Oi Polloi

Interview: Joe Foster, Reebok founder

Published: Thu Apr 11 2019

Here’s an interview with Reebok founder Joe Foster. It was originally published a few years’ back, but seeing as our new Workouts launch on Tuesday (at 10:00 if you were wondering), we thought it made sense to knock it back under your nose…

Reebok don’t need much of an introduction — they’ve made trainers for runners to run in, they’ve made trainers for American housewives to lose weight in and they’ve even made trainers for your dodgy uncle to go to the pub in.

The man behind these trainers is founding father Joe Foster. I would go on to give you his full life story and everything, but this interview does a fairly concise job of that so I won’t bother.

To set the scene, we’re sat in the living room of an apartment on the outskirts of Bolton, we’re joined by his wife Julie and a small, white dog called Pepe is sat on Joe’s lap.

After discussing everything from Joe’s recent knee operation (which went well), to how the surrounding area has changed over the last 50 years, I hamfistedly steer the conversation onto Reebok...

Sam: Alright, I suppose we better talk about Reebok.

Joe: What is it you want to know?

Sam: Everything really.

Joe: That could take forever. Its taken me 60 years

Sam: Well, well try. Your grandfather started an athletic shoe company called J.W. Foster & Sons. How did that come about?

Joe: My grandfather was born in 1881 and died in 1933. I was born on his birthday in 1935, so thats why Im also given his name Joe W. Foster. The whole family were J.W. My grandfather was Joseph William, his eldest son was John William, or Billy, and my father was James William. I had an older brother called Jeffrey William and a younger brother called John William.

Sam: It all sounds a bit confusing. 

Julie: It does get very confusing. Theres too many J.W.s. 

Joe: We always found it difficult. This is my second wife, Julie, and my first wife was Jean. And then my older brother Jeff, also married a Jean. We all lived on the premises where we first started Reebok, and when a letter came we didnt know whose it was.

Anyway, my grandfather was accredited with inventing the spiked running shoe. But most of these things evolve rather than being invented. 1895 is the year my grandfather made his first pair of spikes. This gave him an advantage ‘cos no one else had them, so in order to avoid a thumping from his mates, he had to make them all a pair of shoes as well.

Making shoes for his buddies became a business, as he started making shoes for all the local clubs. Im not saying it’s easy to become an international brand, but Joes reputation grew quickly — even back in 1904 there were world records being run in Fosters shoes.

Sam: How was it for him being based up here in Bolton?  Was that a disadvantage?

Joe:  Back then athletics was mainly a gentlemans sport. You needed money in order to compete. Football was okay, but athletics was a bit snobby and a bit snooty. He was at a disadvantage so he had to advertise — he used to advertise all over the place, in race programmes and newspapers.

Some were quite risky adverts, saying things like, “Fosters are the best shoes ever.  If you can prove otherwise, well give you £100”.  Can you imagine £100 at the turn of the century? Thats like giving someone £10,000 now. That helped Fosters become a name.

When my grandfather died, my father and my uncle took on the business. They were both involved in athletics, but by then there were two sides to the business. My father had started to make machine sewn shoes, whereas Bill concentrated on the original hand-sewn shoes. The business was separating, but what kept them together was Grandma — she was a bit of a firebrand. When the war came there was no demand for running shoes so Fosters turned to repairing army boots. 

Jeff joined the Fosters business in 1948, but it was 1952 before I went into the business, when I was 17.  I was only there for 12 months, before being called to do national service. My brother did his national service in Germany, which is where he saw people like adidas and Puma. When we came back to Fosters, the business was still in the 1930’s — still doing the same thing. And then when Grandma died, my father and uncle just stopped speaking to each other, it was like adidas with Adi and  Rudolf Dassler — they were fighting. But instead of one getting out and doing his own thing, we got out instead.

Its one of those things you look back on and think, “My god, how did we do that?”  But when you’re young youre totally indestructible.

Sam:  What year was this?

Joe: This was 1958.  I was 23 and Jeff was 25. In late 58 we set up as Mercury Sports Footwear.

Julie: In Bury.

Joe: We started out making cycling shoes, because we didnt want to compete with Fosters on running shoes.  It was a small business but we were doing okay.

Sam: When did the name Reebok come about?

Joe: We were advised to register the name Mercury and told that we needed to do this through a patent agent, who discovered Mercury was already registered. He said, “Youll need a new name, but dont just bring me one, bring me a dozen.”

He pointed through his window at a Kodak sign and said, “You want a name like that, it means nothing.”

Armed with that I went back to break the news. Jeff, myself, our wives and our friends started the task and came up with dozens of names. I had a dictionary Id won during the war at an athletics event. It was an American dictionary — Websters. I remember thumbing through this and coming across the word Reebok, a light grey South African gazelle. I put this at the top of the list, went back to our agent and said, “Look, heres your names, we want this one.”  Out of all the ones we gave him, Reebok was the only one that cleared.

Sam: What other names were on the list

Joe: I’ve forgotten. I know Olympus was on the list, but we had already decided what we wanted — Reebok was the one and Reebok it was.

