Welcome to Remarkable People. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode is Joe Foster, a true legend in the world of athletic footwear.

Joe Foster, along with his late brother Jeff, co-founded Reebok in the United Kingdom in 1958. Their journey from a small family firm to a global athletic footwear powerhouse is nothing short of remarkable. But what makes this episode even more intriguing is the recent release of Joe’s autobiography, “Shoemaker,” where he unveils the untold story behind Reebok’s success.

In this episode, we dive deep into the captivating tale of Reebok’s rise to global prominence, exploring the pivotal moments that shaped the brand. From overcoming challenges to aligning perfectly with the fitness craze, Joe Foster’s insights will leave you inspired and motivated to pursue your own remarkable journey.

Whether you’re a business enthusiast, a fitness fanatic, or simply love a great success story, this episode has something for everyone. Join us as we lace up our shoes and embark on this extraordinary expedition with Joe Foster.

Together, we’ll continue to inspire and be inspired by remarkable people like Joe Foster.

Please enjoy this remarkable episode Joe Foster: The Story of Reebok

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

Follow on LinkedIn

Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Joe Foster: The Story of Reebok

Guy Kawasaki:
I am Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. Helping me in this episode, is Joe Foster. You're about to embark on a journey behind one of the most iconic brands in athletic footwear. In this episode, we dive into the captivating story of Reebok and Joe Foster.
Joe and his late brother, Jeff, launched Reebok in the United Kingdom in 1958. Although it took several decades to break into the US market, Reebok's timing aligned perfectly with the fitness craze and resulted in astounding success. Recently he released his autobiography called Shoemaker, the untold story of the British family firm that became a global brand. Join us as we lace up our shoes and embark on an extraordinary expedition with Joe Foster. It is the captivating tale of Reebok's rise to global prominence. I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now here is the remarkable Joe Foster.
To start off, on behalf of the Japanese people, I want to apologize for your Japanese host bringing strippers in for the dinner in Japan for you and your wife. I don't understand what the hell they were thinking.
Joe Foster:
I didn't understand either, but being a man of the world, it didn't worry me, but it obviously worried my wife, unfortunately. You obviously picked that up from the book. Yes.
Guy Kawasaki:
No, your wife told me that actually.
Joe Foster:
Of course, yeah.
Guy Kawasaki:
Your book is just full of amazing stories. So the one obvious question, having read about the challenges and trauma of working with your father and your uncle and your brother and all that stuff with side by side factories and all that. So with some hindsight, what's your take on family businesses? Is it something to just completely avoid or it's workable or where are you on family business as a concept?
Joe Foster:
I think as a concept, it can work. And I also think it can be disaster. I know quite a few people who have family heritage going through their business, and a very nice business. But I think we've all heard the statement, rags to riches, back to rags again in three generations. And I think it all depends upon probably how the family grows up, how they come together, and whether they do, I'd say come together.
As a family, I don't know whether World War II was a bit of a problem for us, but of course I was only five when it started, or I was four when it started, and I was ten when it finished. So with that period of my growing up, we were quite a disjointed family. Things were all so different. No lights, no education, schools were taken over.
So schooling didn't happen until I was ten. Now, my father grew up through World War I and he also experienced World War II. So as a family, I don't know whether he just felt burnt out, whether that was it. But again, Jeff and I, we got on really well, and there was just two years between us. Jeff was two years older than me, whereas my father and uncle, there were five years between them. So they didn't get on. And I think the unfortunate thing with the family, unless you can really work together, you are not only family, you're friends.
If you're not friends and you can't work with each other or live with each other, I think that's where the problem comes in. But it's a mixture. It really is a mixture. And I know families that don't get on together in business. And let's look at Adi Dassler and Rudi Dassler as an example. Rudi left to set up Puma.
Unfortunately with the Foster family, they just kept feuding, they just kept fighting. They wouldn't separate. So I wouldn't say there's an absolute answer to that. I think it depends very much on the family, and very much on the way they've worked together as a family all their lives. And if the shove came to push, I wouldn't recommend it.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Obviously, I know the story, because I read your book, but this whole concept that Reebok is essentially like the third generation shoe company, which is not true of Nike. Can you just give us the gist of starting with grandpa and grandma and how it became Reebok and somebody pumping it up before doing a slam dunk?
Joe Foster:
Yes. When I was young, both Jeff and myself, when we were young and being brought up, we didn't know much about grandfather. We knew he'd set this company up, J. W. Foster. We knew it was quite well known, but we didn't know there was anything famous in there. We didn't know there was anything that we had to follow. And really, what happened is that after World War II, we had national service.
And having national service meant that, both Jeff and myself, had to leave the family business for two years and do our bit with the armed forces. And of course, what happens then is just probably going to university. You go away from home, mother's not there to look after you to make the food, to do all the washing and whatever, and your father isn't there to give you discipline. It's a different area altogether.
