Joe Foster, The History of Reebok (#192)

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If you’ve always been curious to learn about the history of Reebok, then I’m sure you’re delighted to hear that the guest I’m bringing you today is Joe Foster, the founder of Reebok. The history of Reebok dates back to 1958 when Joe and his brother Jeff started the company in England. In the 1980s Reebok really took off by becoming a multi-million dollar company, but that was still the very beginning. Reebok grew even further and it not only became a multi-billion dollar company, but also one of the most iconic shoe brands in history.

To discover the history of Reebok, we have to take a step back to the late 19th century, when Joseph William Foster, Joe’s grandfather, started designing some of the earliest spiked running shoes and founded his business “J.W. Foster” in 1900, that was later renamed in “J.W. Foster and Sons”. Joe’s grandfather opened a factory called Olympic Works, which became known among athletes thanks to the innovative use of spikes, and hit popularity when Harold Abrahams used them to win the gold in the 100m sprint at the 1924 Summer Olympics, an achievement that will be depicted in the film Chariots of Fire. Later on, in 1958, Joe Foster and his brother Jeff left the family business and founded Reebok.

From Near Bankruptcies to Global Phenomenon

Joe had big goals and dreams, but the reality he had to face was quite challenging. In fact, money was so tight that Joe, Jeff, and their wives all lived in their rundown factory with the heavy shoe-making machinery strategically placed to avoid the floor collapsing. Joe had to face many difficult moments, such as setbacks and near bankruptcies, but he used them as lessons that would help him propel the brand where he wanted to, which is entering the U.S. market. Reebok continued manufacturing excellent running shoes, and its big break came in the 1980s thank to the “aerobic craze”. Everybody wanted to wear Reebok shoes, including actors on Hollywoods red carpets and rock stars. And the rest is history.

Full transcript below

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Podcast with Joe Foster. The History of Reebok.


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Mike Malatesta, Joe Foster

Mike Malatesta  00:10

Joe Foster, welcome to the podcast. Mike, thank you for the invitation. Interesting. Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time it’s taken us a while to get this set up so I I’ve been reading about and I’ve been thinking about, you know, bringing this amazing story to my audience and I’m just so excited to have you here, Joe, I start every one of my shows with the same simple question. How did happen for you

Joe Foster  00:57

already happened to me. Well I guess it’s a family business, that’s the way it happened for me. I guess we need to really back to my, my grandfather, which is 1895. That’s a long time or something 25 years ago and and counting. So many third world wars, and I can I say, the second generation of this family my father and uncle, who just really didn’t get the message, maybe, to what was did something to them that meant that they were not looking at the business. But the business my grandfather Bill was incredible. So what happened to me is that when my brother, we saw we needed to change we needed to move my grandfather’s Business One moment, it was a fabulous business, but this others. My father and uncle didn’t take it where they should have done it so what happened, that happened for me and Jeff on we left the company in 1958 to set up our own brand, Mercury sportful.

Mike Malatesta  02:04

And what was it like working with your dad and your uncle you sit you know you said that they didn’t get the message I’m not exactly sure what that means I take it that means that they didn’t do what with the business what you’re the legacy, they didn’t maintain the legacy that your grandfather had had had established with it what does that what exactly does that mean and how, how was it for you and your brother to be working with them.

Joe Foster  02:31

Well, my grandfather died in 1933 and I wasn’t born until 1935 Okay. Born on his birthday. In May, Okay, my grandmother was most insistent that I, I brought my name with me. So he was Joe Foster, and I am Joe Foster, so I never knew my grandfather, and I really didn’t know that much about him. And we didn’t know that much about him until really Jack myself entered business. I only spent 12 months, I was 17 When I started I went to college for engineering. And after the 18 was Jetmax. We had to leave the company to do national service. So we did two years. During National Service. You know that takes you away from from the life. Mother is no longer doing your washing may preparing your meals doing the things that you normally expect. If you’ve got to become self sufficient, which you do when you learn discipline, real discipline. So becoming self sufficient, when other disciplines, we come back to a family business, and we look at it and it’s not working, it’s not functioning. My father and uncle Ben just didn’t get on. In fact, they feel good most of the time, you know, we Berta Valley Dassler and rodeo Dassler and they never gone to bed for, but Rudy left the company and set up his own room, with the foster family, they didn’t, they just kept fighting. That was not good for the business. We tried. We tried to talk farther and say look, you know, you’ve got to get together, we this business needs to grow, it needs to look around. Jeff fade when he did his national service in Germany, and he saw humor. He saw added us, he saw the difference in the companies. So coming back and looking at our family business, and seeing that they weren’t looking they weren’t taking in the message. They didn’t take the message in from Jeff and myself. It took us three years. But, yeah, we, we did things we went to college, we learn a bit more about shoemaking, and then we left the company. We had to sew. You know, I’d say, you think, what happened, why didn’t your parents. Why didn’t the father and uncle Why didn’t they get out. Yeah and one thing that that was probably a big lesson because when Jeff and I left the company, brothers, we did. We get on well, we never had a crossword. Unfortunately, Jeff died just before the business took off in America we just got to America. But up until that time, we never had a crossword.

