it easier for their sawing machines to saw around. Instead of have these nice square aggressive look. So big complainant by Paul, Paul [Tomatillos 00:29:28]. This problem, we came over, went to Bata. Paul never paid for those shoes. So what he was doing, he was getting the orders. Anything that came back, he just replaced. So that gave him sometime to do work because Bata would give him credit. But when we went to the far East, there’s no credit. You bank could really got to back you, or you got to have the cash.
So you need the letter of credit and Paul had no history. The bank wouldn’t lend him the money. We were not big enough to lend the money. So it gave time to find somebody, and the person that we found, in fact Paul found him, was [Stephen Ruben 00:30:07]. Stephen Ruben was Pentland industries, they were in London, but they were all there… He had a number of companies, and one of them was Asco. And Asco was a sourcing company. And they, Asco, were out in the far East sourcing the company’s, sourcing shoes. So for a piece of the company, Stephen Ruben at Pentland, gave Paul credit line. And was very fortunate he had a credit line because running shoes were doing very nicely. At that time, Stephen wasn’t interested in Reebok at all. He just felt like funding Paul in America, Paul would do some selling to the big stores in America for all brands, which Stephen would produce in the far East.
However, there were only shoe business …… When [Harland Martinez 00:31:00], who was a tech rep in Los Angeles, his wife was going to aerobic classes with her girlfriends. And they would come back really excited, really happy about this, and Harland was asking what’s it all about. And frankly told him what, “We’re exercising to music.” ….the girls loved it. Harland wanted a piece of that and he went down there to have a look what’s going on. And so the instructor, an instructor wearing tennis shoes, half the class were wearing tennis shoes, the rest, no shoes at all. Nice, we thought, what an opportunity, why don’t we make a shoe for aerobics? So he went up to Paul Feinman in Boston and said, “Paul, this is a nice new category that is growing here. Why don’t we make an aerobic shoe? A glove lather, and soft cushion, and the ladies, they’ll love it.”
Paul said, “No, come on. We’re doing well with running. We can’t play around with something a few girls are sort of taking part in Los Angeles.” Harland wasn’t easily put off. And he went round to the back and had a word with the production people. And it persuaded them to make him 200 pairs of shoe using glove leather, all white, which they did. Harland gave these to the instructors and some of the class. And all of a sudden we were something… something changed, this was a total change. What had happened is that Nike, Adidas, they were known to be male, sweaty. This was for women, we’d been on the market two or three years though, we were known a bit in running, but generally across America, nobody had heard of us.
We became the woman’s shoe, a woman’s fitness shoe. And that took off. Being in LA, it was picked up by film stars, what have it. Cybill Shepherd wore them, to pick up her Emmy. We had Jane Fonda using them in her videos, and Sigourney Weaver eventually started be on …. made her a special pair of stompers. So it started to grow. It took a few years, as anything would do, but once it took off, that was it, it went wild. And we had it go from something like $9 million to $30 million up to $90 million, then $300 million, $900 million. All in successive years, their growth was incredible.
Joe: This was being supported, financed by Stephen Ruben. But the other biggest problem of course, how do you get production for that sort of volume? Unfortunately, and then again, it’s where your luck comes in. Fortunately Nike were having trouble, they’d hit a peak and they were coming down a bit. So they were pulling back their production out of some of the factories and Reebok were able to get it. So that was absolute luck, because otherwise the business would have starved the market
Nathan: Crazy. So in the ’80, that’s when you got into aerobics?
Joe: ’82, when it starts. Yeah, yeah.
Nathan: Yeah. And that’s what really accelerated the growth of the brand?
Joe: Absolutely, yes. It accelerated grow because it went… I mean, the influence was incredible. When you get the film stars were in it. And we had Wendell Niles who would also in Los Angeles and he got us involved in a pro celebrity tennis tournament in Monte Carlo. So we were hitting all these areas, people, places, that were so impressionable for people. And so the influence was incredible. It’s pro celebrity. We have people like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, you name them all, there were so many of these people with, John Forsyth, the Jane Seymour, they were all wearing the shoes. So this was incredible influential, and it just made… But it grew with the company. By the time I left in the end of 1989, I retired.