And so, when we came back from our two years of national service, we came back and that's when we saw a failing company. That's when we recognized that father and uncle, because they couldn't get on together and if all you're doing is fighting, you're not going to progress. But my grandfather, 1895, we go back to 1895, and his father was a confectioner, but he didn't want to be a confectioner. He wanted to be, not so much a shoemaker, but a cobbler. He wanted to repair shoes of all things.
And he used to go down to his grandfather, and his grandfather about, I think about forty or fifty miles away from where he lived in Nottingham. He repaired cricket boots, and cricket boots had spikes in the bottom. And we're pretty sure that grandfather must have said that, "Why do they have spikes in the bottom?"
I'm again pretty sure the answer would be to give them grip. And that's where he got his idea from. But we had left Fosters, our family business, we had left our family business, we started as Mercury and it changed to Reebok. We had an episode there, but we knew very little about my grandfather until Reebok became a reasonable sized company. And we decided we know that grandfather had spike running shoes, let's find out about him.
So we really got some people involved, and they went through the history and we managed to dig out all the history. The fact that in 1904 in his spike shoes, he had three world records in 1904, three world records, and by 1908 he had gold medals. And then in the 1920s, this was his Belle Époque. In the 1920s, we had three famous runners, Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell, and Lord Burghley. They all won gold medals in Foster's running shoes at successive Olympics, and they all became immortalized in the film, Chariots of Fire. I don't know if you've heard of Chariots of Fire.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, yes.
Joe Foster:
But it’s very famous. In fact, I think the music is more famous probably than the film itself. And so, that was history, and we had to learn that the hard way. We had to dig for that. And we talk about influencers today. My grandfather knew all about influencing. He used to give his shoes way, way back then at the early twentieth century to people who would win races, and he knew that would influence other people. The reason that J. W. Foster is not here today, I guess that really in those days, as today, sport is fashion.
Sports footwear is fashion, and the only way to grow big is not performance, it's street. So becoming street, that made Nike, it made Adidas, it made Reebok, big companies, because we went street. But in my grandfather's day, had that happened then, who knows? Maybe it would've been a giant of a company, but it didn't go street. At that point, it was just performance.
But he did leave a legacy, an incredible legacy really. As we learned more about that, we probably had more ambition, because initially after leaving our family business, we really just wanted a job. The family business was going to fail, and we needed to carry on working and get a job. So really, my father and uncle were quite, I can say they worked together until grandmother died.
And when grandmother died, that was disaster. It was real disaster. She kept them together, and she was a bit of a firebrand, but me having being born on my grandfather's birthday eighteen months after he died, she just said, "No, he's brought his name with him. He is Joe. That's it." So I am the reincarnation. For my grandmother, I was the reincarnation of that. That was great, so I guess I had to continue on with the shoemaking.
Guy Kawasaki:
Now I just want my listeners to understand that this J. W. Foster and Mercury what became Reebok, when you and your brother did this, it's not like you just sat around designing shoes and sent them off to be made in Asia. You guys were operating the machines. You were actually living in the factory, and this is a whole different world than what people think of the shoe business today.
Joe Foster:
Oh, I think you're absolutely right. It probably seems a bit dumb to build everything on the premises, but we were very young. When you're young and we'd just left the family business, what can go wrong? Nothing can go wrong. Well, we just enjoy ourselves and just enjoy the challenges. So yes, we didn't have any money. What we had done previous to leaving the Foster family business, is that Jeff and I went to college.
We went to college at night in the evenings, and that was to learn a bit more about making footwear, making shoes. But what we did get was a lot of friends. We became friends with a lot of people who knew the answers to a lot of questions. Where do we get this machine from? Where do we get this material from? How do we do this? What different techniques? And that's what we learned.
We picked up something different. Obviously, working at the family business, we knew how to make running shoes. We knew how to make football boots, rugby boots, soccer boots, whatever. We knew how to make the boots, but the materials, the different techniques, that's what we picked up by going to college. And as I said, more than anything, we made friends so that when we wanted help, we just had to ask a few people, and we got a lot of help to set up our factory. Not in a wonderful new factory, but in an old derelict brewery. It had been a brewery before we went there, and it was quite a shambles.
But yes, we made shoes, and eventually we got to Asia, but we made shoes. That was good. We were learning how to make shoes and making the footwear, and we got close to our customers. We used to go to events and we used to sell to events. So we got close to our customers, and they helped us. If a shoe needed some attention, if it wasn't good, we changed it. So we grew our business. We scaled our business very nicely by learning who our customers were.
Guy Kawasaki:
One of the surprising things in your book to me was that you and your brother, as you just mentioned, went to college, and this was specifically to learn the shoe business. And I was thinking to myself, this guy is a third generation shoemaker. Shouldn't he be teaching in this course? Why is he going to college to learn how to make shoes when his grandfather made shoes, his father made shoes and he's made shoes?