Mike Malatesta  05:23

And when you and Jeff were trying to, I guess, talk to your father and your uncle, were they kind of getting where you were coming from, but they just couldn’t make it work between the two Joe or was it just like they were like, you guys don’t know what you’re talking about, we know we got it under control. Hammock, like

Joe Foster  05:47

I said them when we talk about the dynamic, it was just so frustrating. They didn’t speak to each other, they are separate bookkeeping. Okay, okay. On one side of the business, uncle had a hands on the other side of the business, the classical side of the business, but they did not speak to each other. I would say it’s a follow up we’re going to do something different. Why don’t we set up a separate company, and all my father could say a little when bills gone, and I’m gone. This is your business, you can do what you like with it. Okay, now I’m saying, Look at number one, we don’t want you to go. Number two, the business will have gone on before you have, because it’s dying on its feet didn’t make any difference. I think they’d lost the spirit maybe to two world wars, and coming out the other end, maybe they hadn’t got that same drive that they needed in a business, maybe they never had or maybe it was a two world wars and the gap. I think that we’re about six years difference between them. And there is my father and uncle. Yeah, maybe these. I never really know, knew at all what caused it. I don’t know. I think probably the same with Eddie Dassler and Rudy that’s, you know, who knew why they were didn’t get on at all why that didn’t work. But, but it did.

Mike Malatesta  07:16

Yeah, and sometimes you see that with between two people, they have their their feuding or they can’t get along and even they don’t know why, forgotten. The reason that it first started, you know, and they continue it just out of inertia or habit or whatever and when you sit them down and you ask them about they go, You know what, I’m actually not sure why we don’t like each other.

Joe Foster  07:40

Exactly. And the only thing in the captions again was Grandmother. Grandmother, she lived on the premises, she was and she kept them together. It was when, when she died. That’s when it really fell apart, and she died shortly after, Jeff and I came back from being from doing national service. We just saw it deteriorate. But again, she wasn’t the person driving the company, what she was doing is keeping them working together, right.

Mike Malatesta  08:13

And what was, what was it like with your dad, your uncle after you and your brother left Joe was it okay with them or was it, what was the.

Joe Foster  08:24

But I never I never saw my uncle again I think it was two years nearly three years after we left, he died. And so, my father had the business, but again, the JD foster business had been dying, and there was nothing really could save it. So he closed the business we just amalgamated the Foster, Business, and one of them become Reebok, we started up America, but we had to change our name and that’s a story in itself. But, and the family came together, father realized that we were doing okay. Our business. The new business was was doing fine. So he, he was happy to let us get on with it. The family became somewhat reunited at that point.

Mike Malatesta  09:12

Right. Okay, well that’s good news. I’m glad to hear that. Joe, what you mentioned national service a couple of times and, and I don’t have any, you know, I’m from a different generation I think most of my listeners are from a different generation. What, what was national service like for you.

Joe Foster  09:32

Well first national service you. You’ve grown up in a family and everything goes normally don’t your friends. You’ve got your social life, with the different people and the social unit, all of a sudden, you’re taking off. You go away. You’re starting anyway. So, the people with you people doing the same national service at the same time, these become your friends. The whole thing changes the whole routines change, and the dynamics change. So, you have to sit back and you start thinking, Okay, well we’ve got to make the best of this, this, this is an experience, and some people didn’t make it the best way. Fortunately, both Jeff and myself, we were saying, we enjoyed, yes we enjoyed the difference. And when people say, Oh national service, did you really enjoy it. Yes we did. But we wouldn’t do it again. Okay, so areas really gambling yes we

Mike Malatesta  10:44

enjoyed it. Okay, thanks for sharing that. And I wondering what your grandfather’s company JW Foster, you sort of revolutionising our revolutionize athletic wear right, the, the spike shoes and stuff that I read about and I’m wondering, were you was you. Was your family famous when you were growing up, I mean Do people know who you were, because of the name and the legacy and just, just trying to get a sense of what that was like,

Joe Foster  11:18

within that community, yes. Okay that community it was a small community, okay. the biggest sports they in the United Kingdom and that’s the biggest one was football, track and field, which grandfather grew up as a group, which I can feel we have a letterhead, from 1920, just at the side of the letterhead. There are nine to six names of football teams and rugby teams, and that includes every, every football team in the world is now the premiership in the United Kingdom. I don’t know how much you know about soccer, but people on Manchester United. Yeah, sure. Arsenal Chelsea, all the top teams. He was spying them. And I didn’t know that. Ah, okay, it took it took a long while before I, we found that it took a long while we were well into Reebok, and it’s only when Reebok, as we were growing, and we saw why don’t look back on the history and let’s find a bit of depth, we don’t. What happened, and we found all these things, we found the advertising that leads to incredible advertising. Like, if you don’t think that fosters are the best managers you ever want, we’ll give you 100 pounds, or 100 pounds 1000 pounds. It’s incredible. Yeah, the fact that this is fantastic. We’re talking about the early 20th century, we’re talking about in the first decade of the 20th century, and they mentioned is the statement. So, yeah, he was an influencer because he gave issues to athletes, so he was known, very much in that social, but not outside it. So you needed to be a football and soccer player to be famous. And yet, we didn’t have, we didn’t have television. We didn’t have computers, mobile phones, so this is word of mouth. This is something that grows very slowly, and is only known within its circle. So, if it was today and if we were doing what he did today, he will be very famous, I think he really would. We can say he invented the Spank run issue. Well, he got this idea from his grandfather, his grandfather used to repair, he was a congress grandfather used to repair shoes, but he almost repaired cricket boots, and then those days, we went back to the 1880s 85 of those days. Cricket boots did have spikes on the bottom, we assume that my grandfather has this Grandpa, why have they got spikes on the monitor to give them grip when some ball in our own field, they need that grip. That must have sparked the thought, because now Father was passed with the local athletics team, but a local track team Macedon Spanx in the bottom of me shoes. Maybe that will improve my performance, it did. I think it made him a business, and he made his shoes 1995 By the year 2000 He had a very good business, making for all the local athletic clubs. Okay.

