How the Nazis and a Family Feud Led to Adidas and Puma

In the pantheon of origin stories for some of the world’s biggest businesses, there are no shortage of fascinating tales. From that time Colonel Sanders of KFC fame quite literally tried to kill his competition (via a gunfight that saw one dead and his competition jailed for it, even though said competition was just defending himself and he got shot by the the Colonel, while Colonel Sanders himself got off scot free for the whole thing despite being the instigator), to Steve Jobs’ first business selling illegal devices that allowed people to make collect phone calls for free which all indirectly led to the creation of Apple, to the founder of FedEx early in the company’s existence having to take the last few thousand dollars the company had and go gamble it in Vegas in hopes of winning enough to keep from going bankrupt (he was successful, obviously).

Today, however, we’re going to be looking at shoes. And, specifically, the rather humble origins of the company that would eventually split into Adidas and Puma, started by two Nazi brothers who, thanks to WWII, throwing each other under the bus for their Nazi activities, and one of their wives rubbing the one brother the wrong way, a family feud ensued seeing the company split and the two becoming bitter rivals. Soon after, the townspeople got sucked into it all as well, with anyone siding with one or the other having nothing to do with anyone on the other side. So much so that the town became nicknamed the “the town of bent neck” owing to everyone checking each others’ shoes to see if they should associate with them.

So, here now is the fascinating story of the founding of two of of the three biggest sporting shoe companies in the world. And, just for fun, we’ll be throwing in the origin of the top dog, Nike, in the Bonus Facts in a bit, which by the way the feud between the aforementioned brothers likely played a large role in gift wrapping that top spot to Nike in the ensuing decades.

But to begin with, our story today starts in the relatively small town of Herzogenaurach, Germany, with two brothers, Adolf Dassler (nicknamed Adi) and his older brother Rudolf, who apparently wasn’t special enough to get a nickname. Leading up to their shoe adventures, Rudolf fought in WWI, while Adi was left home owing to being too young at the time to be conscripted. As for filling his hours, after schooling complete, Adi tried his hand as an apprentice baker, but ultimately decided against being surrounded by smells of delicious fresh baked bread every day. Both brothers variously also worked for their mother helping with her laundry business, with the brothers primarily in charge of deliveries while their mother and sister, Marie, washed the clothes. Unfortunately for the family, after the war, the laundry business wasn’t doing so well and additional income was needed to keep the family solvent. Enter Adi who had in his spare time begun learning his father’s trade as a cobbler. But, like not the tasty kind of cobbler. Shoes.

An avid fan of various sports, as Adi learned more and more about not making tasty bread or type of dessert, but shoes, he had some ideas on how to make custom footwear for various sports and improve on the existing designs of the day. And so it was that he got the bright idea to not just go work at the town’s existing shoe company, like his father, but start his own.

Unfortunately for him,he had no money and post-WWI Germany wasn’t exactly flush with resources anyway. But Adi… Adi was a problem solver. To get around the trivial roadblock of no money or supplies to make his product, he simply began scavenging around for the needed materials from old war equipment that was quite literally just lying around in fields. Anything he found he could find some way to use to make shoes, he collected. This included everything from leather belts to helmets to old parachutes, which on the latter he apparently took to making slippers out of that apparently sold well.

As for Rudolf, after the war he was initially interested in becoming a police officer, and even completed training for such. More importantly for his future work, he also tried his hand as a salesman at a porcelain factory, as well as at leather trading, and even worked at a shoe making factory for a time alongside his father. But in 1923 as Adi’s business began to look like it might really become a thing, he decided to join his little brother and, about a year later, the two registered the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory, Herzogenaurach officially, initially operating out of the space their mom ran her laundry business out of. It’s also interesting to note here that the town at the time wasn’t exactly flush with reliable electricity, which the brothers needed in their shoe manufacturing. To get around the problem, they simply set up a bike modified to be able to hook it up to drive their equipment, such as attached to a leather milling machine.

Between Adi’s ingenuity and Rudolf’s skill as a salesman and marketer, the pair initially made an extremely complimentary team and got along swimmingly. Their shoes, which Adi was constantly tinkering with, also began separating their product from their competition. This ultimately caught the eye of the coach for the German Olympic track team, Josef Waltzer, who took a trip from Munich to Herzogenaurach to check out their new product. Long story short here, as the shoes at this point were ahead of any other track shoe at the time in a number of ways, he both helped direct athletes to the buy the shoes, and began consulting with the brothers on modifications he’d like to see, both from his own experience and from feedback from athletes themselves. This all saw their shoes being relatively popularly used by some German athletes during the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, such as Lina Radke, who won gold in the 800 meter wearing them. The shoes were even more popular among German athletes during the 1932 games.