That time we were about 3.8 billion. And I had been putting on distribution throughout the world. And I put the handlers on for Australia and new Zealand. I spent some time down there with them. And then we got to a certain point where all I’m doing is, I’m at 35,000 feet. I’m flying between different countries. I’m going around the world about twice a year and visiting people. I arrive at an airport, I’m picked up by a limousine. I go to the best hotels and I’m sitting in meetings. And by that time, yeah, we’ve become number one. We’d overtaken Nike, overtaken Adidas, and become the number one company.
I thought, well, it’s no longer the chase. This is no longer the journey. For me, the company now is big, really big. We have lawyers looking after the brand, we have accountants sort of making sure that everything works. And so the energy and the toil of building that brand, it had gone, and it’s something then that I thought for me, I just don’t want to be just waving a flag and being an ambassador. I’m still an ambassador, but I just retired from the company, from a permanent job.
Nathan: So you still remained on the board or something though, right?
Joe: No, I retired totally from it. But it is a bit like the Eagles and Hotel California, you can check out, but you can never leave. I was always brought back for something. And so, no, I didn’t go on the board or anything. I didn’t want to do that. Because again, you’re really talking sort of posting numbers and just crazy. So for me, it was stepping back. And yes, they will bring me over because when there’s a “Whats this?” Also the IRS became interested because the brand is really held in the UK and is still in the UK, the brand. But the operation is in America. And I think the IRS wanted to pick up a bit more of the money from that.
So there were numerous things, a lot … different various places, it happens when you get big. Yeah. I used to think that, oh, when we get big, but no need for solicitors, we’ll be too big. No, it just got more and more. Because I use solicitors for a different, various things we’d escaped from, numerous, I would say numerous, problems that would have driven us under. So you need lawyers, and the lawyer that I had first used to make sure that we were still in business at one time, he was an intellectual property lawyer. And so I needed that. Going around the world, I needed an intellectual property lawyer to help do the deals. And was it a interest in time, but that I finished, it was time for me to go.
Nathan: Yeah, that makes sense. So, did you start any other businesses? What did you do?
Joe: Well for 3 years, I was happy to relax and sort of take it easy in Tenerife, and just let the world go by and play around with one or two things. But, I probably started to miss not being thirty-five thousand feet up. I think it had been a bit of a drug, that needing to be on an aeroplane, and needing to be flying somewhere. So it took a bit of a while to sort of settle down just totally relax. And for quite some time, that’s all I do. I used to go to all the NSGA shows, all the American shows in Europe, because the big of the big ones were in Europe, we used to go there. And that was [ISPO 00:39:29], I don’t think it’s ISPO anymore, is it? No, I mean, these things have changed, but we used to go and do that.
And as I say, the contact is always there. What happened a few years ago, probably four or five years ago now, a good thing that Adidas did, because Adidas of course have bought the company by then. The good thing Adidas did, was to set up an archive in Boston. And that was great, because I did a lot of stuff, bits and pieces, all hanging around in various places I had, and in the attic. And so it was good to get those into the archive because they had been very useful. So I have a good relationship now with the archive, and we usually get to Boston once a year, maybe more on occasion. Possibly next year we may go again to help promote the book, because the book is… it goes out over there now, and I’m going to try and give it some energy. Because that’s my next goal [inaudible 00:40:24] book to come the number one best seller. If we can do that, then yeah, we’ll have achieved something else.
Other than that, really it’s been, just driving through Europe. Travel has always been there, and so travelling through Europe. I go… we meet up with a lot of the distribution I put on my list, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain. So we travel, meet up with somebody, have an … couple of days, have nice meals, sit down, relax and drink some nice wine.