Mike Malatesta  14:41

By the year 1900 Yeah, correct. Okay. And in you. When was it that you went back and discovered all of this was it, it because that’s, that’s fascinating that you weren’t aware of it, you know, growing up but then you went back at some point and you were just amazed by by all this. And, you know, someone’s got to be really really really really really sure about their product to offer a guarantee, like, like 100 pounds, like you mentioned, that’s, that’s bold. That’s confidence.

Joe Foster  15:10

Absolutely, it’s, it’s, it reminds me a bit of Paul Feinberg when we were doing tennis, and he put out an Albert’s name Reebok pops it balls underlying issues are the best ever. We’ll replace them, I will give you a count balls. Rosie Albert that sounds good. I’m sure that grandfather was just to save him while it was, why, why did it take so long for whatever reasons I mentioned going through two world wars, maybe took my uncle and father into a different sphere of survival. Yeah, just so and so, messages that have come through, we didn’t pick this up but in effect we employed. What about people, so just go into the history. We sent him off to, to go through all these features and whatever just look into the, into the history of all these newspapers, and he took out kindergarten about more we just collected as much information as we could and we found amazing stories. Now the chariots of fire. He made the shoes for the Nanos. Yeah. LA Rams and Lloyd burly, that they were immortalized in this film. And my grandfather demands issues. It’s incredible what, what we found out was really incredible. Yeah, that, you know, we, we now are bringing it through to we work through to Reebok and our history and our was 125 years of it. And there’s a depth of it. I have a fire which is about four inches thick, of just copies of the advertising that my grandfather did. All we did he did that, way back in the early 20th century, and so it’s incredible. We were fortunate. I mean, we may not have done the digging rebar has been growing the business. And so now we need to really find out more, and that that allowed us to find out more, which was incredible.

Mike Malatesta  17:19

Well I’m glad you did the work because that had to be really gratifying to find out, do that work and find all that out and inspiration as well. So, so you in you and Jeff decide to leave your dad and your uncle. You start as Mercury, you become Reebok and then everything went perfectly right you just became a just became the, you know, one of the biggest shoe companies in the world right it was easy. Is that what happened

Joe Foster  17:56

was my second time. We need to enter the business at least on a couple of times we, but it was always just keep going. It was always, don’t we can get through this. I remember we were only four years into the business when I did this the lawyers sent a letter to us because we were using two stripes on a t bar. That was our silhouette, and they were claiming that that infringe those three, strike three strike. We got to cease, and you know for 10 to 15 minutes without oh my god, what is this numbers aren’t just a minute. I could just recognize a we’re here, we’re, we’re challenged in that is great. That letter was pinned on the wall for a long long time. A different kind of

Mike Malatesta  18:45


Joe Foster  18:47

Absolutely. Yeah, changed our name from Mercury to rebound. We can change our silhouette. And we did. And this is sort of weapon see today which is the vector. Okay, so a lot of earlier lessons are not those, those lessons will, you know, if you can’t see your way through it’s in way round. And if you can do that, you continue, You don’t. You don’t just fall on the floor and give up. That was never part of the journey, and getting into America 1968 I first came to America for the NSGA show. The British government have decided they wanted people to export. They certainly to sports, so they were they were given us a stand. In, in the NSGA as national, so they would pay for a standard they would also pay our return efforts, and they pay half of our hotel bill if we would try to export 1968 I went across there and it was it was incredible because the buyers that they loved. They loved the products that we’d left some of this went to where do we buy it. Give them credit card England. England, and they’re looking at New England. And eventually we get England near London. Oh yeah, London. That’s the England, but they’d say, Well, you know, when you can somebody over here to stop the shoes. And we can we can buy them locally within, within the state. We’d love to try. Yeah, this is 1968 1979. I got. It was a long journey.

Mike Malatesta  20:48

What did it take so that’s a 11 year period from the first time you were there people are interested to actually be able to get the shoes to best distribution I guess right.

