J W Foster & Sons produced some of the most highly-regarded running shoes in the world in the 1920s. The business was revived as Reebok, and had grown to take one fifth of the global athletic shoe market by the early 1990s.
J W Foster & Sons
Joseph William Foster (1881 – 1933) was a cobbler and keen amateur runner. He developed a spiked running shoe in 1895.
Foster began to manufacture shoes for other runners, and established a shoe manufacturing business at 57 Deane Road, Bolton from 1900.
The business was trading as J W Foster & Sons by 1910. This was presumably an attempt to make the firm seem larger or longer-established than it really was, as his sons at the time were eight and four years old.
Production switched to army boots during the First World War.
Foster’s running shoes were the elite athletic item of their era. A large number of professional athletes used his shoes.
J W Foster & Sons advertised that 90 percent of English and Scottish football league clubs used their shoes for training by 1922. The firm also supplied the 1924 British Olympic track team.
J W Foster & Sons advertised itself as the oldest manufacturer of entirely handmade running shoes in the world by 1926.
C Ellis broke the one mile running record wearing Foster’s shoes in 1928. Percy Williams (1908 – 1982) used Foster’s shoes to win the 100m and 200m races at the 1928 Olympic games.
Joseph William Foster died in 1933 and left an estate valued at £5,598. His two sons, John William Foster (1902 – 1960) and James William Foster (1906 – 1976) took over the business.
Army boots were produced during the Second World War.
Reebok is established; expansion in North America
German rivals Adidas and Puma began to entered the athletic shoe market from the post-war period, with lower-cost and more effective models.
The founder’s grandsons, Joseph “Joe” William Foster (born 1935) and Jeffrey “Jeff” William Foster (1933 – 1980), entered into the business during this period.
After returning from national service, the two brothers became frustrated at their fathers’ lack of vision. The business was not adapting to their rivals, and did not pursue sales or overseas markets.
The two brothers broke free from their fathers, and established Reebok at Bury in 1958 in order to manufacture their own athletic shoes. Joe Foster was the chairman and managing director, whilst Jeff Foster had responsibility for production.
The Reebok brand was well known throughout the North West of England by the 1970s.
Following the death of James W Foster in 1976, J W Foster & Sons was absorbed into Reebok.
A new footwear range was introduced in 1978: the Aztec trainer, the Midas racing shoe and the Inca spiked track shoe. All three products received a five-star review in Runner’s World, an influential American magazine.
Joe Foster sold the American sales rights for Reebok to Paul Fireman (born 1944), an affable and easygoing outdoor equipment marketer, for $65,000 in 1979.
Assembly of Reebok shoes was transferred to South Korea, where production costs were lower, from 1980. Shoe components continued to be manufactured in the original factory in Bury.
Reebok registered United States sales of around $300,000 in 1980.
High demand saw Reebok USA suffer from cash flow problems. Stephen Rubin (born 1937) acquired 55 percent of Reebok USA for $77,500 in August 1981. Rubin contributed knowledge of the sports shoe market, and experience with Asian outsourcing.
Reebok identified the growing market for aerobics, and launched two shoes, Freestyle and Energizer, in 1982. Total US sales had climbed to $12.9 million by the end of 1983. Meanwhile, Nike was suffering a downturn, which allowed Reebok to flourish.
Production capacity at Bury was doubled to 1,000 pairs a week in 1983. Reebok was the fourth largest manufacturer of training shoes in Britain with a ten percent market share, behind Nike, New Balance and Adidas.
Reebok International and Reebok USA merged in April 1984. Stephen Rubin maintained his 55 percent stake and 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 Joe 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.
Reebok becomes a public company; acquisition by Adidas
Stephen Rubin took Reebok International public in 1985. Sales for that year totalled over $300 million.
Reebok overtook Nike as the largest athletic shoe manufacturer in the United States in 1986. Growing sales saw the head office relocated from Avon to Canton.
The British factory was relocated from Bury to Bolton in 1986.
Rockport was acquired for $118.5 million in cash in 1986.
85 percent of Reebok shoes were made in South Korea by 1987.
Nike reclaimed its position as the largest athletic shoe manufacturer in the United States from 1988.
Reebok International was the most profitable company in the United States, based on return on equity, by the late 1980s.
Joe Foster retired as President of Reebok International in 1990, but remained in a consultancy position.
The cost-conscious Rubin clashed with Fireman, who argued for lavish marketing campaigns. Rubin sold his stake in Reebok for $770 million in 1991.
Reebok controlled around one fifth of the worldwide athletic shoe market in the first half of the 1990s.
Reebok International registered sales of $3 billion in 1996. Its products were sold across 170 different countries.
Reebok became the sponsor of the Bolton Wanderers football stadium from 1997.
Reebok was acquired by Adidas for £2.1 billion (US$3.8 billion) in 2005.
Adidas closed down the Reebok head office in Bolton in 2009, ending the brand’s association with its home town.
Joe Foster stepped down from his consultancy position in 2015.
Adidas underinvested in the Reebok brand. Joe Foster remarked:
there is no doubt that Adidas knew exactly what it needed to do to grow Reebok, but doing so would have affected their own brand. I can’t say it is wrong when a company that pays $3.8 billion makes those decisions. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune.
Adidas sold Reebok to Authentic Brands for $2.5 billion in 2021. Reebok controlled less than two percent of the global athletic shoe market.
I would highly recommend Shoe Maker by Joe Foster (2020)