So life is not bad. It’s good to do that. For the last seven years I’ve been writing a book, and it’s not been all writing, but it surprised me it would take so long. Because as a shoemaker, I tended to put too many anecdotes in, too many think, well, this happened, no… Yeah, I’m persuaded and say, move in that way, do a bit this, do a bit different, get more emotion into it because you tend to… just well [inaudible 00:41:25] this happened or that happened. Just, no, let’s tell this as it really happened.
So needing help in it to get it there. And even once it’s finished, it takes about 18 months, two years, to get with the publishers, and to get them happy with the story. And to choose the name properly. Okay. So setting up the book, we have to do it right. And that took a while. So now we’re a bit locked down and with COVID, it’s not allowing us to travel much, but when it’s over, it’ll be interesting to travel. All the people that I put on as distributors, we’ve sent them all a book, and they’re all happy to be in that. So, yeah. Yeah. We’re busy, and its good.
Nathan: That’s awesome. So I’d love to kind of break down some of your journey, Joe, because you would have seen some, just crazy things, had some wild stories and some great lessons from your experience of building such a large well-known household name brand. So I’d love to know, what do you think it takes for people right now, where they might be building something, and they want to build a business of like the size that you’ve created, and a brand that is well-known as you, what do you think that that takes?
Joe: Well, it takes a lot of luck. And it takes stupidity maybe, because you’ve got to stick with it through everything, it’s belief. You really got to have belief that you’re doing things, and you will get there. And so many times, I had at least six attempts with distributors in America during the 11 years from Frisco and all of that to actually get in with Paul Feinman. And you learn lessons, you learn that… how do they sell? Because that’s the same lesson I had to learn in the UK. Just to sell to the retailer is not enough. You need to sell to the consumer.
So you need to get the consumer interested. So to do that, you’ve got to have influencers. Something has to influence them to buy. It’s like, I have to find out what a key is for your particular business. And today is so different. I mean, in my days we didn’t have mobile phones. We didn’t have computers. I mean, the most technological thing I had was a calculator. And that was it. So without that, I mean, I had to fly, I had to move. I had to go take the journeys. I don’t think you need to do that at the same now. I’m sure people still can travel, but main the way that Zoom and all these things have come on now, we can speak. You’re in Australia, you’re in Melbourne. I’m here in the middle of France, and this is brilliant. We don’t get in any breaks. Okay. Technology does at times let you down a bit, but what we can do with technology now is incredible. Plus all the technology and the product.
But yeah, you have to have belief in your product. And I believe you got to start when you’re young, because if you’re not young… When we started, I was 23, Jeff was 25. We were indestructible. What can go wrong? Let’s have a go at it. And nothing could go wrong. We were both too young for that to happen. We could stand a few knocks as we did with the name. And in fact, we’d only been four years into our business when I get a letter from Adidas, we started up, our silhouette started off with two stripes and a T bar. They thought that infringed the brand of three stripes. We were delighted. They’re taking notice, we’re here, we’ve arrived. And okay. So we have to change our silhouette, had to do a little bit of thinking, a little bit of help. And we came up with what is now known as the vector. It was the arrows shape on the side of the shoe.
And so, we now have a recognisable silhouette, and so you have to have something recognisable when you… Why do people want… and can people notice your shoe? Visibility to me is so important. Okay, we can get a lot of visibility on an athletic shoe, because you can put your name on, you can put your silhouette, but people can look at it, and not a lot of things in life you can do that with. But then once you’ve got that silhouette and that on your name, and you just keep pushing it, you’ve got to get that visibility. If you look at Ford. Ford have an oval with Ford written in it. And it’s never changed probably since Henry Ford had it designed or designed it himself. That continuous recognition.