Joe Foster  20:58

Right, yeah. Well, we, we needed to get our own influence, it’s how do you influence people in America the runners in America. The good thing was that running during the 70s It started late, but running German centers really became an absolute massive business. Nike grew on the back of that business. And it was awesome. Runner’s World Runner’s World was produced in California. It was the Bible. Runner’s World was a magazine, and it started off as a simple a4 page. By the time we got to the mid 70s This was a full magazine, glossy, photographs, articles, an incredible magazine. And that was the influence. They were this home sells so good. Can everybody really, they decided to tell everybody, which is the number one shoe. And I think the first number one shoe was American. And, but Phil Knight, Phil Knight is buying these shoes in from Japan is important. And the biggest problem. The issue of Runner’s World comes out gives naked long ones but all of a sudden, you’ve probably got 200 million people would love a pair of Nike orders come flowing in hope, how do you cope. You don’t. You can’t get that sort of production overnight. It takes nearly a year to wind up to it. By that time, Windows world to decide and we there’s another number one, it won’t be the same one because things move on. That happened twice, and then the trade, sort of demos surrounded on on Runner’s World and. So hello, this is Ron in our business because by the time we have the product in the USA, number one, you, you’re then when another shoe. Plus, the rest of the business is not selling any shoes. So the reason there was a real match. So, what happened does is that they decided to change that into a star rating, being the number one, five star ratings will be the best, and if you’d have three or four, five star shows. I knew at that point. I could make a five star shoe. I knew how to make a five star shoot to get to number one meant a little bit of other things had to happen, but five star shoot the bag, and we made that steak. And so in 1979, we tested the shoes out at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton. We got a shedload of medals, really good. So in February 979 I have my shoe understand NSGA show in Chicago and oncome came out, came out 120 $5,000 Wow, fantastic, but no one could use that, that sort of production was way outside our small factory in those days. But we got low for that we knew if we got a five star shoe, and in fact running was really growing we knew if we got there, we need help, and battle willing to help. After we’ve made sure. But then came I want to do better. And yes, we knew that was coming as well, because production was moving to South Korea, and we were prices were better, Phil Knight was bringing is that a much better price than we could make in the UK. So we knew that that was great. The idea was good but along came Paul fame, and Paul fireman. He, he was CEO of Boston. Boston campaign, which is a small wholesale distributor in the Outdoor Trade. I can tell who he was a website of. I wouldn’t say they believe in the setup of the world 10 years they’ve been with his brother he worked with his brother in law. And I think they got to the point where he wanted to change. And he said Joe would love to be the distributor in America, a five star ship. So I said, Paul, come and have a look at this hashtag raise a petition on five stars, said, Well, I’m pretty sure it will be in August when the Runner’s World magazine comes out, shown the shoe edition. Okay, so I went backwards and forwards, metal, wood came out in Detroit headquarters, and I met up with Paul fan and have a look at his operation, Boston campin nice is his brother and his brother in law. There’s something I don’t like we got together, people needed to speak to. And this is fine, came out it was such a big operation that we were talking to a small person who had to sell enough, say, Mater original footage within, within the organization. Otherwise, you don’t get repeated orders and be nice to have this as a bolt on business for Boston camping. Paul is good. Right. Last week in July, that’s when the August issue comes out for Runner’s World iPhone Paul. Paul’s. Please get down, picking, pick a magazine up at the kiosk and let’s see how we did with the, with our asthenic. It took him an hour before he came by. So, fast and fantastic distributor. But, but he said, Not only that, to other shippers in different categories. We had a race issue, a road race issue that is under spying traction and day two, got five stars in the, in Runner’s World. So when three five star shoot. That was the hawk, that we needed to get Reebok

Mike Malatesta  27:16

into America, and was, was was Paul the going to start selling the shoes in his Boston camping thing or was it a totally new adventure for him as well to, to you know get the shoes into the US I not familiar with how that occurs and probably most of the people listening are neither so what, how do you actually accomplish it with with Paul.

Joe Foster  27:42

Well, obviously, very shortly after again in the five stars, I was on a plane, I was flying into Boston picked up by Paul taken to his office and I said was Boston company. We decided to go our separate ways that, okay, yeah, yeah, okay, Cool. So, I’m rainbow. My brother is gone. I think it was making wallets them snap wallets, they call them that, with Velcro. And that was Steve de Ferran, and he had brother in law. He just opened a second Oh, Carla. So, okay, This was a but, you know, first time so it’s good if we had a business setup, which we could build onto that would sort of grow nicely. But now, Paula decided that all decided goals are separate ways. So Paul was very hungry, he needed his concentration was, but he also knew the American market, knew what to do. And the biggest initial problem of course was how do you finance it, because he had some money. We were not big enough to be putting money into rapid growth company. We were lucky. I remember many, we had two or three people to visit that have provided finance, one, one was in the Empire State Building in New York and I remember going up a meeting with a guy with Paul. We told him the story we said we’ve got five stars and we’re, we’re ready. Now we need some credit. We need some financing. And he said Well, a couple years ago a company called Nike came along, and they wanted financing, and I couldn’t see, that would really make it so I turned them down. However, that’s what he said, I don’t think you’re gonna make it either. So, I’m not gonna finance you because I don’t want to be known as the guy of penance the wrong company.

Mike Malatesta  30:12

I guess that’s one way to look at it, he already missed Nike so we already got has that.