Joe Foster:
I think that what you learn, or what we learned on the factory floor was one simple process of how to make this particular type of shoe. What we needed to learn is the different techniques, because my grandfather started making Hanson shoes. It's a technical term, it's a turn shoe. In other words, they make the shoe inside out and they hand saw the sole to the upper. And that's okay. That's a genuine technique. Today, they can machine technique that way, turn shoe, but shoes are made in many different ways.
And there's the board lasting, there's slip lasting and all these different techniques. I come out of being in contact with the shoemaking world, and in those days, they were just bringing in injection molding, so there was no such thing, injectable Foster's, an injection molding by rather expensive machinery, different techniques again. So we felt we needed to figure out which was the best way that we should go. So going to college, and we not only did that, we got a lot of good friends.
Guy Kawasaki:
My interpretation of what you said in the book was that it was a breakthrough idea to pay commission to amateur runners for them to sell shoes to their friends. Maybe you were the first multi-level marketer too. So how exactly did that work?
Joe Foster:
Well, when Jeff and I were still working for J. W. Foster for my father and uncle, what struck me is that we used to get sales representatives come in to sell us leather, to sell different things to us. I used to say to my father, why don't we have salesmen, because our business is not growing? Why don't we have salesmen that go out, go to the sports stores and sell our product? This has never happened. The company had never had a sales representative ever. I did suggest to my father that maybe I should try this, but I can't repeat the language that came out from my father when he said, "No. That's a lot of ***."
Guy Kawasaki:
Yes, you can. Go ahead.
Joe Foster:
I can't do that. No, Jeff and myself, we've set up our own company, and I decide I should take a bit of my own lessons there, and I should go out, go to the sports stores and try to sell our shoes, which I did.
And I would go into sports stores all through the UK, and most often I'd say, "I'm Reebok." And the buyer would say, "Who's Reebok?" And here we are, show him some shoes, "Oh, nice shoes. Those are nice. Yeah, I like those?" And then he would look up at his shelves and say, "Look, I've got Dunlop, I've got Adidas. Why do I need Reebok?" An important question. He didn't need Reebok. And I soon learned that there were specialist athletic stores, probably only about fifteen or twenty throughout the country.
So why waste my time going around to all these sports stores that would sell snooker cues, billiard cues? Those are all the bits and pieces that a sports store used to sell. Would he sell athletic shoes? No. So my market, I could say, okay, I've got fifteen to twenty shops, but there's a whole country out there. And we used to go to events.
We used to go to running events and sell out of the back of the car. That was okay, that was nice. But in the UK, there was the three A's. The three A's, the Amateur Athletic Association had been going for years. The three A's produced a handbook. And in that handbook were two-to-three hundred and fifty names and address of every secretary of every club in the country. It didn't take much figuring out that send a letter to the secretary and offer him 15 percent off the retail price, and if anybody in the club would like to become an agent, he could get the 15 percent.
My first letter produced 100 agents, which was incredible. All of a sudden we'd hit something original. I sent a second letter out to those that didn't respond, and I think even a third and a fourth. By the end, I had over 200 agents, which great, now we'd got our track and field, our runners, we'd got the runners.
So we became very close to these guys, because we knew somebody in every club in the country. We knew somebody. And that gave us that connection, which was fantastic. But the big sport in the UK was soccer. Soccer was the big, and still is the big sport. And by the time Jeff and I had gone into our own business, Adidas had come into the country and they owned that market. It would've cost a fortune to get into the market. That made it difficult.
We had in the north of England, rugby. Rugby was a small sport really, but just in the north of England we had rugby league, and we did the same with rugby league. I got all the rugby league teams. So we were nice to scaling our business, and I suppose we could have been satisfied at that. But really for me, we were looking to say, what do we do? Do we offer a broader range of sports footwear, or do we look for a bigger market for our existing range of footwear?
And we have been looking for white space. White space is, where can we go where Adidas haven't gone or are not going to go? And so, we used to move on this white space, which is great, but now this was a puzzle. Where do we go? And I tried to talk to the family and say, "Look, in America, every college, every university has a coach, and coach is god. And you can go to college on a sports scholarship.
And they're not just academic. There's a lot of sport that goes on, and that's a vast market." Of course, the problem is that the family, the wives and Jeff, and it was like, "That's a bit expensive to get across to America, hotel bills, flights and whatever." Look, as it happened, luck came our way. I'm reading a magazine called Eurosport.
And in this magazine, the British government are actually put an advert in saying, "We want you to export, and we will pay for you for a stand at the NSGA Show in Chicago, National Sporting Goods Association of America. We'll pay for your stand and we'll pay for your return air fair and half of your expenses whilst you're there." I got no objection. At that point, "You can go. Joe, you can go." The fact that it was in Chicago in February, I didn't really take on the board that it was going to be that cold, but it was very cold.
