Alan Atkinson

Retail Business Analyst

February 2017

Book Review - Shoe Dog

Phil Knight walked, or should I say ran, a fascinating path on his way to building one of the world’s most iconic sportswear brands. In Shoe Dog, Nike’s co-founder and former CEO chronicles his life’s journey, from peddling running shoes at local track meets to leading a multi-national juggernaut with billions of dollars in annual revenues. He candidly recounts the company’s seminal moments, while detailing the challenges he faced while at the helm of his burgeoning enterprise.  

Blue Ribbon Sports was founded in 1964 by Knight and renowned track and field coach Bill Bowerman. Knight, a qualified accountant and self-described sports nut, obtained rights from Japanese firm Onitsuka (now Asics) to distribute its Tiger shoes in the United States. While successful, the relationship with Onitsuka was often strained and ultimately deteriorated to the point where Knight decided to produce his own brand of shoes. And thus in May of 1971, Nike was born.

Ingredients for success

In this memoir, we gain insight into the personal traits that helped Knight become one of the world’s wealthiest individuals. As no man is an island, we also become familiar with the eclectic mix of individuals that made up his executive management team.  

We discover that many of Knight’s characteristics are consistent with those of other highly successful entrepreneurs; the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs come to mind, although Knight does come across as more affable.

1. Passion

Realising that he wasn’t going to make it as a professional athlete, Knight set about finding work that would allow him to experience the emotions associated with playing sports. Essentially, the company was borne out of his desire to do work that felt like play.   

He also mentions that that he had an “unhealthy contempt” for Adidas, the dominant sportswear company in the US at the time. Early on he set himself the ambitious goal of growing Nike’s revenues to the point where they exceeded those of Adidas.

2. Persistence

Knight viewed the company as one of his children, and he would do anything to ensure its survival. Even though Nike regularly found itself knocking on death’s door, he always found creative ways to bring it back to life.   

3. Growth

Cash (or a lack thereof) was a constant headache for the business, with Knight choosing to prioritise growth over profits. The banks, which Knight depended on for loans to fund expansion, were often reluctant to extend credit to a company that wasn’t committed to improving its bottom line.

This growth-oriented attitude is another common trait amongst successful entrepreneurs. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is renowned for his relentless pursuit of sales growth, often at the expense of profits.    

4. Culture

Knight also worked hard to build a strong culture, and made sure to surround himself with people who were skilled at their job, loyal to the brand, and shared his long-term vision for the company.

Management Style

As a boss, Knight employed a hands-off management style.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.”

He was also very reticent to lavish praise on his employees. Anyone who craved constant guidance or words of affirmation was destined for disappointment.  

Controversies and Personal Struggles

As with most multi-national corporations, Nike hasn’t been without its controversies. In the early 90’s, stories began circulating about the company mistreating its factory staff, an issue Knight admits he could have handled better. He goes on to stress that Nike has pioneered a number of practices and processes to improve working conditions for its labourers.

Regarding his private life, Knight opens up about his battle to strike a healthy balance between work and family time. The impact of this constant struggle is most evident in his relationship with his eldest son, Matthew.  

On the whole, Shoe Dog is a very well-written book that answers all the burning questions you may have about Nike, including how the ubiquitous swoosh logo came to be. If you are interested in finding out what is takes to build and run a market-leading enterprise, then give Shoe Dog a read.


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