Joe Foster  30:19

And we eventually ended up with Stephen, Stephen Rubin show company. He was doing the same as in the empire builders were both sourcing companies they worked in the factories they source product, this lot for work for companies and and Steven, they wanted Paul, to go to Sears the good old say, department stores and arranged with them that he would make, he could get shoes in those department stores, which would be far cheaper than what they could buy locally in the USA. So we want to pull them without properties that were rebar. And we’re going to automate Reebok and sell we needed another company was going very nicely. Steven, he gave a credit line. That helped him become part of the company, but really, Reebok didn’t take off, it took off nicely done well, there was a guy who was one of our technical reps, one of the technical reps from Paul he was working at Los Angeles idol Martin is, and I’ll help us as is one of Frankie was going to these classes, and comment on all of it with a friend said Greg, what are you doing, and roll with classes. What’s that, what is exercise to music, and we love it. Fantastic. So, next time, Frankie Goes to one of these classes, Arnold goes well, we see as an instructor, we’re in training, half the classes were in trainers, and the birth of an idea. Why don’t we make them specifically for for this aerobics. And, of course, up to see Paul family in Boston. And Paul fantastic thing going on down in California. We’re gonna make some shoes and pulls them all on, hold on. We’re running company, we’re doing very nicely. We’ve got five star shoes and our business has expanded Nice. What are we doing trying to play around for, make a few shoes for girls down there in Los Angeles now. Forget it. Forget it. He went to the bank door to see Steve layer, who was in charge of production. He sent a stable, a simple white glove leather. Nice pencil on a, on a woman’s last. So it’s narrower fits in is just specifically. He got his wish. Stained produced 200 pairs for him. He gave them to the coaches and instructors and pure the best women. And that was, they loved it so much. They didn’t just go to the aerobics class for them. They wore them on the street they wore them to work there. They were so comfortable. And when you get Jane Fonda Diana, usually one of the videos. One, all of a sudden, everybody wanted the freestyle, everybody wanted man trouble yeah and at first because it may have come glove leather glove leather you can reply to a piece of paper and I’m saying no we can’t take their face. But fortunately we were doing volumes that the Tanner is decided they could make it a little thicker, make it more like garment leather and keep it soft. We want to soft wash shoes ever. They’re harder the stiffer because they have a profile. The shoes were soft and they were just dropped down and people were saying, well, they’re not gonna want last year if they will buy more shoes because they were so soft. The people love them, that turns into a $9 million company, but a year later, we’re a $30 million company, and a $90, million company $300 million company, and a $900 million company. And in successive years at that point, we, it wasn’t a matter of how do we build our business. It was a matter of how do we keep up with the demand, right, so for four or five years it was chasing, how do you keep up with it. And that’s how rebar became problem, destroying company ever in America or even globally. And by 1989, were overtaken Adidas we’ve all taken Nike we became number one in 1970 became number one. I left in 1989 Because a $4 million company at that point, we had a bunch of accountants, a bunch of lawyers, and a lot of people in between Euston churning our product. I was, I put on about another 30 distributors around the world. So I’ve been flying around the world at least three times, as this is probably turning up, we’d also been a sensation and I in Monte Carlo, and in Monaco though we went we sponsored the event for Princess Grace charity, and all the people, so many came in from from LA from Hollywood. Hollywood stars that will come in every year without being Frank Sinatra became one of ours, so we had this incredible growth, and it has just gone straight totally, we will fashion. But I thought I’d done so much, it’s other people now running this company, and it’s time for me to get out so at the end of 1989, I retired.

Mike Malatesta  36:18

So let me just, this is an amazing story, John, I just want to make sure that I’ve got the timeframe right for everybody so if I if I’m understanding things correctly from 1958 to 1979, the company sort of was successful but just sort of prodded along. And then, from 1979 to 1989 just talked about that growth that was just exceptionally exponential. And I’m wondering, well, I’m wondering, how did you and your brother. During that period from 58 to 79 and then 79 to, you know, eight when when you sold the company or when you left, how did you guys change and how did you interact with, like, it’s just amazing. Like, you just the interaction with all of your employees and then and then you were making everything pass and then you had, then you started, you know, outsourcing and doing all these things that had to be a tremendous. There had to be tremendous. But obviously there was a tremendous success with that but I had to make a lot of problems with that, too, like a lot of things that had to be addressed and a lot of changes that maybe people weren’t happy with. Well, I guess this happens a little sore. A lot of come. Yeah, I’d say so yeah,

Joe Foster  37:40

we didn’t have the time to take breath and stick things in, but you know, we had a winning culture. Unfortunately, my brother died in 1908 it just as we were starting right. And that, that created a big problem for me because Jeff he looked after production. He was the man. He looked after the factory. It was their job to do the rest. I think a lot of the factory. Below making shoes. So it was up to me to deal with the marketing and the whatever, which I did the travel for when when Jeff died. We’re just at that time and really, he would have. He would have picked up a big amount of travel, he would have had to go and do this in the Far East to take our product to go to the Far East, to work with them to develop an agenda Porter’s measure. So, that was difficult. And at the time, it was a decision that it’s better to the American market closer to the product, then the product to be sourced worked on in the UK, auto, Korea, and then into America that would have too many people. So I sent my people across to America, to work with Paul firemen, to work with design, and doing whatever Paul fireman, so they had a direct connection with, with a veteran that allowed that allowed the business to grow without me being in between my particular job at that time. I got it through to the fire station, where we had the winning issue. Okay, and I got the distribution. The next was to grow the distribution around the world. So I started. It took a couple of years for this to grow but then I was traveling more or less all the time to different countries throughout Europe putting in demand putting distribution on and then round the world or Australia. And so my role became growing, or an event we had the biggest in the best district global distribution, we were better than Nike better than Adidas when it came to the expansion but again, you know you deal with that when you’ve got a good product, and you do it when you got a product in demand. And so it wasn’t hard to say it wasn’t easy but it certainly wasn’t hard. I wasn’t trying to knock on the door for 11 years, as I had done to get into America to get in that market. I know there were a lot of people wanted to see Reebok Reebok, yeah. The important part of my job was to get the right people. You know we Paul firemen, that was the right person. That was great. No, it was to do that and globally, to go, other people, and we grow we were very simple billion dollars globally. And, and I think in the USA, we were just over a billion dollars so we’ll assume that two to $3 billion, and a lot of this was the global market.

Mike Malatesta  41:03

And yeah, so you were. You’re you’re asked after 20 years. When who knows Yes. And that, that change that you described where you’re traveling all over the world and stuff, the debt, so there’s, I’m thinking that you know you start you probably start to become famous, or at least in some circles right because you’re, founder of Reebok right and Reeboks taking off and you’re traveling the world people want Reebok there’s, you know, Jane Fonda wearing Reebok is like Oprah saying where Reebok today, I think it’s the same, like a huge thing. So, so that had to bring you tremendous exposure but also it sounds like it also. You know, was tough on your, on your, on your life so it’s you know, travel, your life changed, because you had to change, to, to accommodate the growth of the business do I have that right.