However, that was my start in 1968. So in 1968, I am going to America with a friend. And okay, it was good. I learned a lot. My friend was in the outdoor business and we were making a very lightweight climbing boot for him. We were sharing his stand, and the guys were coming up and saying, "Wow, like your product. Where'd we get this?" And I'm saying, "England." And they're saying, "Is that New England?" "No, not New England. England. Across the pond. Yeah, across the pond to England."
"Oh, near London?" "That's it. Near London. Yeah." I realized that nobody wanted to import the product. They wanted to buy it locally. They wanted a distributor. Great. Although that happened, my friend, Bob, he did sell some of his climbing boots. I think the outdoor business was more, what would you say, more happy to import a product than most of the sports shop retailers.
And that was good, because we were making that, so we did actually sell some shoes. But this is 1968. And when did I get into America? When did I get there? 1979. We actually broke into the American market in 1979, 11 years. And the difference though was that I had six failures. I can name them all. I think most of them are in the book. I had six failures trying to push, trying to get into that market.
And running was becoming such a big category. It was growing massively. In 1969 Runner's World produced a single page, A4 sheet, telling people where there were races, who'd won races, what was going on in the athletics world. But by 1975, that magazine was fifty, sixty pages, full color, incredible, telling people what were 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, even marathons. And then it also printed the winners. More than the winners, the runners. If you came in a 100, you could probably read your name in Runner's World.
And so, that magazine had grown fantastic, terrific. I mean, 300 million Americans, 10 percent now were running. And so, that's 30 million out there running, all who wanted running shoes. Fabulous. And Bob Anderson, who was the editor of Runner's World, he was enjoying life, really enjoying life. And he thought, why don't I tell everybody, which is the number one shoe to buy?
So he did. And in August of, I think probably 1976, August 1970, he produced his shoe edition. And of course, the number one shoe, Nike. Of course it was Nike, couldn't be anybody else. Certainly wasn't Reebok. But Phil Knight has imported his shoes from Japan, from Asia, he's imported his shoes. All of a sudden the demand, because he was number one, the demand was immense. But could Phil Knight meet that demand? No. He couldn't just turn it up.
All of a sudden, millions of shoes are wanted. Oh, he couldn't do that. The retailers were going mad, because they couldn't get the shoe. People coming in, wanting this shoe. Nobody could get the shoe. Year after, Bob Anderson in his wisdom brings out another shoe as number one. I don't know who it was, could have been New Balance, Saucony, Brooks. And they number it there. Again, it wasn't Reebok. Again, the same thing happened.
People wanting the shoe. The shoe was unavailable. The year after, and this is 1979, the idea was instead of saying who was the number one shoe, we'll change this to star ratings. Star ratings, that was an opportunity. All of a sudden, I'm sure we know the business, we can make a five star shoe. And I think there was more hope at that time that we could make it, rather than say, "We can't make it." However, we made our stack and we produced our stack, set it up for the 1979 edition. And in February of 1979 I'm over there, and running now is big. Running is very big. So big that they came out, came to the stand and said, "We want 20,000 pairs of shoes." Okay.
Guy Kawasaki:
Just like that.
Joe Foster:
Just like that. Yeah. Wasn’t much of a discussion, 20,000 pairs of shoe. Right, and they said, "We want a better price." And I knew what that meant. That meant we had to go to Asia at that time. But we were not stupid. We knew that if we got five stars, one, we couldn't complete the demand for product, just as the other guys couldn't bring their product in when they were number one. We knew we would need help.
And so, a friend of mine who worked with Bata, I don't know if Bata, but Bata is still the biggest shoemakers in the world volume wise, although they're really in Latin America and India and Asia. But so, the guy was just setting up the sports division, friend of mine. He said, "Look, Joe, you get five stars, we'll help you." Great. They could do the shoe at a better price than we could do in our small factory, but I knew this when it came out, we're not talking about small bits and pieces.
They wanted something from Asia. So I had been talking with the agents, representatives of the largest shoe manufacturers in South Korea, so I had that covered as well. Okay, that's okay. We've got that covered. We can probably do that. I'll come along and see, we'll talk details and whatever. Towards the end of the show though, in 1979, Paul Fireman walked onto the stand. Paul Fireman, he was running a wholesale outdoors company called Boston Camping.
And I got on well with Paul. We could talk, and I could tell from his conversations, he'd been doing this for ten years and they were going nowhere. They were just going around his circles, nice business, but it was stationary and that was it. It was going nowhere. And Paul said, "Look, Joe, you get a five star shoe, I'll be your distributor." "Okay, Paul, come on. Listen, our stack." Show him our stack.