Things really went to the next level, however, thanks to the Nazis. As for the brothers’ politics, this isn’t totally clear today with there potentially being a bit of whitewashing of history with one, and perhaps both of them. As for Rudolf, he joined the Nazi party in 1933, though it isn’t clear if this was just for business reasons, as the timing was around when they began supplying the Hitler Youth with shoes. Sideling up with this organization was originally seemingly at Adi’s insistence because of the massive potential for growth of the company if they could work their way in there. And, just in general, if you wanted to go far business wise in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, being a member of the Nazi party was very advantageous towards those ends, whether you agreed with their politics and ideals or not. That said, there does seem to be some anecdotal evidence that Rudolf agreed with at least some of Nazi ideologies though, again, separating fact from fiction on all this is difficult for reasons we’ll get into shortly when we start talking more about the brothers’ pretty extreme feud.

As for Adi, while he may have shared the first name of the infamous Führer, he does not seem to have been quite so keen on the party, though did join up at the same time as Rudolf. But evidence seems to be that he, for example, had no problem with Jewish people or other races and otherwise was happy to do business with anyone before and after the war. On top of that, he seems to have hidden one Jewish man on his property in the latter part of the war, as we’ll get into in a bit. And, as noted, the whole Hitler Youth movement supplier and coach thing for them, as he was, seems to have been more for business reasons, rather than ideological ones. Although, still not exactly a gold star move obviously.

On that note, naturally after the war, Adi was quick to point out he never took part in anything more directly political than coaching sports for the Hitler Youth, and further pointed out that at the time he was also a member of the liberal gymnast club and various other sporting organizations that didn’t align with Nazi views at all. He was simply trying to associate with any organization that might want to purchase some of his shoes.

As author Barbara Smit, author of Sneaker Wars notes, “The stranglehold that the Nazis established on all aspects of German life forced both brothers to become more deeply involved with the movement. They signed off letters with the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” They held the same, swastika-stamped membership card of the National Socialist Driver Corps…. The two brothers, however, didn’t embrace the cause with equal warmth. While Rudolf vocally expressed his approval of the government’s policies, Adi usually stuck to his ordinary, hardworking decency… When it came to his relationship with Jews, [Adi’s] records [also] confirmed that he continued to deal with Jewish leather traders long after this had become politically incorrect.”

Speaking of the Nazis and the brothers’ ever accelerating rise to the top of sporting shoewear, it was the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that really showcased their product, and not just because most of the German athletes wore them, but most of all because of a rather legendary American athlete that did the same.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he was actually against hosting the Olympic Games. Promoting internationalism and multicultural celebration wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. He also felt the Games were, to quote him, “an invention of Jews and Freemasons” and some thought he’d cancel them being hosted in Berlin (and of course there was much controversy surrounding even holding them there in the first place, given the Nazi party’s viewpoints didn’t exactly hold with Olympic ideals).

However, Hitler was convinced by Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, that the Games would actually give the Nazis a great platform to demonstrate Germany’s supposed “superiority” as well as that of their athletes, not just to the world, but to Germany’s own people. As Goebbels said in an interview in 1933, “German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.” And so it was that six months after taking power, Hitler announced that he had decided to allow the Games to be hosted in Berlin after all.

As alluded to, at this point many of the German athletes at the games were wearing shoes made by the brothers. Importantly for their later expansion and survival of their factory at all after the upcoming war, one other individual also chose to wear them thanks to Adi literally just walking up to him and getting him to try his shoes out. That athlete was the legend that was Jesse Owens. In these games Owens would go on to wow the world and throw a bit of a fly in the ointment of supposed Aryian superiority via winning 4 gold medals. (And by the way just a fun fact, a year earlier he had set 3 world records in a meet in Michigan. What makes this so special is that he set those 3 world records in the span of an hour. Something no other track star has managed since in such a time span.)

As another brief Jesse Owens aside here, there is a story that Hitler snubbed Owens by leaving the Olympic Stadium when Hitler was supposed to be congratulating medal winners, including Owens. However, Owens denied the claim that Hitler disrespected him, stating, “Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left, I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back.” Noteworthy other witnesses of the wave claim Hitler didn’t just wave, but gave Owens the olympic salute, which kind of looks similar.