When Adidas bought Reebok, they changed the lettering, and they started what they call the Delta. It was like a triangle, a Delta on the side of the shoe, instead of the… and silhouette we know now, which is vector. And of course, nobody knows it. Why should they? We’d had the Union Jack as well. And the Union Jack was fairly important to really developing our… This Paul Feinman wanted to use the Union Jack. I said, “We’re going to have trouble in the UK if you put Union Jack on a Korean shoe. Everybody’s going to jump down our throat saying you can’t have a Union Jack on.” “But in America,” he said, “everybody in America knows the Union Jack.” Which was like… Well, and that was it. Because he thought it would cost millions, millions to really get people to know the vector. [inaudible 00:47:12] in those days also the roads, the Star Crest, which is at two points, and it’s…
So you’ve got to find something which can be recognisable, unique. If we can get unique, difficult to get unique, but it’s still out there. And now with technology and where things are, I’m pretty sure it’s like you, you got your …. Not Founder with an E, you don’t … you get that recognisable… And I recognise it. I see it. We’re on social media, so I see your post coming up there. That’s the difference. And the fact that you were, and the fact that you… Yeah, that comes up every time. So it’s repetitive, it’s seeing this thing, and then it sticks. And what sticks? It’s not just Founder with the an E, it’s an R. And you colour the letter R, I think in different colours. I think I’ve seen it in red. And so I think it’s that little tweak, that little bit of difference.
So it’s possible. It’s out there. And what you’re doing, you’re obviously growing a tremendous brand, and that’s your brand name. So don’t play around with it. Don’t change the lettering. That just dilutes your brand. So for anybody starting off, they’ve got to try to do some very basic things. First of all, you need a good product. You’ve got a good product, you know it sells. So you got it right. But then people have to see why they’re buying it. ” Well, we’ve heard it there. We know that.”
And that just grows things. So things can grow if you’re willing to stick with it, and keep repeating the image. So anybody’s today… and I think everything moves a bit. Yeah. It may go out… It doesn’t go around in circles, it goes into spirals. So you seeing some things, the same thing, but at a different level. And so I think there’s anybody, anybody young. Yeah. If you’ve got ambition. Plus you have to love what you’re doing. You have to be in love with it. You have to have passion for it. If it’s just a job, if you’re just a nine till five, that’s all it will ever be, nine till five. And there won’t be that result. But yeah. Just keep going.
Nathan: I’m curious. Do you think it’s easier to start a business now compared to back when you started?
Joe: It’s always been easy to start a business, it’s succeeding in a business which is the difficult part. People are gonna have startups, depends what you’re really looking for. If you’re just looking for a living, and you’re happy to do that. That’s one thing. If you’ve got ambition and you look into the future and you think, “Wow, we could do this.” Or you could have the imagination and determination, so. I don’t think … the opportunities are different. I think the opportunities are really different, but they’re there, and there will be more and more and more. And I’m sure that COVID has given a lot of opportunities for some people.
Really, technology for one thing. And this has really come along. And [Darek Salion 00:50:30], all that is just grown immensely with COVID. And okay, some of it may dip, the retail street business may improve a bit. We all like to shop. We all have to go though, it’s entertainment, we’re going shopping, is going around stores and things. So we all need a bit of that. You can see a lot on television, but where is this going to? Where are we going with technology? Are we going into some three-dimensional work? You’re almost there. We know now watching sport, I think it’s sport… And cricket, I think cricket has come on tremendously because we’re used to sort of look and you’d see something running up to the stumps. So you think, did he hit that ball? You don’t know where he’s hitting until you see somebody running to catch it. Now you’re right in there, and they can slow it down, they can show the… it’s incredible what… I think cricket has been probably one of the best examples of how the business has changed. We have the dog in the picture.
I was just…. And I think that’s what people have got to really pick up on. And with the technology and photography and cinematography, it’s incredible. So I think that there are so many opportunities, which no, is not my time. My time was way back before we had anything like this. So to think where you could end it, it’s immense. The world is growing bigger. All the world is going smaller in a way, because we can cover it. We can get through hours, I don’t have any miles where we? At 12,000 or something like that. This is brilliant. We could be in the next room, is that good. So you don’t need to spend all that time journeying, but what you do need is you need the enthusiasm, and you need to know the right people to talk to. The right lessons listen to.
