Not many of us can say we’re founders of a global company. It’s an exclusive club comprised of men and women who hold an unparalleled savvy for understanding their consumers and industries – a club filled with some of the world’s most entrepreneurial minds.

Reebok’s co-founder, Joe Foster, is certainly a member of this club. In the early 1960s, Joe flipped through a dictionary he won as a child in an 80 yard sprint race and chose the name ‘Reebok’ for his company – the term for a small South African gazelle. At the time, he envisioned the brand would be driven primarily by track and field sports. Joe had no idea that Reebok would ultimately root itself in the women’s fitness movement; sky rocketing the brand to success, simply by putting an ear to the ground and listening to what consumers wanted and needed.

Joe Foster, Reebok founder
Paul Fireman (Left) and Joe Foster (Right), laying a time capsule at Reebok’s old international headquarters in Bolton, United Kingdom. 1987

Joe’s experience taught me an important lesson that every business person should take to heart.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Joe to learn how he and his colleagues were able to transform Reebok from a 1 million dollar company to a 1.4 billion dollar company in just a few years. Read on to hear it from the man himself!

Is there a moment in time when you realized that Reebok was going to be a successful business?

Joe Foster, Reebok co-founder holding Reebok sneaker Classic Leather
Joe Foster is a believer in taking the direction your customers want you to go.

I don’t think that ever happens because, when it does happen, it all moves so fast that you don’t even know.
It happens when you’re chasing the business, and Paul Fireman (Reebok’s President at the time) was chasing the business. You don’t go from just over $1 million to $1.4 billion in four or five years by following a business plan word by word. We didn’t necessarily push the business, it pulled us along. Somewhere in there, we lost the idea that we were trying to achieve something. The achievement then became to keep up!

Reebok has been putting women at the forefront of its business for several years now and other brands have now emulated that. What does it mean to you to be the first?

We didn’t do it; it happened. What occurred was that Reebok came in with three 5-star running shoes in Runner’s World, which validated us in this space. But then we bumped into the aerobics business. Women all over were doing aerobics, and they didn’t have a shoe. I mean they did have shoes, they were just running shoes, and they didn’t fit women’s needs.

We wanted to make a shoe that fit the foot like a glove, which is when we came out with the Glove Leather. After a few trip-ups along the way, it worked. Women wore it to the gym, but it was so comfortable they didn’t take it off afterwards.

Reebok advertisement poster
Pure Pleasure: The Reebok Freestyle Advertisement The shoe most recommended by aerobics instructors. Pure pleasure in soft, supple glove-leather.

We were a very serious performance athletic company. Then all of a sudden we got thrown into the massive explosion of aerobics. This changed our perception of everything. Women were finally physically empowered to work out. So the whole brand changed. It wasn’t perception anymore, it was reality, and it was our mission moving forward to continue to empower women through fitness. I think the brand has really dedicated itself to upholding this mission today.

What are you most proud of?

Succeeding in America. I look to this market because it’s not just a big market, it’s a BIG market. At this point in history (1965) the U.S. market was 10,000 x the UK. It was such an amazing feeling.

Joe Foster and his Reebok team created a successful business by listening to the consumer.

Have your own surprising business insights? Comment below!

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by Rodrigo Guzman 26.02.2017
This is a great example of the result of the fearless attitude to follow a new market opportunity. Instead of just trying to fight in the same industry segment, they followed a new market trend. Even whithout historical data they pursued what consumers were reacting at and ended up creating an entire market shift. Very inspiring this confidence and creativity example.
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