Sam: How did people hear of Reebok back then? Was it a mail order thing?

Joe: At the time of the change of name we were building our cycle shoe business and advertising in ‘Cycling Magazine’. There was also this guy down in London who sold to all the cycle shops. You dont see as many cycle shops today, there used to be loads in every town. Anyway, this guy used to send orders for thirty or forty pairs, which at that time took all we could produce.

Later, when we moved into running shoes, we advertised in ‘Athletics Weeklyand I would also target specialist running shops.

Sam: So you were still making the shoes at this point?

Joe: Oh yeah, Jeff and myself, this guy called David and then Jeans mother was doing the sewing. This was all in an old brewery in Bury. I think we paid a ridiculously low sum of money for it, something like five shillings a week.

It was three stories. On the ground floor, there was only one window and a cobbled floor, the second floor wasnt bad, and the top floor was only ever used for storage because the roof was knackered. When it rained, it rained in, so we had tins and buckets all over the top floor trying to catch the rain. We had no money to fix the roof.

We just worked on the middle floor. This was okay until we started putting machinery in there, then the floor started sagging in the middle.

When my uncle died within 18 months of us starting Reebok, my father decided he didnt want to continue manufacturing. He set up a little sports shop in the north side of Bolton and said if there was any machinery we wanted, we could have it.

The only thing we picked up from the Fosters closure was a big sole press. It must have weighed a couple of tons.  We had to move it into the building, get it to the stairs and then hoist it up. I look back and think, “My god, if that thing had slipped, there would be at least two of us dead at the bottom, why did we do it?” Well, you just do.

We didnt buy new machinery. I used to pick stuff up at sales. At the time when we were building our business there were so many shoe companies going under — once a month Id be going to the sale of a shoe company which had closed down, so I could buy machinery, leather and bits like that.

And thats how we got the business going. We did our own electrics and stuff like that. Eventually, we had to move from the old brewery, as they were knocking it down to make way for Bury Leisure Centre. By that time we did have a little bit of money, so we didnt have to move the stuff ourselves.

Sam:  Have you moved into doing running shoes by this point?

Joe: We didnt stay doing cycle shoes for that long. Our guy in London was keeping us busy on his own, but suddenly his orders just stopped coming in. A month later, a letter came in from his landlady saying hed been killed in a road accident — that was the end of our cycling business.

Although a cyclist, my brother had joined Bury & Radcliffe Running Club, and started making shoes for them. Athletes would come down on Saturdays — half of them helped us build the factory. It became a community. Soon, in the North West of England, everybody knew Reebok.

Then came the running boom in America, and with it Runner’s World magazine. Bob Anderson, the owner, had the idea of rating running shoes, using a laboratory to carry out tests.   

I had been exhibiting in Chicago every year since 1965, looking for a distributor and now running was booming, this was to give us the opportunity we had been looking for.

It was in 1979 when I bumped into Paul Fireman in Chicago. Paul was a camping wholesaler; he sold fishing lines and anything to do with camping. He said “Id love to distribute your shoes, but I really need to know weve got a winner.  If you get a five star rating in Runner’s World, Im in,” We got three five star ratings and the Aztec was one.

K Mart were also interested, they said “Look we’ll take 25,000 pairs.  But you need to get the Aztec down to this price,” We were making 1,000 pairs a week in Bury, so thatd be six months work. We would have to change, we couldnt expand manufacturing to that sort of volume, or meet the price in the UK.

It would be impossible to work with K Mart without sourcing product from the Far East. 25,000 pairs was tempting, but it would take time. I had already been contacted by an agent for a factory in Korea, but it was still early days.

So the decision was made to go with Paul Fireman. Thats how we started in America.

Sam: Were you designing the shoes?

Joe: Jeff did the designing, and I the overall look of the shoe — the side-stripe and the sole.  Jeff designed the Aztec. People say, “If you designed this, youre a wizard,” but really most designs happen by accident.  They say “Why did you put yellow and red together?” Well, it was all we had. A lot of our shoes were like that in the early days

Why did we make the World Ten out of burnt orange suede? It was fabric made by Pittards, which I saw, by chance, when I visited their tannery in Yeovil. Although they produced the suede in a number of colours, the one I picked up was called Snazzy Fox. I said “That’ll do for me

Sam: Was the World Ten the one Ron Hill helped design?

Joe: Ron had input in a number of shoes, including the World Ten.  He was a fantastic athlete because he didnt run on his heels.  Ron only ever ran on the ball of his foot — his heels never wore out, so we could design him shoes with the thinnest heels. We could also make it on a track shoe last. That worked for Ron, but we sold loads of the World Ten, and loads came back with the heels worn out. They were made for Ron Hill; they were not shoes that everyone could wear, they were unique.

Its those little things that make the difference.  Its not being everything for everybody; its being something for somebody.  If you made a shoe for everybody youd end up with a clog.  You look at some of the shoes today and Im sure they are just designed for the look, not performance. 

