A new book tracks the rise of Reebok, a sportswear firm from Bolton that became a global phenomenon

PUBLISHED: 13:22 22 September 2020 | UPDATED: 20:47 22 September 2020

Joe Foster

Joe Foster

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Joe Foster, the founder of Reebok on the firm’s humble beginnings in Bolton

Joe FosterJoe Foster

When he won a race as an eight-year-old, Joe Foster was presented with a dictionary.

Years later, he reached for that book when he was faced with a choice: change the name of your business, or pay £1000. Leafing through its pages, he found the perfect name.

‘For some reason it was an American dictionary,’ Joe said. ‘If it had been an English dictionary the name would have been spelled Rhebok, which doesn’t look as good.’

The name of a South African antelope is now associated across the world with one of the biggest brands of sportswear. But Reebok’s global success is a far cry from the company’s beginnings in Bolton.

Joe’s grandfather - also called Joe - created the first spiked running shoe, in 1895. He was a keen but less than successful athlete and trialled his new shoes in a race at the Bolton Primrose Harriers track where everyone he lined up against was wearing the more familiar plimsolls. As the spikes gripped the surface of the track, he moved into the lead and stretched ahead of the chasing pack. A first win seemed on the cards until the sole of one shoe gripped the track a little too well and he ran on, leaving it behind.

He hobbled to a halt and was passed by the rest of the field, but he knew the idea was a good one and worked on redesigning his creation, making it lighter, softer and stronger. Before long, athletes were clamouring for shoes made by JW Foster, first it was athletes from his club then, as demand grew, rivals from further afield.

In 1900 he moved the production into premises on Deane Road, where he created bespoke running shoes for particular athletes, tracks or races across the UK. The reputation of his shoes grew as world records and Olympic medals went time and again to athletes in spikes hand-made by JW Foster.

His two sons took on the business, making hand stitched running shoes from a factory in Bolton? but as technology developed, the brother’s relationship disintegrated. One wanted to make the most of the new machinery that could speed up their production. The other wanted to continue making the traditional hand-stitched shoes that had made their name.

The row led to the brothers going their separate ways. They didn’t go far though, and ended up making shoes the way they each wanted to, in neighbouring buildings. But although they remained close geographically, they barely ever spoke to one another again.

When they returned from National Service in the mid-1950s Joe and his brother Jeff – whose father had favoured the machinery option – were keen to take the business to the next level, but found resistance from their dad.

‘It was a company dying but no matter what we said, dad told us the company would be ours when he died,’ Joe said. ‘Our answer to that was that the company would be dead before he was.’

Joe and Jeff wanted to be quicker out of the blocks, so launched their own business, which they called Mercury. ‘I thought naming it after the messenger of the gods, with his winged heels, was quite clever,’ Joe added.

And it was, but as with many good ideas, someone had already had it. After months of trading they were faced with an ultimatum: find a new name or buy the rights to use Mercury, for £1000.

‘They might as well have asked for a million pounds,’ said Joe who instead reached for the dictionary.

‘We were shoemakers but we were involved in sport and we knew that the right shoes could make a difference. We were looking at shoes as an athlete, not as a shoemaker. Ron Hill, the distance runner, came to us and we looked at the way he ran and made a very light shoe with no heel because he ran on the balls of his feet. It’s those little things that can make a big difference in sport.’

Joe, who left the businesses in 1989, has now told the story of the company’s humble beginnings and the little changes that helped them become a global success in a book out this month, Shoemaker.

‘People have been trying to get me to write a book for about 40 years,’ he said. ‘Writing the book has taken me about seven years – there have been about three or four different versions along the way. People were disappearing from my life and I felt I ought to get things down on paper and it was about time I did as people had suggested.’

The book tells the behind the scenes tales of Reebok’s incredible growth to become the world’s number one sportswear brand and how their shoes appeared on famous feet in films and events across the globe.

‘I can look back now and think “Wow, how did we do that?” but at the time it was so incremental, each thing was a stepping stone to the next,’ Joe said. ‘At the time it was an adventure and writing the book brought a lot of things back.

‘The key thing for us was to get into America – Track and Field was so big there. We hit on a bit of magic with aerobics, in a way it wasn’t good for us to expand so fast; we went from a £9m turnover to £900m in four years. The timing was a big piece of luck. Every woman had a pair of Reebok aerobic shoes and then the men wanted our tennis shoes.’

Sigourney Weaver wore a pair in the film Alien and Frank Sinatra was among the stellar names to appear at pro-celebrity tennis events in Reeboks.

‘We were number one in the world, ahead of Nike and Adidas, but it’s one thing getting to the top of the mountain, it’s another thing to stay there.

‘Adidas bought the company in 2005 and things took a bit of a dip for them but I think things are coming back now – they’re working with Ariana Grande, Victoria Beckham and Gal Godot. They’re trying to make it a fitness company. I think they need to improve the visibility of the company, to get the name on tv – that’s what makes the street buy your product.

‘The world is changing and so many people are buying online. Covid has brought that forward 10 years faster than it would have happened otherwise.’

Now 85, Joe lives in central France, near Limoges, but returns to Bolton regularly with his wife Julie. Before coronavirus changed the world, the couple would enjoy travelling Europe, visiting friends and seeing the places he missed during his working life.

‘I travelled the world when I was working, but only saw airports and hotels, so it’s good that we’ve been able to visit them properly since then.

‘I think I had the bug in January – I was listless and I put weight on but I’m over it now. I go walking every day. I try to do three or four kilometres to keep slightly fit. I have Reeboks on my feet, of course.’

Shoemaker by Joe Foster is out on October 1st, published by Simon and Schuster.

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