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Shoemaker: Reebok and the Untold Story of a Lancashire Family Who Changed the World

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The remarkable story of how Joe Foster developed Reebok into one of the world's most famous sports brands, having started from a small factory in Bolton.

Since the late 19th century, the Foster family had been hand-making running shoes, supplying 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 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.

At first, money was so short that Joe and his wife had to live in their rundown factory, while the machinery that made the shoes was placed around the edge of the floor, because it was so weak it could have collapsed if they'd been positioned in the middle. But, from this inauspicious start, a major new player in the sports equipment field began to emerge, inspired by Joe's marketing vision. By the 1980s, Reebok had become a global phenomenon, when 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. 

Like the international bestseller Shoe Dog, by Nike's Phil Knight, Shoemaker is a powerful tale of triumph against all the odds, revealing the challenges and sacrifices that go into creating a world-beating brand; it is also the story of how a small local business can transform itself, with the right products and the right vision, into something much, much bigger. 


Published October 1, 2020

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Joe Foster

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5 stars
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126 (43%)
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62 (21%)
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Displaying 1 - 26 of 26 reviews
2,221 reviews32 followers
January 30, 2022

2.5 Stars!

I am pretty sure that the only Reebok product I have ever had was a pair of Hexalite trainers, bought for me by parents for the sum of £50 way back in 1992, when I was still at school. For me and what I recall of my school age peers and target audience for Reebok, aside from a few years in the early 90s when Pump and Hexalite were in full swing, they were never really one of the cooler or popular brands, they never seemed to capture the imagination enough in the way that so many other competitors and contemporaries did.

Anyway it turns out that Foster had absolutely nothing to do with this period as he had already sold out to the Americans back in 1984. This wasn’t as compelling or in depth as I would have liked, it was just too dry, it’s a shame because if this emphasized the fashion/pop cultural aspect more then this could have been a lot more fun, but instead it was a bit of a pedestrian stroll through an interesting but far from remarkable back story.

Foster comes across very much as an honest, down to earth type, but also he doesn’t seem to be that great of a businessman, especially with quotes like, “It hadn’t dawned on either of us that here in Spain we would need to employ the services of a translator.” And it is clear that his company only became incredibly successful after he sold it, which is kind of the elephant in the room. The choice of photographs were pretty disappointing too, and I feel that overall this was a bit of a missed opportunity. This was an OK enough read, but nothing to get too excited about.
Profile Image for Alexander Krastev.
114 reviews71 followers
January 3, 2022
Може би тази книга получи лошия късмет да я слушам седмица след като бях завършил феноменалната биография на Фил Найт, създателя на Найки. В “Shoemaker” има чудесни истории, немалко бизнес поуки, но доста неща сякаш не ѝ достигат - няма хумор, няма го погледът отвътре за успехите… Може би прецизно описание на историята на компанията, но прекалено обрано откъм предприемачески съвети.
В интерес на истината обаче, трябва да признаем, че пътят на Reebok и Nike е доста различен и съпоставката им все пак е любопитна. Така че препоръката ми определено е двете книги да се четат или слушат в комплект.
Profile Image for Vassilena.
272 reviews90 followers
August 22, 2021
Интересна книга, която показва личния път на Джо Фостър като основател на Reebok. Има многоинтересни истории, само в началото е малко по-разтеглена, но бързо стига до основата. Влиза не просто в брандинга, но и във всички компоненти на бизнеса: ликвидност и парични потоци, работа с доставчици и разпространители, проблемите на международното разрастване и още много.
22 reviews4 followers
February 8, 2021
Very readable book; many "pithy" comments, typical of the British mastery of English. Deep insights into the US market, consumer, and thought process. Enjoyed reading. Nice to mention of Vijay Amritraj - our own Tennis players
Profile Image for Lanre Dahunsi.
175 reviews17 followers
March 27, 2022
Shoemaker: The Untold Story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand, Co-Founder of Reebok Joe Foster describes the remarkable story of how he founded Reebok in 1958 with his late brother Jeff, following their family heritage back to 1895. From humble beginnings, they started from a small factory in Bolton and built a global brand with grit, persistence, and focus. Joe’s Grandfather, Joseph W Foster founded J. W. Foster & Sons which pioneered the spiked running shoe and famously made shoes for the world's best athletes of the early 20th century, with World records and Olympics Gold Medals.

31 years to become an overnight success

It seems to have worked, though it took thirty-one years to grow from a start-up to the world’s number one sports brand. Perhaps if I had made different decisions it would have arrived sooner, but I know for sure that, without the long and meandering journey, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the destination.

At the end of the day, many things needed to fall into place as I steered the Reebok ship along a path to success. Some of it was my doing, some of it was that of others. Some of it I’d like to call business acumen, but most of it was not. It was more a matter of good fortune, a dogged determination (some would say obsessive), and an ability to think creatively to turn misfortune into opportunity.

Genius doesn’t just rely on creativity, invention, and production. It also needs recognition. Without being recognized, you can’t be perceived as a genius.