Sam: What about the Classic Leather?  To a lot of people, that is THE Reebok. 

Joe: Well, it’s the same cut as the Aztec, but in soft leather. I think the brilliant thing about it was that it didnt shout at you. A lot of shoes at that time were very garish, so in the same way that women started to wear the Freestyle as a street shoe, the Classic became the travel shoe of America. 

Julie: You’ve got to factor in comfort there too. Theyre like slippers. 

Joe: Normally to get shoes that soft youd have to use suede, but what Reebok managed to do was get the big leather manufacturers to develop a soft leather. I think now almost every leather sports shoe will be made out of soft leather like the Classic. You dont have to break them in like the old Stan Smith tennis shoe — my god, that broke you in before you broke it in.

Sam: When did the aerobics thing take off? 

Joe: They had what they called Tech Reps in America. The Tech Rep would go into all the stores and train the staff. One of ours was called Angel Martinez. He was Cuban, living in California, a brilliant guy, and what hed seen in California was that women were starting to work out to music. They called it aerobics. 

There was only one shoe for aerobics, and that was made by New Balance. All theyd done was take one of their road running shoes, put it in white nylon and sold it as an aerobics shoe. What Martinez said was, “We don’t want it in nylon, we want it in glove leather.” 

In America, we weren’t known at all, so when the women saw Reebok Freestyle, they didnt think of us as male, they didnt think of us as sweaty, they didnt think of us as anything more than this beautiful shoe. 

The other thing was that Paul had said, “Joe, can we put the Union Jack on the shoe instead of the Starcrest? Its going to cost us millions to get people to recognise our logo, but everyone will recognise the Union Jack.” 

So we put the Union Jack on the shoes and put them in a Union Jack box. In those early days we didnt have any point of sale stands, so the retailers would stack boxes in their window and then put shoes on the top. It was incredible, all of a sudden the business went from 9 million, to 30 million, to 90 million to 300 million to 900 million dollars in successive years. 

Sam: Was that all off the back of the aerobics stuff? 

Joe: Yep, the aerobics stuff, the Freestyle. We overtook adidas, we overtook Nike and we were number one. Sports Goods Intelligence always used to refer to us as Numero Uno. We were selling five million pairs of shoes a month, thats fifteen million Union Jacks. 

But did we get some stick in the UK for that flag. Every trading standards office would put us in court, even though every shoe said they were made in Korea. We used to say, “British Airways fly Boeings with a British flag on the back, why are you doing this to us?” And theyd say, “Well, theyre not selling airplanes.” I must have gone to court at least five times. 

Sam: Nowadays sponsorship and product placement is everywhere, but it seemed you lot were quite early with this. When did you cotton on to this? 

Joe: At the start, it was about being involved with the sport. Ron Hill was in the north of England, so it was natural. We never paid him any money, we just gave him shoes. And then there was product placement, its all association, being associated with certain people. Cybil Shepard was the biggest one, she picked up her Oscar wearing red high tops. 

We did a lot with tennis. I remember being offered Hana Mandlikova or Jo Durie. Paul said “What do you think Joe?” I said, “Hana Mandlikova I think she fits Reeboks fitness image ” And thats what it was about for Reebok.

Sam: What about the boots Sigourney Weaver wears in Aliens, the Alien Stomper? Who came up with them? 

Joe: That was the Americans, by that time it had become a job. Product placement was a business. None of it was by accident. 

Sam: How hard was it to keep up with the new developments?  Especially as things got more technical? 

Joe: A lot of that stuff happened in America. To me a lot of it wasnt really technical improvement for an athlete, it was a gimmick. You look around now and every car has a series of LEDs where there used to be a bulb. Its a fashion, its a trend — theyre just lights, they work just the same. 

The Americans have disposable lifestyles. They dont like things that youve got to keep on wearing, theyd rather throw it away — things must change. Even though theyve got the statement, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it”, they never believe it — they want to fix it all the time. If you change stuff too quickly, you lose identity. One thing Ill give Nike is that the Swoosh is consistent; they dont play around with it. 

Sam: Reebok went from being a small company making cycle shoes in Bury, to one of the biggest sports companies in the world. I suppose this is probably a hard question to answer, but what do you put this down to? 

Joe: It took 20 years of mixed fortunes and 15 years of travelling to the USA to make the breakthrough and luckily we were there when running took off and also when aerobics arrived. When you go from 3 million to 900 million dollars in four years, youve got to talk about luck. The luck was that Nike were taking a dive and there was a manufacturing company in Korea about to have a very bad year. With a lot of companies that make it fast, its luck. Luck has to be there, and it was there, and Reebok came through because the product was there. 

I think one of these days one of the business colleges will probably study it. People have thought ‘lets use this as a pattern’, but wheres the logic? There isnt any, it just happened and I think thats the best part of the story. 

Dont look for people who are geniuses, there were a lot of people who together were genius, but really we were lucky.  And that is what it is - everybody enjoyed the ride. 

This interview originally appeared in Pica~Post 10.