You can listen to a lot of things. A lot of people have a lot to say, but is it useful? Can you make anything of it that… I can tell you how to make some shoes back in 1950s, but we they’re no use to today. That’s why my book says I’m a lousy shoemaker because my shoemaking… We made good shoes back in those days, very good. But today… I’ve gone onto the side, onto the building of a brand, and it wasn’t a matter of selling Joe Foster, it was a matter of selling Reebok, the name. And what, if you can sell that you will become successful. And I think we made it.
Nathan: So we have to work towards wrapping up Joe. You’ve shared a wealth of how you’ve built this incredible brand. And I’m curious as well, do you have any stories or any really critical lessons that you’d like to pass on with our audience around business building, and building it like a well-known brand?
Joe: Well, I think you have to be very much in touch with the consumer, and you also have to know that whatever you do, you’ll get a problem. You’ll get many problems. But with a problem you’ve got to see if we can make, turn that into an advantage. And we always used to think, how can we turn it thing to an advantage. So Adidas complained about what we’re doing. So we ended up with a better silhouette. Again, I’m trying to sell my product. I have to go direct to the consumer. I have to go away from the common route, or the volume route, to get to the consumer first. And we had the… I think one of the important things is that whenever you get somebody asking you a question, and we used to get it by email, we used to get it by different things. A lot of people, if they haven’t gotten the answer, don’t respond.
But the important thing is, and I used to say this with our business, look, people around the world, they were all selling Reebok, they’re all part of Reebok. And if somebody asked you a question because we have people who look after different terrorists. If they ask you a question, respond. If you have not got the answer, still respond and say, “Well, good question. Don’t know about that, but I’ll get back to you.” So you’ve got to have that process. We didn’t get many complaints about Reebok in my early days, but I did get one complaint which started to bubble up pretty big. And I got 50 letters of complaint. Our shoes were turning the runners’ socks blue. Well, the shoe we were producing was always blue, and they always used to run across country and in wet conditions.
But it happened on this occasion. We had to go to the tanner and say, what’s happened to our shoe? ….. And they’ve forgotten to wash out the excess dye. And so all this, as soon as the runners were running across anything wet, were in wet weather, they were coming back. And the wives were getting really annoyed. All the socks were turning blue. So we got the answer. We answered everyone. I said, “Look, let’s get back to you.” What we did do is we sent them all a new pair of socks, but they were blue socks, we sent them blue socks. We didn’t send them white socks. So we sent them blue socks.
And I also said, “Well, your next pair of shoes, we’ll give you 15% off.” But the big lesson of that was so many people would not even be bothered, but they won’t buy your Reeboks next time. Anybody who bothered I thought they were always going to be worth turning into an agent. Making them part of your company. The fact that they’re bothered meant that they would talk to other people. So to give them a good deal, 15% off your next shoe. And if you wanted to become an agent, you could earn 15% of all the shoes you sold. So it was turning your problems around and to make into an asset. So we may have got 50 new customers on 50 new believers and 50 new agents. … Your business was growing again. And I think at any time when you meet anything like that, you got to take it and see if you can the most of it, and turn it around.
Nathan: Yeah. I love that. I’m curious as well, why did you end up selling to Adidas?
Joe: Well I didn’t, that was done after I left. And I think it wasn’t a matter of selling to Adidas, I think Adidas wanted to buy the company because they wanted more momentum in America. And Reebok had got to the point where it was a bit stagnating, it was not… and you don’t plateau, in life you don’t plateau. If you do, when you stay there, you will go down. You’ve got to keep moving incrementally. You got to say, “How do we keep going, how do we move? What’s the next step? Move.” But Reebok had plateaued. The management had… we need a new management. After a certain while, maybe you get tired, maybe you run out of it. With me, when I was… No, I’d done what I thought I enjoyed, and that would make… but by the time Adidas were coming in, the management needed changing.