Breaking free from parochial view of the world

And so I returned to Bolton in September 1955. Once again, I took my place in the family business. Many things had changed in those two years away, myself included. I’d finally broken free of the parochial mentality that insulated you from a view of the wider world. I could see beyond the smoking mill towers of Bolton, the redbrick Victoriana and the preordained treadmill of a Lancashire lifespan – birth, labour, death – interspersed with football devotion on the first day of the weekend, religious veneration the next.

Go Backwards to move Forward

The only way of raising enough money to be able to rent a factory was to sell my bungalow. This would mean Jean and I moving back in with her parents for a while until we located a suitable factory and could find somewhere else to call home. Lodging with the in-laws was not something I particularly yearned for, especially after getting used to cosy family life in our own home. But, again,

Study your Industry

I was an avid reader of all the sporting goods magazines. I had to be. It was the best way of keeping up with the latest trends.


Finally, at the risk of sounding like an Oscar winner, I’d like to thank Lady Luck. Without her on my side, none of this would have been possible. Every entrepreneur, without exception, needs a little good fortune their way. I had plenty, and from the bottom of my heart, I hope you do too.

I guess some people set a cap on their goals, while others seek the moon and beyond. I think you have to know from the outset exactly what you’re striving for depending on your mindset. For me, it was taking the company as far as it could go, and, for that, it had to enter the big arena to take on the A-list sports shoemakers.

Profile Image for Richard White.
Author 4 books6 followers
September 4, 2022
I’m not really sure who the audience of this book is. Having been gripped by Shoe Dog, I was excited to read this hoping for a similar book. Sadly, it’s not even in the same league - just as Reebok never truly held a candle to Nike.

Shoe Maker is easy to read and a largely enjoyable book, but there’s no substance. Foster tells his story in much the same way you’d expect to hear it at a family dinner, which is to say a quick recollection that’s light on detail.

It’s hard to decide if the writers felt like the audience wouldn’t know enough about business or would already be suitable informed, but either way they didn’t feel it important to include detail. One moment the company is facing bankruptcy, the next it’s not. We’re told there were struggles but not so much what they were. Foster openly admits to being an absent husband and father, but only calls it “somewhat understandable” that his wife left him many years into the marriage when their children were adults. Foster says very little about the relationships in his life, other than to rattle off names.

The ghostwriter also ruined the flow more than once, with that awful tendency of many ghostwriters to inject too much of themselves into the story. Does a manager really remember the light shining through holes in a roof from 50 years ago just before they fire people? Or the cloudy sky and haze from an airport? No, they don’t. It’s jarring and insincere.

Compare this to Phil Knight in Shoe Dog. He truly takes us through the struggles of early Nike, the daily conversations with his dad, his nightly runs, the struggle to choose a name and logo, the importance of the people in his life, the bank managers that almost tanked the company, through to the difficult decision to go public.

There’s simply none of this in Shoe Maker. There’s no mention of whether Reebok went public or not. Where Phil Knight was a runner and grew Nike with sports as a passion, Foster didn’t. And he sold his company in the 80s, staying on with the responsibility to grow it in foreign markets. The lightweight detail makes it hard to know for sure but the impression is that under his stewardship, Reebok struggled for over 25 years and only took off after he sold it to crack the US market.

The best summation is this: when I read Shoe Dog, it made me want to work for Nike because there was such a strong sense of culture and purpose. Shoe Maker left no such impression, and my existing impression that Reebok is an unimpressive company making ugly shoes remains unchanged. But now I also feel like the founder isn’t a particularly likeable guy as well.
Profile Image for Росен Рашков.
90 reviews11 followers
March 21, 2023
Като дете на 90-те, една голяма част от дните ми преминаваха по баскетболните площадки и в едно време на недоимък само си мечтаех за техните продукти...

(Ах, помните ли The Pump?!)

Затова и когато приятел наскоро ми сподели, че е слушал "биографията на Reebok", се изненадах, че съм я пропуснал.

Едно посещение до Сиела по-късно, ето ме и мен със "Спринт към победата", удобно седнал в петъчната вечер.

Признавам си, първите двайсетина страници не ме впечатлиха особено - по-скоро тривиалните думи за такъв тип биография.

Но след това?

Амбицията и неволите на младия, неопитен Джо Фостър ме засмукаха в историята и неусетно отлетяха няколко часа.

Хареса ми, хора, защото това, освен искрена автобиография, е и готина бизнес книга за Изграждането.

А в някои горчивите уроци: за грешните партньорства, за примамливия капан да сложиш всички яйца в една кошница, за това просто да не си подготвен за големите възможности, неправилно поставени граници и забравянето на важните неща - разпознах и себе си.

За сравнение с биографията на Фил Найт от Nike, тази ми хареса малко повече. Да, знам, Nike винаги са били мега марката, докато Reebok сякаш са били някак в бекграунда.

Но книгата ще ви разкаже за тяхното удивително пътуване от трима души в полуразбита фабрика до бизнес за милиарди.

И не, не е спринт. Понякога е ориентиране, понякога е бягане в чувал или патешко ходене.

Но е все напред!