"Yeah, love the shoe." He said, "Great shoe, but it's not five stars." "It will be, I'm so confident it will be." He said, "Okay, look, if it gets five stars, yes, I'll be your distributor, but we can't do anything until we know what's happening." This is February. Shoe edition's not out until August. So I take a trip back into America in May of 1979, and I go along to Detroit to see Kmart. I'm taken into the space where all the buyers are, and it's a warehouse.
There's over 100 guys there, all buyers of different products, whatever it is. And I'm taken to my guy called Mr. Biasatti, and we have a nice chat. And, "Yes, we are here. We do need 20,000 pairs. Have you got a better price?" I said, "We're very near now. We've got some samples and we're really working on that, and I'm sure we can meet your price."
He said, "Okay then, if you can meet the price, come back to me. We'll go from there." I'm looking at this and I'm thinking, look at all these buyers came out. They'll give me two square meters or whatever it is of space, and if my sales are not up to the sales they require to make the profit, I'm sure that the 20,000 will be my first order and my last order.
Okay, so I take the next flight into Boston. I'm picked up by Paul, and I go to see his nice Boston Camping business. This is great. I meet his brother-in-law and his head salesman, and we got on very well. And I'm thinking, this is just great. This would be fantastic. Bolt-on my business here, I'm sure we'll do something with a bolt-on business. I go back home.
The end of July is when the August magazine comes out, and it is last week in July, and I phoned Paul. I said, "Paul, please can you go down to the kiosk, see if Runner's World is out now and see how we did?" "Okay. Okay." An hour later he came back, he said, "Joe, at Aztec, you got five stars." Wow, that was that. It was just, all of a sudden we'd just done something impossible. You got five stars, he said, but also, Inca, Inca was a spike track shoe, that got five stars. And Midas, Midas was our racing shoe, that also got five stars. We entered the USA with three five star shoes, and I knew that was the beginning of our experience in USA.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow. That's quite a story. Wow. What I heard is, so far in terms of marketing, you guys were the first multilevel marketers and you were the first spammers and you spammed all the secretaries of all the athletic clubs.
Joe Foster:
Guy Kawasaki:
You were way ahead of your time there, Joe.
Joe Foster:
Well, thank you for that. I don't know whether it was me, but we did something right.
Guy Kawasaki:
Can I just take you back in history, because you were there and I would love to know what the sentiment was like. And I'm sorry, but I know he wasn't wearing Reebok's, but I really want to know, walk me through what people thought was this impossible goal of sub-four-minute mile. Was everybody convinced it's not possible, then out comes Roger Bannister and he breaks it? How did it really go down back then?
Joe Foster:
Do you know, Roger Bannister actually broke the four-minute mile when I was doing national service. That's when he did it, in 1953 or 1964 I think it would be. And so, I'm in national service, but yet that was great. And I knew the brand that he was wearing, the brand no longer is in existence, but it was something fantastic to be in, I can say even then, a business where you could make an impact, where people could pick up on the fact that it's almost like climbing Mount Everest, when they climb Mount Everest and got through, and I think I was also doing my national service at the same time as that happened. But the great thing about athletics is that every four years we had an Olympics, and this is where records could be broken, and all of a sudden somebody could become very famous.
So I think the one thing about being in the sports business as against the shoe business, is that the sports business has that charisma. It has something which attracts people. The shoe business is just, put a pair of shoes on. I mentioned Bata. The problem with Bata, whilst they're the biggest shoemakers in the world, nobody knows the brand now, because they were just making street shoes.
And I guess you may know Clarks, again, were big at making street shoes, and they tried to get into the sports shoe business. It didn't work, because they were already known to be street shoes. So you wouldn't put on a pair of Clarks to break a world record. You needed something else. You needed a sports brand, a brand. So it's all to do with brand.
And the only brand out there at the time was Adidas to begin with, Nike, Phil Knight was still selling shoes out of his back door in those early days, out of his garage, I think it was. So it was only Adidas, and that is quite big. It was that, how do we get that bit bigger? And I knew if we got to America, that was the opportunity.
The land of opportunity would be America. J. W. Foster, they had been selling to America, they'd been selling to Yale University. The head coach or coaches there were Frank Ryan and Bob Giegengack. They got to know about Fosters. I don't know how, but during my later period with Fosters, we were making 200 pairs of Hanson spike track shoes to send to Yale every month. And from the Yale distributed, they obviously had a method of selling. So it was the thought that, yes, Roger Bannister, he can break a world record.
So there're other world records out there to break. We actually produced a shoe called World 10, and World 10 was exactly that. It held the world ten-mile record, and that was Ron Hill. Ron Hill also won the Boston Marathon in record time, and I think that was in 1968, something like that. So we were in an area that, yes, if we could make it, but it costs you money, influencing costs you money.