Joe Foster  42:03

Well you have to, it’s. You can’t stop and say, just a minute. Where am I ready to say where am i Everything’s gone past. Okay. You have to take it and run with it, it becomes your life, and it had been my passion. From the beginning, and actually asked to continue with that question. And I think is the same when we’re producing or finding distribution, you have to make sure that the people you’ve got with Take That passion on board. We have a winning culture. This is something that grows within the company, take their own people on the people also have that passion, you know, it’s nice to take on a good businessman, but have not got the passion and the business concern drift away. And so I believe that passion is absolutely essential to do a successful company. We, I think, three times, bring together all the distributors, and so they would all meet in from the different countries and our meters were absolutely incredible because people got on. Just like a house on fire, brilliant was average meeting. Everybody’s talking to each other. And I think that that’s one of the reasons that the brand did so well in America, you know, it was, again, having the right people. It’s not, It’s not difficult to get the right people, when, when things are going well, when it’s growing, but it’s really where, when, when you’ve got that, that poll, everything’s happening for your company. But again, you know it’s employee talent and board talent which is better than your time, it is not good right so if you’re the cleverest person in the room you’re in the wrong room. Those sorts of things, it’s a matter of getting people to do our job better than you do. But again, it’s good to employ talent but not the Eagles in a week. We did get one or two giggles and earlier you soon find that they’re the people that don’t fit because gonna become absorbed by Reebok, did I become famous and that wasn’t the intention for me to become famous. It was always Reebok was the moment, because you need the brand, and it’s got to be Reebok so every time I just worked for Reebok surprise that Reebok is the master or the mistress, whichever way you want to

Mike Malatesta  44:36

do when you stepped away in 1989 was there, you mentioned, you know that the business was changing, of course, probably had to in order for it to run at, you know, a billion dollar level. And you mentioned you know you got it to the point where you created multiple five star shoots which is quite an accomplishment right so I’m thinking to myself was there. Was there a particular thing that happened that made you want to make the decision to step away or how did, what what happened and and how did you feel because I think a lot of us, when we sell a business and step away that’s been, you know, it’s such a part of our identity that sometimes it’s a little tough to know who you are and what to do afterwards and someone that’s had your six level of success. I’m wondering what you dealt with that or how you dealt with it.

Joe Foster  45:27

Well I someone wanted to step back and I wanted to be. We can be quite can enjoy the scenery instead of passing it by, you can go to all these countries visits everything, but, you know, I was at 35,000 feet I was visiting countries being picked up at the airport in a limousine. Going down to the best hotels there, and then going out in the evening is that the nicest best restaurants so everything was sort of later Roy’s fantastic breathing. I come from the north of England, and it’s pretty nice to just to walk into a fish and chip shop, and just fish and chips, just be left alone.

Mike Malatesta  46:09

Maybe, yeah, sure, sure.

Joe Foster  46:12

Yeah, it’s just something whatever it is, wherever you are. Yeah, I have a clambake something simple. So, I think I was ready for doing something simple and just laying back and enjoy life. I could do that for quite some time but I do you ever leave. No, it’s a bit like the Eagles in Hotel California. You can check out, but you

Mike Malatesta  46:41

can never leave. Yeah.

Joe Foster  46:45

And that was a fall ring, two months, Three months and Joel, why I’m here. And this, this happens from what did I ever leave, and the passion remains, you know, I don’t, I don’t know where you were born, but you’re probably on a global team on the local, and you move away maybe maybe the team is not that good, but every time every week, you look at the results. You got back to that team.

Mike Malatesta  47:16

Yeah, sure.

Joe Foster  47:18

Yeah, it’s all, you know, whether it’s the best in the world or or now. You’re disappointed with a loser. And you really split the one we’re on this week. And so, you still have that you still go back to the big weekend. For me it’s in the northwest of England. They got famous team back in the 20s, maybe, maybe when my grandfather was making shoes. Yeah, they were famous. So things have moved on. And for me, can I relax, can I get away from this and then enjoy maybe family life. Yeah, to an extent, it happened, But, things move on, not everything is good, and I eventually ended up with a divorce, maybe because my wife, you know, in those early days, we couldn’t afford the travel together, but as, as we grew, I sorted. You can come anytime now because I needed, I needed. I suppose I needed somebody who I could relate to, you know, Ban, ban at 35,000 feet on your own flight going doing these things, you know, okay, so I went to Monte Carlo, so I went into Palisson shirt glass of champagne with Prince Rainier. I did those things, but we didn’t do it, I did it because there is a need to share. And after all this, whatever you do, if you’re not sharing something was the value. So, for me, the value of doing this and going it alone. No, that lost its shine it was better to relax, and I’ve enjoyed everything that we’ve done with Reebok. Even now, that Reebok is now for sale became proud about it is,

Mike Malatesta  49:18

right, yeah I thought that I was gonna mention that because I was thinking back to the letter, you said that you hung up you know from that they were saying you can’t use our trademark right and then they end up buying the company, many, many years later.