Hitler also later sent Owens an inscribed photograph of himself to commemorate Owens’ achievement. Owens further went on to say, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The President didn’t even send me a telegram… When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

To make matters worse, when Owens arrived at his own reception party at the Waldorf hotel back in New York after a parade, he was not allowed to enter the hotel via the main doors and was also not allowed to use the normal elevators once inside. Instead, he had to use an alternate entrance and a freight elevator to get to a party being held in his honor at the hotel… On top of that, despite being literally one of the most famous athletes in the world at this point, he also found it difficult to find any work or sponsorship after and ultimately had to take odd jobs like working as a gas station attendant to make ends meet. The past, say it with me, was just the worst…

Speaking of the worst, if you’re now wondering Hitler’s thoughts on Owen’s victories, German architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, stated, “Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made [Hitler] happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. ‘People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive’, Hitler said with a shrug; ‘their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future Games.'” Ah, the classic Nazi tactic of if you can’t beat them, get rid of them and then pretend you’re better…

But in any event, more publicly, one of Hitler’s 1936 speeches during those Olympics was to say, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.” And now we will point out that Hitler was already planning what would become WWII when he said these words…

Going back to Adi and Rudolf’s little shoe business, the seeds of their future feud were also being sewn around this time when, a few years before in 1932, the 32 year old Adi met the 15 year old daughter of one Franz Martz, who was a teacher at the Footwear Technical College, which apparently was a thing, and an institution Adi had enrolled in. The young teen girl in question, one Käthe Martz, and Adi apparently hit it off almost immediately. As Franz rather liked the, again, 32 year old Adi, he allowed him to court his 15 year old daughter and, after two years of courtship, the pair got married.

This was, however, much to the chagrin of apparently pretty much everyone in the Dassler family, who largely hated the teen girl. You see, Käthe allegedly had little in the way of a filter between her brain and her mouth and otherwise was not shy in the slightest about giving her opinion on pretty much everything, including how the business should be run. This was something Adi seems to have not minded, and indeed even encouraged. Rudolf and most of the rest of the family, however, took major issue with this, with Rudolf stating she constantly, to quote him, “tried to interfere in business matters…” He also later stated when discussing the eventual family feud that prior to the happy couple becoming a thing, Adi and he had had an ideal relationship in and outside of work. After… not so much on all fronts. And, for whatever it’s worth, Rudolf claimed in a letter he would later write to one of his Puma distributors that the rift between the pair was all down to Käthe, and things sort of spiraled from there. And, as we’ll get into shortly, when we say “spiral”, by the end it got extremely nasty to the point of even trying to have each other imprisoned so the other could take over the company.

In any event, going back to the 1936 Olympic games, when the dust had settled, athletes wearing the brothers’ shoes at those games won 7 golds, 5 silvers, and 5 bronze medals, quickly boosting sales up to over 200,000 pairs of shoes per year as coaches all around the world began looking to equip their athletes with the brothers’ innovative shoes.

As with many businesses in Germany, however, they were about to hit a rough patch. When WWII began, the brothers’ factory was initially enlisted to help via making boots, leather army satchels, and other similar war supplies, while also allowed to continue making their sporting shoes. However, on this one, as you might expect, demand plummeted and finding a workforce to make even what they were able to sell became a bit of an issue. Things got worse as the war progressed when, in 1943, the need for weapons became greater than the need for shoes and their factory was subsequently converted to one geared towards helping make anti-tank weapons similar to a bazooka, called a Panzerschreck.

Also during the war, Adi was initially conscripted in August of 1940, and began training as a radio technician, but by February of the following year, allegedly in part thanks to Rudolf (at least according to Rudolf), Adi was allowed to leave the service owing to his skills being deemed better used by running the brothers’ company. As for Rudolf, as he’d served in WWI, he was initially exempt from serving in WWII.

This is when things started to get really dicey. To begin with, the pair’s sister, Marie, begged to have two of her sons employed at the factory, but Rudolf refused stating, “there [are] enough family problems at the company”. As to what exactly the problems were, this isn’t totally clear. But the result of his decision was significant because had they been employed there, they would have been exempt, at least at this point, from going to fight in the war. Instead, they were conscripted and, unfortunately for her, both her sons were soon after killed. You can probably guess from this which side of the family feud she would later go with.

Relations became ever more strained during the war as they were all ultimately forced to house together in rather cramped quarters, with once again Rudolf blaming Kathe for much of the strain between all of them. That said, it should be explicitly noted here that Rudolf had a bit of a reputation for being extremely difficult to deal with himself, allegedly having a rather abrasive and controlling personality, which goes a long way in explaining why a woman like Kathe and a man like Rudolf might rub each other the wrong way.