Adidas used to pay these athletes. One way or another, they either buy them tickets, airline tickets, that they could surrender or put cash in the shoes, because in those days it was still amateurs. And as amateurs, you're not supposed to pay them. It's all changed now. It doesn't matter, it's just one level. But for us, as I told you before, we wanted white space when we got to America.
Guy Kawasaki:
I just want to return a little bit to that question. I just want to know, regarding the sub-four-minute mile, was everybody, all the experts just totally convinced, this is an impossible goal? Just take us back there. I want to know, what were people thinking about that sub-four-minute mile record, and what was the reaction when Roger Bannister broke it?
Joe Foster:
Yeah, records were there to be broken, but the four-minute mile seemed impossible to run at that speed, to run one mile in under four minutes. And when these things seem to be impossible, and yes, we were all there thinking, this is impossible, but these guys, they're all from Oxford University. And Roger Bannister was one of those who believed that yes, we could, but you needed to set something up. He wouldn't just win in four minutes or under four minutes. You wouldn't go under four minutes in a race, because in a race, it's tactical, so you just want to win the race. And I guess, probably the four-minute mile was even bigger than the latest one to break two hours for the marathon.
That was a big one, which is quite recent, which Nike did that one. And in those days, sport wasn't as big, but we'll say the track and field was quite big, and certainly the four-minute mile was one of those impossible things. And yeah, a lot of people were thinking, this will never happen. And then you got Roger Bannister. Who were the other people? Chris Brasher was in that race. There were four people in it, but Chris Brasher never finished the race, because when Bannister went over the line, all the spectators came onto the track, and so nobody else finished the race.
But yes, when he did do that, there was nothing left in his tank. He had nothing left. And yet, since that time, the four-minute mile barrier has been broken so many times, and it begins to be one of those things that becomes a bit of a mystique. There's always a mystique behind something. Can somebody ever do this? And it was great, yeah, Roger Bannister. I didn't know Roger Bannister, but I knew Chris Brasher very well.
Guy Kawasaki:
I just want to drop this little factoid into this recording that you said, lots of people broke the four-minute mile record after, and I learned last night that Roger Bannister's record only lasted forty-six days. So we went from something that was impossible, that was broken twice in forty-six days, such as the human spirit, right?
Joe Foster:
It's quite incredible. I think what happens is if somebody said, how did he break this four minute mile, he had pacemakers and he would run close behind the pacemaker. And so, there's a method of doing this, and once people learned there was a method of doing it, you needed to get four runners who were very good, somebody who could lead you through. You've got to do your first circuit in a minute or just under a minute, and your second one, you've got to keep it under one minute.
So in order to do these 440-yard distance once around the track, you have to put this together. This is not a race. These are not races, this is just a time trial. This is somebody trying to do something. So you get pacemakers, and if you get pacemakers, then somebody just needs to be able to stay with those pacemakers. Then on that last 100 meters, whatever it is, just go all out and finish under the minute for that particular circuit.
And then of course, they start to do this one. Once they've done it, two or three people do it, and then they even do it in races. Later on, they started doing it in races. Derek Ibbotson actually broke the four-minute mile record, broke the mile record wearing Fosters.
At one time when we also had Sydney Maree in New York, he broke the four-minute mile record. I think it was just straight down, was it Park Avenue? It was just a straight race then. Didn't have to go around corners on that one. But breaking record was really what it's all about. Can we break records? There's winning races, and so there's gold medals, if you can win a gold medal. All these things make the sports industry, certainly the athletics industry, something a bit different.
But ever since it's gone sport, and as I said, when Reebok were looking for white space, we arrived in America as a running company. In Los Angeles we had Arnold Martin as our age-old, as we call him, and his wife Frankie, and this is only in about 1982, we'd only been in America about a couple of years, and his wife is going to these classes and coming back, and she's absolutely full of it.
And Arnold is saying, "What are you doing?" And Frankie said, "We're actually exercising to music." And he said, "What's that?" "It's aerobics, exercising to music." And Arnold went down to the next class and he saw the instructor. She is in a pair of sneakers. We think they were New Balance at the time. And half the class in the same sneakers, the other half, they were not wearing any sneakers at all. For Arnold, that was a light bulb moment. And he thought, why don't we just make a shoe for aerobics for women, women's sizes on a woman's last, and then glove leather.
That was his idea. He's in LA. Paul Fireman, who now is running Reebok USA, is in Boston. He took the overnight flight to see Paul Fireman, and he's talking to Paul Fireman. Paul's saying, "Arnold, slow down. Slow down, Arnold. Whoa, we're a running company and we doing very nicely. And we're growing, we're doing nicely. What do we want to be making dancing shoes for girls? Why do we want to be doing that?"
