J W Foster & Sons produced some of the most highly-regarded running shoes in the world in the 1920s. Rebranded as Reebok, its fashion shoes became highly successful in the 1980s.
Joseph William Foster (1881 – 1933) was a cobbler and keen amateur runner. He developed a spiked running shoe in 1895. In 1900 he established his business at 57 Deane Road, Bolton, where he hand made running shoes.
By 1910 the firm was trading as J W Foster & Sons. This was presumably an attempt to make the firm seem larger or longer-established than it really was, as his sons at this time were eight and four years old. His two sons, John William Foster (born 1902) and James William Foster (1906 – 1976) did eventually enter the business.
Foster’s running shoes were the elite athletic item of their era. A large number of professional athletes used his shoes. By 1922 the firm was advertising that 90 percent of English and Scottish football league clubs used their shoes. J W Foster & Sons supplied the 1924 British Olympic track team.
By 1926 the firm was advertising itself as the oldest manufacturer of completely hand-made running shoes in the world.
C Ellis broke the one mile record in 1928 wearing Foster’s shoes. Percy Williams (1908 – 1982) used Foster’s shoes to win the 100m and 200m races at the 1928 Olympic games.
The founder died in 1933 and his sons took over the firm.
Production switched to army boots during the two world wars.
The founder’s grandsons, Joseph William Foster (born 1935) and Jeffrey William Foster (1933 – 1980), established Reebok in Bury in 1958.
Joseph William Foster was the chairman and managing director.
The Reebok brand was well known throughout the North West of England by the 1970s. Reebok absorbed J W Foster & Sons in 1976.
Paul Fireman (born 1944) lobbied Joseph William Foster for the license to sell Reebok shoes in the US. Eventually Foster relented, and sold the US sales rights to Fireman for $65,000 in 1979. Reebok logged sales of around $300,000 in 1980.
By this time the components came from the original factory in England, but the shoes were assembled in South Korea.
Pentland Industries acquired 55 percent of Reebok USA in August 1981 for $77,500.
By the end of 1983, sales had climbed to $12.9 million. Reebok had stumbled upon an expanding market for aerobics. As chance would have it, Nike was also suffering from a downturn, which allowed Reebok to flourish.
Reebok International and Reebok USA merged in April 1984. Pentland Industries maintained its 55 percent stake, and its chairman, Stephen Rubin, was named chairman of Reebok International. Paul Fireman was named President and CEO of Reebok International, and held the remaining 45 percent share.
Reebok headquarters were relocated from Bolton, England to Avon, Massachusetts. The site had 52 employees. The relocation was based on the fact that most Reebok sales were in the US.
Warehouse and office facilities were maintained in Bolton, and Foster remained President of Reebok International.
In 1984 all the lasts, dies and markings were made in England. Research and development took place in England and South Korea.
Stephen Rubin, chairman of Pentland Industries, pushed for Reebok International to go public, which it did in 1985.
1985 sales totalled over $300 million.
Due to growth, head office was moved from Avon to Canton in 1986.
Rockport was acquired in 1986 for $118.5 million in cash.
Foster retired as President of Reebok International in 1990, but remained in a consultancy position.
Pentland Industries sold its stake in Reebok in 1991 for $770 million.
Reebok was acquired by Adidas for £2.1 billion in 2005.
Foster steeped down from his consultancy position in 2015.