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The real story behind the two Bolton brothers who founded Reebok

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

BORN in Bolton in 1935, Joe Foster’s journey from working for the family-run shoemakers to creating one of the world’s most famous sports brands has certainly been a marathon and not a sprint.

Now, aged 85, the founder of Reebok has decided to tell his story in Shoemaker, a new book which tells a powerful tale of triumph against all the odds, revealing the challenges and sacrifices that go into creating a world-beating company.

“There were that many stories out there about us that are quite incorrect but I wanted to tell the real story of what is a family business,” said Joe, speaking from his home in Barrow Bridge.

The story begins in 1895 with Joe’s grandfather, Joseph William Foster, who developed some of the earliest spiked running shoes above his father’s sweet shop in Bolton.

“People don’t know what a genius my grandfather was,” said Joe. “He learnt his skills from his grandfather who was a cobbler in Nottingham and made his first pair of shoes when he was 14.”

J.W.Foster was formed in 1900 and by the 1920s they were providing hand-made running shoes, for the likes of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams - later immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire - as well as providing boots to most Football League clubs.

But in the 1950s a family feud between Foster’s father and uncle about the direction of their business led to Joe and his brother Jeff setting up a new company, inspired by the success of Adidas and Puma, and so Reebok was born.

“National Service knocked on my door when I was 18 and by the time I came back in 1955 I’d had my eyes opened,” he said. “We were looking at a failing company - they had no salesmen, no marketing plans and we could see Adidas in Germany begin to take their business.

“My father didn’t want to know. It was all about getting stuck in and making shoes but it took three years before Jeff and myself decided we’d had enough.

“It was a bit acrimonious but there was a determination to do it because they just wouldn’t listen.Uncle Bill and my father just didn’t get on and couldn’t talk to each other.”

Moving into an old brewery in Bury, the brothers founded ‘Mercury Sports Footwear’, which after 18 months changed its name to ‘Reebok’ after Joe chose a random word for a South African antelope from a Webster’s dictionary he had won in an 80 yards sprint race as an eight-year-old at Leverhulme Park.

“I like the letter ‘R’,” said Joe. “It had a nice strong, ring to it, but of course if it had been the Oxford English Dictionary it would have been spelt ‘rhebok’ which I don’t think would have been as easy to say.

“We moved to Bury to be close to the shoe industry in Rossendale Valley although I always think of our true home as Bolton.”

The Reebok business developed with Jeff looking after production, while Joe took charge of the sales and marketing side with a determination to break into the US market.

“When I looked over at the US college system the coach was god and I knew we needed that market,” said Joe. “First time I went there was 1968 to the National Sporting Goods of America Show in Chicago. But no one wanted to import them and it took until 1979 when I met Paul Fireman (future Reebok CEO) that we got going in America.”

A few years later, Reebok become a global phenomenon, after they were the first to latch onto the potential of the aerobics craze inspired by Jane Fonda. Soon, Reeboks were being seen on Hollywood red carpets and even in the film Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver wore a pair of Reebok Alien Stompers. In 1986, Reebok surpassed Nike as the top-selling manufacturer of athletic shoes in the United States, second only in the world to Adidas.

“The running market in the US throughout the 1970s was booming,” said Joe. “In 1979 we bought out the Gold Range: Midas, Aztec and Inca and we started manufacturing in South Korea.

“With the aerobics we had this lightbulb moment about producing a shoe that would be like a glove for ladies. We made 200 and gave them to instructors and that was it - women found them so comfortable and it was the first time there was a specific sports shoe just for women.

“We were in Los Angeles and Hollywood and right in the thick of it because the boom all started in California.We would bring all these stars over for a pro/celebrity tennis tournament in Monte Carlo and everyone was there: Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Jayne Seymour and John Forsyth.”

In August 2005, Adidas acquired Reebok as a subsidiary, uniting two of the largest sport outfitting companies in the world and uniting Joe’s original idea with the company who first inspired him.

But despite the jet setting, mixing with the stars and the fact that Reebok is a US company and no longer carries its famous Union Jack logo, Joe has never forgotten his roots in Bolton as evidenced by the decision to sponsor Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium in 1997.

“People started saying ‘I’ll meet you at the Reebok’ and ‘I’m going to the Reebok’,” he added. “It still sticks - I don’t hear many people calling it the Macron or the University of Bolton Stadium.

“When people ask me who I support I say Bolton. It is an emotional thing - we spend a lot of time in France and Tenerife but Bolton is still home.”

n Shoemaker - The Untold Story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand by Joe Fosteris published by Simon and Schuster.

Ten Bobsworth

Frank Worthington
Frank Worthington

Iles covered some of this in his 'Hargreaves fundedĀ  the Reebok' article in August 2018. It was garbage and coincided with Anderson deciding he'd had enough of the 'esteemed' twerp and banned him from the stadium.
Final straw I suspect.

Ten Bobsworth

Frank Worthington
Frank Worthington

I'm fairly certain that Joe Foster had disposed of his interest in Reebok when Reebok took the decision to pay for the stadium naming right's.

HeadĀ  of operations for Reebok Europe at the time was Dave Singleton, a born and bred Boltonian who chairs the Bolton Wanderers Community Trust.

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