And so, Arnold was a bit disappointed, but he thought, I'm going to go around to the back door. He went round to see Steve Liggett. Steve Liggett was our product man. He was in charge of production, and he made a better job on Steve Liggett, because Steve got him 200 pairs of samples. Yes, 200 pairs of samples on women's sizes and made of glove leather.
Great. Arnold got his samples, gave them out to the instructors, some of the leading girls. They just loved them. Absolutely just so comfortable. The only problem is, they fell apart. After one month of wearing, they just fell apart. The reason they fell apart, they're made of glove leather, and you don't make shoes out of glove leather. And as somebody told me, we're making shoes out of glove leather, I'd have gone, "You can't do that." It just doesn't work, because with glove leather, you can just rip it like a piece of paper.
It just rips apart, and it's only one millimeter thick. And when you start working on it, and you have to take some of the top of it to get the adhesive to stick the sole on, it's only about 0.7 of a millimeter. So these shoes have fallen apart. So what did they do? They laminated the leather with nylon. And I got to know about this, and I'm saying, "You can't do that." "Why not?" "Because you're stopping the leather from breathing. That's why you use leather in the first place, it breathes."
So what did they do then? They punched holes in the vamp, the front of the shoe, they punched holes in so that it would breathe. And the big lesson there is, okay, don't ever become a shoemaker, become a marketing man, because they produced a shoe for the market. A shoemaker would never have done that. That's great.
Guy Kawasaki:
Women's aerobic shoes was truly white space.
Joe Foster:
White space, absolutely. The biggest white space you could ever think of. And this all happened because we cured the leather problem, because we got it a bit thicker, more like garment leather, so that worked okay. And then when Jane Fonda went out and bought a pair of Reebok's to wear in her exercise videos, it just took off. That was it. We exploded. We were a $9 million business at the start of that. In four and a half years time, we're a $900 million business.
Guy Kawasaki:
Thank you, Jane.
Joe Foster:
Yeah. Yes, we're also then a woman's company. We're a woman's dance shoe company, Reebok. But that gave us the leverage to move next. Of course, aerobics shoes, you can wear those on the street. You can't wear soccer boots. They've got cleats on. Football boots have cleats on.
So where do you go? You go to tennis, because you can wear a tennis shoe on the street. And you go to basketball, because you can wear basketball on the street. So this was Reebok. They overtook Adidas, overtook Nike, we became number one because of women and soft leather, nice, comfortable shoes you could wear on the street, and it just grew from there.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow, that is a great story. Jane Fonda said that she would come on this podcast, although I have not been able to lock that down. So I will tell her that she made Reebok successful in America.
Joe Foster:
Oh, yes. Yes, tell her. And next time I'll come and meet her. Oh, that was great. Of course, the biggest thing was that during my time with Reebok, we now have computers. It's great. Yeah, I can speak to you. I guess, are you in California?
Guy Kawasaki:
Joe Foster:
Yeah, you're in California. I'm here in the UK. And it's no different than if you were just sat across the table. That's great. We can probably say that if COVID did any good, it brought Zoom. It gave us this opportunity to speak with each other, so that's absolutely great. But I didn't have this, so I had to fly. I had to get on an airplane, do all those things. I stepped back in 1980, and we didn't have cell phones, we didn't have computers even in those days. And it's only when I'm lying on a beach in Tenerife and enjoying life, that we got computers, we got cell phones, and we got Google and Wikipedia.
Guy Kawasaki:
You're the only person that I know who lives in the Canary Islands. So what is it like to live in the Canary Islands?
Joe Foster:
We actually live in about 35,000 feet these days, because we're never anywhere. We're now digital nomads. But we live for three years in the Canary Islands, and it's very nice. The temperature is, I'm going to say probably if we're doing in Fahrenheit, seventy-five degrees to eighty degrees, hardly goes above eighty degrees, hardly gets below seventy degrees. Sunshine 360 days of the year, and the odd six days where we get some rain and it's not good, but it's nice food, it's Spanish, some beautiful food, so it's very nice.
The only trouble is, it's an island and you've got to get off it. So we stopped living in Tenerife a few years ago now, and we lived in France for three years as well. But on writing the book, I wrote the book because Wikipedia were telling me and Google were telling me how Reebok started. There's even a photograph of Joe Foster, founder of Reebok.
He may have been Joe Foster, he certainly wasn't me. The stories were all over the place as to how Reebok started. So I thought, better write the book. So I wrote the book to put the story straight, and Shoemaker came out and people started reading it and said, "Wow, you went through so many different problems, so many things you had to do." We had to change our name. We had to change our silhouette, because Adidas wrote to us and said, "Oh, your silhouette, which was two stripes and a T bar, that infringes our three stripes."
So we had to change that, and we pinned that letter on the wall. Adidas know we're here. So it was great. So we've gone through all that, and now the universities have picked up on this and said, "Oh, come and talk to our MBA students." So we've been doing that. I think eighteen months ago we started traveling.
