Born in Bolton, England, four years before WW2 in 1935, Joe Foster alongside his late brother Jeff, co-founded the iconic global shoe brand, Reebok.
Entrepreneurship was in the brothers’ blood, with their grandfather founding J W Foster & Sons, who pioneered the spiked running shoe worn by some of the world’s best athletes in the early 20th century.
Jeff joined the family business when he was 15 in 1948, while Joe joined in 1952 when he was 17. Both brothers worked on the shop floor, making shoes. However, in 1953, both brothers had to do a period of National Service, leaving the family business at the same time.
While based in Germany, Jeff witnessed the rise of Puma and Adidas and saw that a new type of shoe was making waves in the market and knew that they had to pivot if they wanted to join the big shoe leagues.
After returning from two years of National Service, Jeff and Joe discovered that the family business was failing. Their father and uncle had taken over the company from Jeff and Joe’s deceased grandfather but weren’t getting on too well.
As a result, they decided to abandon the family business to branch out on their own and left in 1958. They had initially decided to call the company Mercury, but after that was unavailable, they discovered the name ‘Reebok’ by chance. From here, the brand was born.
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the Reebok brand. However the brand's rise was not by chance – Joe and Jeff found new ways to advertise, target their customers, and influence the market. We’re so excited to talk to Joe, who’s been kind enough to tell us more about the brand’s vision, expansion, and growth throughout the years.
Before starting any new business, having a clear vision and purpose for your brand is key. For Joe and Jeff, their collective vision was a belief that together, they could grow and evolve their family's shoe business, J W Foster & Sons. Innovation and entrepreneurship were clearly in their DNA, as their grandfather, who founded the company, also pioneered the use of track spikes in runners. Here, Joe explains how they made it happen.
When Jeff and I returned from two years of National Service – Jeff in the Army and myself in the RAF (air force) – we could see that J W Foster & Sons' family business was failing. That two years away from normal family life had broadened our outlook and opened our eyes. We had developed an independence, and responses to questions of, "When we are gone, you can do what you like" was not acceptable.
Our only solution was to leave the family business to set up our own sports shoe company.
Our vision was also a considerable challenge, mainly driven by our belief that J W Foster & Sons needed to change. As a partnership, Jeff and I knew we could take the business further. However, when realising that our father and uncle didn't see the same opportunity we did, we decided to craft our destiny and start a company of our own.
Joe and Jeff had innovation in their blood. Their grandfather's company, J W Foster & Sons, pioneered the use of track spikes in the runners used by athletes. We asked Joe why, as an entrepreneur, having an 'innovative mindset' is essential and what lessons he drew from his grandfather's pioneering nature into Reebok.
On reflection, when we embarked on our own venture, Jeff and I knew little of our grandfather's incredible innovation and success. However, I believe that mindset was in our DNA and inspired us to step into the unknown.
In addition to that entrepreneur DNA, my brother and I had also recognized that if the family business was still in its existing state when our father and uncle 'retired,' that we may have been too old to change it.
With both elements in mind, along with youthful energy, self-belief, and an 'indestructible' attitude, we took a leap of faith, starting our own shoe business - Reebok.
After finding their original choice for their brand name, 'Mercury,' was unavailable, Joe and Jeff discovered 'Reebok' after finding it inside a South African dictionary. They then learned that Reebok derived from a species of African Antelope representing style and speed, and the co-founders knew they'd found their new company's name. Here Jeff explains why the meaning behind a brand name is important;
For me personally, and in my experience, to be successful, you need to be passionate about all aspects of your business, including the name. A brand name is an incredible part of the energy you need to succeed and so thought and care should be taken when selecting what that name will be.
The dictionary was a 'Webster's' American dictionary I had won in an 80 yards race in 1943, when I was 8, during WW2. A Reebok is a small South African Gazelle, but the spelling is American.
Brand Evolution & Competition.
While completing national service in various European cities, Jeff was exposed to the growth of brands like Adidas and Puma. With this knowledge and an entrepreneurial mindset, he and Joe knew the family business had to evolve or else they likely wouldn't survive. With this in mind, we asked Joe why, as a brand founder, you must understand your competitor landscape.
As with J W Foster & Sons, you don't really have a business if you are not creating the trends or are not aware of who is. We were very much aware of the Adidas and Puma brands and how they were changing the landscape.
Football was already beyond our reach in 1958 when we set up our own company. We could make the product, but you needed money to influence the market, and we had none.
We had to move to cycling first and then athletics, where you could influence the market by becoming involved and giving a few pairs of shoes to winners. So while product innovation is important, you need to know how to influence the market to have success.
In 1968, following a push by the UK government to support and promote the export business, Joe took his first trip to the USA, where he forged valuable connections with industry contacts and sports personalities like Bob Anderson - who reviewed runners for magazines and also introduced the concept of star ratings. With these new contacts, an interest in the Reebok brand, and three subsequent 5-star rated shoes, Joe found the ‘hook’ required to crack into the US market. We ask Joe why building a community and network around a brand is key for growth and success.
What was unusual about Reebok was our image and involvement. Most, if not all of sports footwear manufacturers in the UK, were manufacturing-driven, who relied on the sports shops to stock and sell their products.
My lesson came during my early attempts to become a salesman. Of the many sports shops I entered to sell Reebok, many would say, ‘ I have Adidas and Dunlop – why do I need Reebok?’ Indeed why?
So, it’s the weekend, and I’m at another cross country meeting with shoes in the back of the car. Runners are flowing past, 50 or 100, usually covered in Lancashire mud. It was then I realized these were my customers, not the sports shops. That’s when I took to my AAA handbook, listing hundreds of clubs, with the name and address of every secretary – the rest is history. Reebok was a sports brand, not a shoe brand.
Customer Acquisition & Retention.
Sports personalities like Bob Anderson helped expose Reebok to consumers in the US through his star rating reviews. At the time, this was hugely beneficial from a customer acquisition perspective; however, when thinking about customer retention, we asked Joe what his advice is for founders of emerging brands.
Once again, we come back to 'influences.' The running market emerged during the late 1960s and all through the '70s in the USA, becoming a huge market and 'Runner's World' was THE influence. It is so important to find what and who influences your market.
Continually investing in oneself is key as an entrepreneur. Books such as Joe's - ShoeMaker which details the untold story behind his family business and Reebok's rise as a global brand, are important for entrepreneurs to read and be inspired by. Here Joe tells us other habits for success which he'd suggest aspiring entrepreneurs adopt.
When thinking about self-development, I always think it is essential to enjoy what you do.
As an entrepreneur, I doubt you can be successful without being passionate about your business. In addition to passion, you also need the right people around you to help grow and develop your business, as I did with Reebok.
As you grow and mature as a founder, from my experience, it is then essential to develop an inclusive culture where people can share your passion and enthusiasm. This is the key to sustained long term growth and success.
Through my book ShoeMaker, readers will share my experiences during the most exciting and rewarding time of my life – building and growing Reebok into the global brand it is today. There are downsides and sadness, but I believe that above all else, you must always maintain your self-belief. Getting it wrong is not a failure, just a valuable lesson. So listen, learn, optimise and continue growing.
*You can also get a signed copy of ShoeMaker, the remarkable full story of how Joe developed Reebok into one of the world's most famous sports brands.