И всичко това е разказ от първо лице от Джо Фостър - създателят на компанията.
Profile Image for Harry Harman.
610 reviews13 followers
September 16, 2021
It is a book about motivation and the importance of gripping onto an opportunity when Lady Luck presents it.

For that, you needed a genetic advantage. You had to have been born with the DNA of a runner. I hadn’t. But looking back, I had been born with the DNA of an ‘improver’. I could gure out how to do things better, faster, the best way that you could, always looking for slight improvements, things that would give you a minuscule advantage, even at the age of seven.

Dad’s motto was ‘don’t x it if it’s not broken’. The problem was not that we had anything broken as such – the relationship with his brother apart – it was simply that competitors were improving, moving onwards and upwards rapidly, while Je and I could see we were heading in the opposite direction.
Profile Image for James Traxler.
328 reviews5 followers
December 25, 2022
3.5 stars.
Quite an interesting read.
I'm not sure why, as I'm not a big shoe person.
I mean, I have a few pairs of shoes, but that's about it.

Still, really this is about creating a business - from scratch really. Mr. Foster built upon the knowledge that he and his brother gained from his family's shoe business but they had to strike out on their own, starting from zero again, when their father and uncle showed no interest in their ideas for building the business.

The book is quite fast-paced and the level of detail is sufficient for the idle person who is somewhat curious. It is quite inspiring to hear of someone putting so much toil and intensity into ultimately creating such a massive success.
Profile Image for Dhaval Chheda.
7 reviews2 followers
June 27, 2021
This book is an interesting read. Gives you a glimpse into the personal and professional sacrifices of the founder as well as the entreprenuers. It also highlights on how important people are for the success of any company. In this book, you go through a journey that is kind of a rollercoaster, with happy as well as sad moments. You can feel the moments where it is quite tense and one falls move can break the company. Overall this is a well-balanced read and is recommended for anyone who is in search of motivation or needs inspiration.
Profile Image for Stoyan Yankov.
3 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2021
I loved listening to Joe Foster's (audio) book! It's a very honest and humble story of the building a global brand and bringing it to #1 Sports' brand in the world in the late 80s. Joe shares in much detail many situations, how he felt during the ups and down and the way he approached business and life decisions. As much as it is a business book, it's also a personal development journey of a highly successful and humble man. Highly recommend it!
7 reviews
April 11, 2022
Excellent book. Insightful of how a British company went from a small family run business to a global player.

The book is well narrated and I finished it in 2 days.

I also recommend Shoe Dog by Phil Knight who started up Nike. Each book shows a different perspective on entering the same business.
Profile Image for Chetan Mathur.
6 reviews
June 29, 2022
A very inspiring tale which has been narrated in an easy reading to read way.

My top 5 lessons ~

1) have courage to follow your dream
2) new doors will open when one shuts
3) take help from anybody who is willing to help
4) enjoy the journey and don’t fret about the destination
5) innovate like crazy to stay alive
Profile Image for Matthew Gibb.
25 reviews3 followers
August 4, 2022
There are a few parts worth reading, but much of the book is rather boring details of Joe's life and its many tribulations. I listened to the audio version and it was quick at about 7 hours. Shoe Dog was better and another book called Kicks was really the best book for providing an overview about the athletic shoe industry.
Profile Image for Cris.
104 reviews
January 14, 2023
Such an inspiring story. The founder of Reebok describes his journey into building the company and brand.

I wish he would have gone a bit more in depth into the struggles he encountered building the company and how he approached them. Give more details and tips on coping mechanisms for entrepreneurs

Nevertheless, this book is an inspiration and easy to listen to

Profile Image for Glenn Cameron.
18 reviews
June 2, 2022
Interesting stories and journey

Having previously read another shoe maker story was drawn to the British version and again that entrepreneurial story from family business origins to world do,I nation is always fascinating if tinged with the rather melancholy family sacrifice - maybe lacked insights in the narrative however, would be the critique
Profile Image for Claire.
180 reviews1 follower
June 27, 2022
Loved jt! Loved the history behind it… I didn’t even know it was a British brand. Really enjoyed and learnt from the entrepreneurial story.
Profile Image for Daniel Stoev.
26 reviews
September 5, 2022
Добра книга... с неочакван край:) Препоръчвам я за развлекателно четиво!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Maria.
42 reviews11 followers
November 11, 2022
I really enjoyed reading. It was a fast read.
Some stories had too much information and dragged on, others too little and I was wanting more.
Overall worth a read.
Profile Image for Thomas Gregersen.
14 reviews7 followers
June 10, 2021
Great read for everyone interested in business, sneakers and the intersection between these.

Some of the first chapters are a bit of a slow read with slow-moving narrative that spends too much focus on early childhood boy scout memories, and conscription in the RAF.

But once the book reaches the inception of Reebok as a company, the speed picks-up and it becomes hard to put down to again.
Profile Image for Nicholas Smith.
Author 1 book6 followers
October 27, 2020
Fans of "Shoe Dog", which charted the rise of Nike from the point of view of that brand's co-founder, will find "Shoemaker" an interesting read. Joe Foster brings a first-hand account into how Reebok grew from a small regional family business into a globally recognized sneaker brand.
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