Joe Foster  49:31

Yes. I think the biggest problem is the very lucky, are some of that happened and I managed to find Paul Freeman, right, and then Steven ruins, so this would be his recruitment. All and Steven already didn’t like each other, they just had that sort of tension, but not a bad thing because we used to look at Steven, and we used to say, steamers have been like, you know, a piece of grapes that gets into an oyster, surely turned out to be a pearl makes a pearl Yeah. He was a piece of grit. So there was that dynamic that sort of pressure, almost, to make it happen. And the biggest problem is that okay, those guys run a company with a loan, but Paul Polman, he must have read it, he reached a point where would you take it from here. He grown very hard to keep, keep up with the demand but I think once the demand is sort of settled down and you’ve got to start thinking, Where do we go next, how do we expand this company, I don’t think I don’t think Paul really say was capable of doing. I don’t think it was his area.

Mike Malatesta  50:48

Yeah, it wasn’t what he wanted to do it wasn’t what made him excited about getting up, or whatever.

Joe Foster  50:55

Anytime we must have had 1015 different CEOs, but he didn’t find the right man that I said, it is possible, Paul. He didn’t find a way of ventually it was sold to Adidas had a friend of mine. I did this and found her with Rihanna had thought fame and fame, overnight, maybe the story was different. There was a point. I think it was late in the 80s, maybe early 90s When Reebok were almost ready to buy, Adidas, because,

Mike Malatesta  51:33

Oh really

Joe Foster  51:36

wasn’t. If you read one What is it now. Pitching Bayesian, it’s a, I did a story by, what’s the name of Barbara Schmidt. My assistant who knows all the answers. I can see Yeah, pitch invasion. And you’ll find that seemed proven it was of course part of Reebok at that time, had the option to buy Adidas. I didn’t just waiting for the call somebody would never call. But I think Dave Rubin knew he was good at financing. Well, I don’t think he ever thought that he could run a successful company. Reebok medium Paul either doesn’t need in China. And Stephen Rubin, who was very close to us right now because I think he’s done major purchaser of the product for the UK, so there’s, but he could have, he could have bought. Now, it’s up to, Adidas, to do the right thing for Reebok to just sell to the right people. I Reebok have gone from what was nearly a $4 billion company to a revenue of just over 1 billion was added doesn’t mean they paid nearly $4 billion for. If you do what you want. They didn’t buy it for Reebok say they wanted to give us more momentum, which ended, it helped. So Adams just got momentum. I mean, wasn’t just buying Reebok to do that there’s other things, but that’s what happened. And the story was out there that Adidas and Reebok together would be competition for Nike. I guess that’s what they’re talking, but the reality was that the Reebok did lots of the assets for Reebok, and I say you can’t blame Adidas for that you paid your money, but now I will bet it as the respect for the Reebok brand to allow it to go to somebody who is ready to spend the time the energy and the money. And I would think that we’re now revenue 1.5 given three to 5 billion. And like that point, public company again.


That way they can grow.

Joe Foster  54:15

Can I do this and they feel nothing. I can’t get back. Why no prenup. Number one, and I think if you’ve got the enthusiasm. Because now, these companies are fashion companies now that no longer is a sports business is driven, but it’s fashion is everything. Everybody now as ever. Well, who was, where’s the next, maybe, maybe the next sort of bit of science, or whatever. No. Is there anything I haven’t written the book. I’ve now been sort of in contact, or in contact with me, brilliant ideas. I can’t say anything about that but the possibility of making making these moves is that it’s an it starts with a 14 year old child with you know, has an idea.

Mike Malatesta  55:15


Joe Foster  55:19

And I think Reebok has a good opportunity if we get the right people. That will come back and hopefully my book will help. It’s very nice. It’s Roadable good so many people already know are coming in and saying, Wow, yes, didn’t know I didn’t know how to revamp yeah great and all that story a backstory. And, yeah, I think I do about three or four meetings a week, and someone was really good got the score so send in some ideas, some drawings for, you know, what do they think Reebok fusion look. And, you know, it’s amazing. So anybody that wants to start a company, be an entrepreneur, be young, start young. Because that’s when you, when you feel us, Jeff and I, 2325 feels

Mike Malatesta  56:13

right. Nothing to lose nothing to lose, right.

Joe Foster  56:19

In fact it was everything to gain or lose the parent company, to gain. If you ever failed for more, you know, you’re gonna pick up that’s a lesson we learned from that. And I had a lot of lessons getting into America, a lot of lessons, but you know that’s, that’s the future for Reebok as far as I’m concerned,

Mike Malatesta  56:44

well I hope that’s the future that comes along to because it sounds like it would make you very happy and it sounds like it’s what the company is destined to be. That sounds like it’s hit a, you know, had a meteoric rise, then maybe with adidas had kind of a little slump and now it’s ready to come back and and make you proud, what you started. Amazing. Absolutely,

Joe Foster  57:05

yes. So that would be fantastic. You know, as far as I’m concerned, it will be fantastic. Yeah.



Joe Foster  57:12

it is that positive, you’ve got to have that positive feeling if you, again, large firm must think positive. Every day is not a good day, but if you get up and think that that is wrong, everybody’s got a day and feel good about the right side of it, you know, the glass is half full, not half empty. Everything is there, and it’s up to you and face the challenges.

Mike Malatesta  57:38

Well Joe it’s been amazing to spend this time with you. I’m so grateful to have had this opportunity and as as Joe’s references book a couple of times it’s called Shoemaker. Reebok and the untold story of a Lancashire family who changed the world. And as you heard today that that’s not a big too bold of a claim to make in the title so if you, you’ve heard a little bit of the story now pick up Joe’s book and read the rest of the story, Joe, is there anything else that you want people to know about you or your book or how to contact you, or whatever.

