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Misinformation Prompted Me To Write My Story: Reebok Co-founder

Joe Foster found the name ‘Reebok’ in a dictionary won in a sprint race when he was a boy. The name is Afrikaans for the grey rhebok, a type of African antelope

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Joseph William Foster (Joe Foster), the Co-Founder of Reebok, recounted the remarkable journey of the legacy shoe brand in his book – Shoe Maker. During his first visit to India, Foster takes us through Reebok’s journey, the challenges he faced while setting up the shoe brand, and the inspiration that led him to write a book on it. Excerpts

What inspired you to write a book about your journey?
I stepped back from Reebok a long time ago. We didn’t have computers or smartphones in those days. Everywhere I went, we used read and write letters, as we didn’t have emails back then. So when I stepped back from Reebok, I had decided that I’ll visit the beautiful island of Ten Reef, as I wanted to lay back and enjoy life. But then of course, all this new technology came in, we got computers, smartphones, Google and Wikipedia, and they were telling me how Reebok was started, but that was little truth to it. There was also a photograph of Joe Foster, Founder of Reebok, floating on the internet, which was not me. So all that misinformation prompted me to write my story. We had to tell our story otherwise, there would be a lot of stories of Reebok’s inception.

You faced a lot of hardships in the initial stages of Reebok before it became a global brand. What was your mindset, how did you keep yourself optimistic when things were not so good?
When you have a business, you want it to do well, so you see what the opportunities are. Could we ever become a number one brand? Well, you don't believe it at the time because you're still taking those first steps. But I think the beautiful thing about Reebok and about the sports footwear business is that it is very visible, and you mix with people, athletes, and personalities. Hence, it's an exciting business to be in. So, the excitement led us to take those next steps and we got lucky. Of course, we got lucky. You work hard, but you need a bit of luck as well.

In your struggling days, you and your brother had to live in your shoe factory, we’ve also read that the machines were placed on the edge of the stairs as the floors were not strong enough to hold the weight of the machine…

Well, when you are young, what can go wrong? You're just young and could do anything, we were totally unflappable. That was it, we knew we could it. I sometimes look back and ask myself that question.

Tell us about Reebok’s journey in India. How important was India in Reebok’s global journey?
I think Reebok has been quite a large brand in India for some time. Regrettably, this is my first time here, I should have been here earlier, but we’ve made it at last. It is fabulous to actually see the brand go global. I would've been in India much earlier, but sometimes politically things don't work that way, you have to have partnerships in order to set up. The brand came to India when I think I was still running the business. We got the brand global because having brought it to the American market, it really gives you the opportunity to go to other places. So, that was the springboard, to have the brand go global and India was part of that.

Also, it feels incredible to come and talk to people who remember that breakthrough. We remember when Reebok first came in and how big it was, and we think it's still very big in India and it's going to get even bigger. Earlier today, we met with the new licensee for India, and we are going to see the team, so, this is going to get exciting. I am excited to visit Bangalore to see them. I think it's good that the brand is now owned by Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail, I think this is providing the brand the opportunity for Reebok to come back and grow.

We are seeing a rise in entrepreneurship and a lot of start-ups are coming up in India, but the journey is never easy. What's your message to those aspirational entrepreneurs and those who are not yet into entrepreneurship but are thinking of taking that leap of faith?
To anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur, I would say just keep your optimism alive, and keep trying. Don't worry about failure. Failure is just that challenge you may need to keep yourself going. We did it, we went from running to aerobics. We saw that wide space that is different, and if you keep working hard enough, and you keep looking around, you keep that optimism, you will find your space. But you have to keep looking for it.


Profile of Joe Foster
Joseph William Foster (Joe Foster) was born in 1935 in Bolton England. Joe’s grandfather was the founder of J W Foster & Sons (Athletic Shoes) Ltd and the inventor of the Spiked Running Shoe and the Trainer (Sneaker). Joe and his late brother Jeff were born into the family business, but on their return home from National Service, they asked questions. The year was 1955 and the brothers saw a business still rooted in the 1930s. So in 1958, Joe and Jeff left the Foster business to set up a new sports shoe company, Mercury Sports Footwear, which became REEBOK in 18 months. Joe’s book Shoemaker recounts the story of Reebok, from a start-up to a $4 billion business, going head-on with Adidas & Nike.

Interesting Facts
· Joe Foster's grandfather was the founder of J.W. Foster and Sons, and the pioneer of the spiked running shoe.

· J.W. Foster and Sons began distributing shoes across the United Kingdom, which were worn by British athletes, and were made famous by 100m Olympic champion Harold Abrahams in the 1924 Summer Olympics held in Paris.

· Joe shares the same name as his grandfather, also named Joseph William Foster.

· Joe founded Reebok in 1958 with his late brother Jeff, following their family heritage back to 1895.

· Joe Foster found the name ‘Reebok’ in a dictionary won in a sprint race when he was a boy. The name is Afrikaans for the grey rhebok, a type of African antelope.

· In the book – Shoe Maker, Joe has also talked about his grief when his brother Jeffery, who co-founded Reebok along with him, died from stomach cancer and his daughter Kay, passed away from leukaemia in 1988.

· Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail owns Reebok in India

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magazine 25 March 2023