Header Photo Courtesy of Joe Foster
Author: Joe Foster
"Joe founded Reebok in 1958 with his late brother Jeff, following their family heritage back to 1895. Joe's Grandfather, also Joseph W Foster, pioneered the spiked running shoe and famously made shoes for the World's best athletes of the early 20th century, with World records and Olympics Gold Medals.
Wearing (pumps) made by J W Foster & Sons Ltd, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won Olympic Gold Medals in the 1928 Paris Olympics and were immortalized in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’.
With Reebok they followed in his footsteps, with Olympic, Commonwealth and European medals and World record breaking performances, represented now by the range of Reebok Classics."
1. Your book “Shoemaker” tells an incredible story of perseverance. At what age did this undying willpower of yours begin to emerge and what helped you sustain it?
I don’t think there is an age of awareness of perseverance, or willpower. Being continually challenged was a process over time, which makes you stronger and more determined. It is also helpful to surround yourself with ‘can do’ people ready to bend, not break under pressure.
2. When you and your brother, Jeff, first started Reebok, there was a period of time when both you and your wife actually lived in the factory. Where did you meet such a supportive wife and how instrumental was she to the success of the company?
We had been married for two years, having moved to our first home a year earlier when the decision to leave the family business became a reality. However, all of those two years of my muttering about J W Foster’s being a failing company had probably led my wife to believe there was only one way to shut me up. Yes, she was very supportive, as were her family and those first steps were so important.
3. You come from a family of shoemakers, when it comes to branding and marketing what did you and your brother see that your family’s shoe business did not?
If we go back to my grandfather, also called Joe Foster, he was quite a master of marketing, with lots of promotional advertising and using ‘influencers’ to build his business ‘globally’. He used terms like ‘Foster’s Famous Running Shoes’ - ‘Largest Hand Sewn Running Shoe Manufacturer in the World’ - ‘If you don’t agree Foster’s are the best running shoes you have ever worn, we’ll give you £100’. Regrettably, his sons did not inherit his genius. What Jeff and I saw on returning from two years of National Service was a failing company and after three years of trying to get changes we were left with no options but to leave the family business.
4. When you first set out to start Reebok, did you always believe you would become the next big shoe company competing with the likes of Adidas and Puma?
Adidas & Puma were always in our sites, but in those very early days, just to be accepted as a sports shoe brand was our initial goal and a first step on the ladder.
5. Who was a celebrity or athlete that you had a “pinch yourself” moment when you saw them wearing your brand?
There were so many it’s hard to select just one, but I could start with Roger Moore, Jane Fonda, Cybill Shepherd.
6. Before the company became “Reebok” it was called Mercury Sports Footwear, correct? What inspired the name change?
When my brother Jeff and I left the J W Foster & Sons family business, we chose the name ‘Mercury Sports Footwear’, with the winged messenger as our logo. After 18 months, our accountant advised us to register the name to protect it. A search resulted in finding that ‘Mercury’ was already registered for footwear. We had an option to purchase the name, but the price was too high for our fledgling company.
The only other option was to change our name, which the patent agent, we were using, insisted I give him at least 10 names to check with the registrar. Much head scratching later, we came up with a list. However, during our ‘head scratching’ I had resorted to looking through a dictionary I had won in 1943 at the age of eight. I fancied the letter ‘R’ and thumbing through my ‘Webster's’ came across ‘Reebok’ - a small South African gazelle.
This went to the top of the list, with the comment - to succeed we need a name we can feel passionate about and Reebok is perfect. Fortunately, Reebok was the only name on our list that was free for registration.
7. Over the last 20-plus years, the “sneakerhead” culture has re-entered the mainstream, what would be your advice to young entrepreneurs today that love shoes and want to build a shoe company?
I like the idea of ‘young’, so presuming you know what you want, simply go for it, too many questions will bring too many unwelcome negatives. Overcoming negatives will make you an entrepreneur, but one at a time.
8. Is there something that you hope readers learn about themselves while reading, “Shoemaker”?
The reader will learn about my journey and possibly share some of my moments. Is it courage, stupidity or luck that allows the journey to continue?
9. What’s your favorite thing to do now that you are retired from running such a massive shoe company?
I like to travel to places I visited during my working life and meet some of the people who were part of the Reebok journey. I can now stop and enjoy the scenery, enjoy the culture and share, with wonder and a glass of wine, how it all happened.
10. From the time that Reebok first began creating footwear, what would you say has been the most significant change within the industry as a whole?
Most significant has been the progression from the need for sports footwear to perform to becoming and influencing street fashion, with technology being an important part.
11. Was there a point in time where Reebok, the global shoe brand that we all know and love today, almost did not come to be and how did you persevere and weather the storm?
There were many challenging moments in time that could have snuffed out our fledgling company, but it never entered my head to surrender the passion that drove Reebok forward. Certainly, the death of my brother, as we teetered on the brink of success, was a personal tragedy that only made me more determined to reach our goal.
12. What was your writing process like for this book?
It took a long time as the more I wrote the more memories dropped into place.
13. What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
I’m a simple ‘Shoemaker’, we don’t have “writers’ block.”
14. What’s the best book you have read this year?
Guess it’s been ‘Shoemaker’, which I have read over and over during the process of bringing it to publication.
15. What’s the best advice you have ever received on happiness?
“Can I recommend a Manhattan, Sir”
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