Joe Foster  58:15

Well, we can say that on the 10th of June, the paperback, my book is out, and it’s available in Amazon. You can also get to the, our webpage, which is J W Foster company, you could sign up for a sample, and we do that for you. Oh, wonderful. Oh, yeah, anyway but the say that the paperback is out on the 10th of June. And then, I don’t know if it’s available in America at the same time it should be. So, you know, We’re looking forward to picking up better sales. We wanted to be number one. How did our journey. Our journey, get Shoemaker on best seller. Okay, and do that, maybe it’ll help we get back to that number one position.

Mike Malatesta  59:05

That’s a perfect way to end and we’ll have, we’ll do what we can to help get that book to number one, Joe, thank you so much for being on the show it’s been such an honor. Thank you.

Joe Foster  59:14

It’s been great to talk to you, and good luck with whatever is happened the neighborhood, the podcast, how did happen. Yep.

Mike Malatesta  59:25

How did it happen, you’re successful. Thank you.


Until the recording has stopped.

Mike Malatesta  59:33

Okay. Well, Joe, thank you so much. This is, I thought it was phenomenal. I was like, riveted hearing your story so thank you for sharing it, and thanks for writing the book too. I’ll make sure all that showed up, and I’m going to pick up a copy myself and read it.

Joe Foster  59:52

I guess I wrote, because when I’m relaxing for a few years and I look at Wikipedia and Google, and I read how people think this way but we said no. And there’s actually a picture of Joe Foster. And I think it’s on Wikipedia. And another clue of patriotism. I don’t know.

Mike Malatesta  1:00:17

Oh is that right, yeah. Yeah,

Joe Foster  1:00:21

him. Julie things is being taken away I’m being taken down. But I sold him something now. Why don’t you write your story. Tell the story. Whisking me. I know that from Paul fireman he will see a different story from idol Martinez and they will see a different story. But yeah, there’s nothing wrong with those stories, they are just different, but the ones that we had on Wikipedia and good and anything. No, I didn’t start knowing this didn’t happen. The simple thing is that people say well JW Foster’s just changed his name.

Mike Malatesta  1:01:02

Oh, okay. Yeah. Yeah, it did completely not what Yes Right, right, right.

Joe Foster  1:01:08

Yeah, so, yeah it was a good exercise and I enjoyed writing the rest of the book and a lot of help with it, because you start to drift off there’s so many side stories to it, and then they say no, no, stay with this story, keep retrying. Don’t worry about, yes you did that went over that again, or you did this, but they got anecdotes. All the doors all the side stories. So we kept the story true there’s maybe room for another workout, I don’t know. Oh, I’m

Mike Malatesta  1:01:40

sure there is. Yeah, sure there is. So did who helped you with it did Julie help you with it or did you have. Did you have a, like a full home and

Joe Foster  1:01:49

the last two or three people who, who are involved in in writing. And they were the people that they acknowledged in the book, okay, there’s the technologists, people who come along and just get just helping this, but I think out of upset drafts of the book, okay. Eventually, we ended up, and they took seven years to write

Mike Malatesta  1:02:13

seven years. Yeah.

Joe Foster  1:02:16

Yeah, the thing is with writing the book, once you get into the story. Remember this. You remember new things you remember things forgotten. Yes, I have a guy who came only a couple of months ago, and he joined the company, just before I left, and he spent 20 years in the company, but he spent it in product and being abroad and traveling key. He was in sourcing, as well. A lot of interesting stories, and stories I had never heard about the company. Now some of the things were, they had problems, and he’d been asked to write a book, and he said anything. He’s got a lot of archive items that he wants to get me to give to the Boston archive. And he said, I was asked to write stories and but I really don’t think that mean recounted, my experiences to Reebok it good. He said because there are so many things that were going wrong. Then we add to the outcome, right. So, that would be interested to find out what happened in that was great and when I left I knew so much, but didn’t know at all, because, as a company gets that big. You get you little units all over, different things, right, yeah. Yeah, so a few brain science that that I picked up. And so I think it’s gonna be very interesting when the, when the book is really grows and when Reebok becomes separated from Adidas, I think there’s a whole new world out there, something new to build.

Mike Malatesta  1:04:04

I appreciate you writing the book, Joe and then congratulations on what you built and how you built it and, and congratulations on being able to get away at 1989 and enjoy a different kind of life I mean that’s really remarkable and special and well deserved as well.

Joe Foster  1:04:25

Well, it’s been very enjoyable really has, and even now we’re sitting we’re in the middle of Europe right now it was you know, both for COVID. We will be traveling. We will be meeting with people like Berto Berto was the distributor in Italy. He lives in Bracy which is just north of Milan. And just in the foothills of the mountains, that is the Alps, and we used to go to a place called Sacromonte, which was as out of here, we used to go up in a very sacred hill with little monuments on the way up and we get to the top and you could see the legs nice and sit down just how nice glass of wine. I’ll be doing that again, once we once we can travel. Right, so it was nice to make meet our love people make our little friendships and we can travel through Europe, meeting with the people that really helped build internationally and globally the brand. So, life is good.

Mike Malatesta  1:05:35

I’m glad to hear it. I’m glad to hear it. That’s the way it should be, which should be, exactly. Alright Joe, well thank you so much, Julie. Thanks for your help as well and yeah I’ll let you know when this episode comes out and we’ll, good luck with the book later. It’s been a pleasure of mine. Okay, yes. Yeah, thank you so much. Okay. All right, Bye, Bye.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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