And this year alone, we've been to Australia, India, Dubai, and America. We've done all that traveling just in half of a year. So we are traveling now. And in fact, right now we are writing a second book, which is Survive and Thrive, because the Shoemaker book was about how did we survive and how did we thrive? So now we're talking to a lot of other people who probably didn't make it as big as Reebok in terms of being a brand, but had similar experiences.
They've survived something. In fact, we are talking to a guy later on today. He was an Armenian who was born in a Russian refugee camp in Russia, and he's made his way to America. He's in telecommunications and he's making his fortune. So he's going to be in the book. So we're talking to people now who've had those experiences, and these guys are great. The stories are great. So we're into Survive and Thrive now, our next book. So who knows?
Guy Kawasaki:
I would be remiss if I didn't ask, what's your top tips for surviving and thriving?
Joe Foster:
I think the top tip is just keep going. Be an optimist, just keep going. You got to learn when you get a problem, somewhere in there you've got to say, "Now I've got a problem. How do I make this into an advantage? How do I change?" We changed our name from Mercury to Reebok. And you've read the book, there's a story in that. There's a story in how that happened.
So we changed to Reebok. We had the letter from Adidas, so we changed our silhouette to the present vector silhouette, which is brilliant. So both these challenges, both these problems as they came up, produced something better for us, only because we were willing to look for something different. We can do this. And I think, if you're in business or you're trying, there will be times when it's a bit tough, but you've got to look around and you got to have fun.
The most important thing is to have fun. People ask me, what are the three most important things about being a successful business? I said, number one, you got to have fun. Number two, you got to have a lot more fun. And number three, if it isn't fun, change, it's got to be fun. You got to have fun. I enjoyed every bit of it.
Saddest part is that my brother, unfortunately he died just as we got five stars. He developed cancer and he died, and that's my saddest moment. That's one of the sad moments is that you get one or two, and in life it's not all happiness and cheerfulness. You do get some kicks. But basically if you're talking about the business, have fun. Do have fun, and just keep going. Keep at it.
Guy Kawasaki:
As you look back on your career, do you have any information about what you wish you did more of or what you wish you did less of with the benefit of hindsight?
Joe Foster:
You get these questions, and they're really difficult questions to answer, because we overtook Adidas, we overtook Nike, we became number one. What more can you do? Where do you go? Have you got regrets? Maybe some things. Yeah, I wish my brother hadn't died. I wish if I could change, that would be great. But would I have made those decisions, the same decisions? I don't know.
I think if you've got an open mind, and I just hope that my mind was open enough to take on ideas. I think also you've got to know when to step back. I think you've got to know that. You've got to know when it's time to bring somebody else in. And I know a lot of people who make that mistake. They think that because they founded something, they have to own it. For me, it was not about owning it.
It was about where do we take Reebok? How can we enjoy this, and how far can we go with Reebok? And that meant, okay, I couldn't stay hold of Reebok. Had I kept Reebok and kept all the shares, I don't think we would've made it, because it needed different things. It needed the money. I needed to get to America, and I needed Americans to run that company, because a Brit running a company in America, no.
It's the same with trying to get somebody to run the company in Japan. You have to be Japanese. They know the culture, they know the spirit, they know where to go, and you have to give them that opportunity. They don't have to knock on your door and ask you, what do I do with this? What do I do here after? It's your job. You get on with it, you own it.
And build a team of people who want to commit, and avoid egos all you can. But there's such a lot of little things that you can do, and you can do it right. Essentially, if you are having fun, the rest of the people will have fun. Your teams will have fun, because they can see you're having fun. It is so important. For me, it is so important. And yes, and now of course, Reebok is with ABG, Authentic Brands Group.
They have a different philosophy, and it's great. It's great to see now this growth again, and Reebok is growing again. It's going to be big again. It didn't do too well under Adidas, but then again, Adidas looking after a Adidas, that's what you would expect. So it's good. And people say to me, "You sold your company." Yes, I sold the company. I'm a founder.
They can't do anything about that. They can't change a founder. A founder is always there. So it's always to look at Reebok, see how we're going. And now with ABG, they've got so many different teams now. That's why we went to Australia to meet the team out in Australia. Same in India. We went, the team in India, the team in Dubai, the team in Canada. So meeting all these new people, it's so refreshing. It's so good to see that your company has gone through these different times and is now enjoying another really good time.
Guy Kawasaki:
Thank you for joining us on this journey with Joe Foster, the visionary behind Reebok. From pioneering innovations to global success, Reebok's story is one of perseverance and triumph. We hope you've been inspired by Joe's remarkable journey. Remember to keep pushing the boundaries and embracing the spirit innovation. And remember, look for the white space.
My thanks to Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, Alexis Nishimura, Luis Magaña, Fallon Yates, and of course Madisun Nuismer. Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.