Who knew whether Adidas would be good or not? But it was a good move for Adidas, because it moved them up. They now about $25 billion in revenues. So that worked for them. But I think in working for them, they had just let… They didn’t do anything for it for Reebok. Of late, as I said, they are moving in the right direction. But I mean, now it is up for sale. They’re now decided they’re going to sell Reebok. They had a problem because they know exactly how to make Reebok a big company. It’s only been Adidas. They know exactly how to do it. The problem is it’s a competition, they’re a competing company, they’re in the same areas. Good for Adidas to grow their brand. So Reebok stagnated, it’s down there.
But we have the best history of any sports company, the best, we can go right back. We can show you empathy. So it comes as a big name. To revive it, make it big again, not a problem, unless you’re Adidas who don’t know how to do… But they do know how to do it, but have that dilemma of are they bringing a competition? If they sell it, that’s still a dilemma. Because will somebody else will be the competition, bring it into competition. No point in buying a company if you’re not going to make it work. And it’s going to cost somebody a billion dollars, maybe $2 billion. So yeah, I think selling Reebok, it was more than Adidas wanted to buy Reebok, and selling it was probably just cashing your chips in, for the shareholders. So the book is out there telling the story. So yeah, things are going, going and growing.
Nathan: How does it feel seeing your baby out there, and you can’t influence the growth of it anymore?
Joe: Well, it’s like any child, or whatever isn’t it, what can you do? They will go their own way, whatever you do. You’re not going to tell them exactly what to do. You might point them in directions and whatever. But, no, whatever it is, whether there’s a boy or a girl, if it’s a woman, then it’s a nice woman to have Reebok. It’s woman’s shoe. I mean, we helped that. You can only do so much, you’re trying to sit on it and it won’t grow. It’s got to self-develop, and let’s hope that that’s in a good way. Yeah. I got a good feeling. I have not got a problem with that.
I think I had a problem when Adidas bought it, but I do realise why. But I think, no, no, lets have a look. I think they have a problem now, and it’s not a bad problem. They’re a big company. But it’ll be a nice problem for somebody to get the emotion back into the brand. It’s there, there’s plenty of things about it, but they need that emotion that really was there as we grew. Because it was fantastic during that growth period. Everybody loved you. Fantastic. Similar growth period. I don’t know, I’d leave that door open. And I think somebody could get us up to number three, overtaken Adidas and Nike, I don’t know. But be good challenge, [inaudible 01:01:34] challenge. There we go.
Nathan: Growing the company, what was some of the funnest things or funnest times of that journey? Because it would have been a wild journey.
Joe: It was wild, yeah. We got to the point, I think, when the aerobics thing took off, we weren’t growing the company. We were being pulled along. The demand was such, it was a question of the talent had to be keeping up with the demand. And it was exciting because we did so many things. The Monte-Carlo tournament’s with all the stars up, being part of that, what was incredible. And to become the number one company, number one brand, at nearly 4 billion becoming… was incredible. And that was in the late ’80s.
Achieving the five stars with not one, but three shoes, these were incredibly uplifting moments. And I mean, unfortunately, Jeff only got part of the way. So I suppose really that charged me to finish the job, to really get up there and get us to how far could we go? And that worked, that was really good, but like we alluded to earlier, there’s only so much you can do. The brand have many people. And , a life of its own. But wherever we can give it some energy, we will do.
Nathan: Lovely. Look, we’ll work towards wrapping up, Joe. The final question I have for you is just, so where is the best place people can find out more about yourself and Shoemaker, and go and grab a copy?
Joe: It’s going through, I don’t know about time, whether it’s in Amazon in Australia now, but it is, it is. They can obtain it from Amazon. And the only way they can get a signed copy is to come through our website, because we can’t move. We can’t do much these days. But if they want a signed copy, they can use our a website, get a signed copy. And I think it’s available in other bookshops maybe, and then different forms. We’ve got audio. I think we have an audio, which is going out as well.
Nathan: Amazing. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Joe. You’ve been extremely generous, and congratulations on all your success and just being so humble with sharing your incredible wild ride and journey with our audience. It’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you. Thank you again for your time.
Joe: Well, Nathan, it’s been great talking to you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.