Whatever the case there, making it all worse, Rudolf soon began actively attempting to arrest control of the company from Adi, which by the way would have better protected him from what happened next when, as the need for more able bodied men swelled, in January of 1943, Rudolf ended up being drafted despite his previous service in WWI. Adi, on the other hand, was once again exempt owing to being considered the leader of the company. Rudolf would later bitterly blame, to quote him, “my brother and his [Nazi] party friends” for his conscription. He also wrote Adi stating, “I will not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that you be forced to take up an occupation that will allow you to play the leader and, as a first-class sportsman, to carry a gun.”

And, indeed, he would soon after denounce Adi to various Nazi Pary leaders in the region to attempt to get Adi in trouble and make a job opening for himself to head up the factory. At the same time, he also used his contacts within the party to try to convince them to either way put him in charge of the factory and switch it back to making improved boots for the army that he’d personally designed, and thus also allow him to leave the military in the process. This all came to nothing, however, and instead when the Soviets took over Tuschin and decimated the unit Rudolf was assigned to, he took that as his cue to abscond from service, and did so. However, whether he deserted or what exactly happened here is a matter of debate to this day. After all this, he was either placed in Bärenschanze prison for desertion by the Gestapo, or was rather simply summoned because he was already working directly for them. Either way, his overt efforts in the war were over.

Whatever the case, once the Nazis were trounced, things got even worse for the brothers and the company. In the first place, when Allied troops took over the town, their first thought upon seeing the factory which had been used to make weapons was to destroy it. Driving their tanks up to do just that, the young spitfire of a woman, Käthe, who we are liking more and more as we read more about her temperament, unabashedly waltzed up to the troops and tanks quite literally about to blow up her factory and stopped them in their tracks.

How, you ask? She told them that, left to their own devices, they were nothing but a simple shoe making factory and that it was in fact their shoes that Jesse Owens himself had so famously worn in the 1936 Olympics Games. This all intrigued the soldiers who changed their mind about destroying the factory and instead became very interested in acquiring some of these state of the art running shoes. Not long after, when supplies for making the shoes were non-existent, some of the leaders among the allies in the area even helped Adi and compy acquire needed materials to get their factory running properly again, primarily using unneeded war supplies.

However, while Kathe had saved the factory with her sheer gumption, her husband and his brother were not out of the woods initially, being both members of the Nazi party and, again, having had their factory used in the war effort to make weapons…

And this is where the brothers’ split seems to have become irreconcilable. You see, over the course of the investigation about their activities during the war, both brothers turned on each other. Rudolf accused Adi of being a dyed in the wool Nazi, who he accused of previously making political speeches left and right in support of Nazi ideals. He also pointed out that Adi, not him, had allowed the factory to be converted to making weapons, something Rudolf claims he’d have never let happen if he’d been in charge at the time and not forced to go fight in the war against his wishes…

As for Adi, he and Kathe likewise in turn accused Rudolf of being a dyed in the wool Nazi, and working for the Gestapo, something the investigators already strongly suspected from available evidence was true.

Trying to sort through the mess, initially Adi was deemed a Belasteter, which would have seen him subject to up to a decade in the clink if that had stuck. However, Adi’s friends and acquaintances came through for him. Most critically was the half-Jewish mayor of a neighboring town, Weisendorf, Hans Wormser, who claimed the Gestapo were coming to arrest him when Adi came and not only warned him, but also hid him from them for a time after. Said Wormser in Adi’s defense, “A true supporter of Adolf Hitler would certainly not have done this, putting his existence and the well-being of his family on the line.”

Beyond this, many others came forward to attest that despite having been a member of the Nazi party and his factory eventually used for making weapons, Adi had never been political. Adi would also point out that even the accusations of war profiteering didn’t really add up as over the course of the war his previously quite successful and rapidly growing little company had actually lost a huge sum of money and was brought to the brink of ruin. Thanks to all of this, Adi was downgraded to the classification of Minderbelasteter, which more or less put him on probation for a couple years and initially not allowed to run his company. That said, this didn’t last long and he was ultimately allowed to run things under supervision until February of 1947 at which point he was able to resume managing the company without oversight.

In the end, Adi got off pretty clean. Rudolf, however, didn’t have people come out of the woodworks in support of him like Adi did. And authorities, whether right or wrong, were pretty convinced he was hiding a lot about his activities during the war. And thus, he spent about a year incarcerated while things were sorted out, and in the end the sheer number of people being held resulted in them eventually just having to let most go without figuring out the truth of their specific situations, which is what happened to Rudolf. Thus, both brothers were more or less absolved of their former Nazi affiliation and allowed to go on their way after. But as they’d literally just attempted to get each other arrested and convicted for rather serious crimes… Well, let’s just say they were no longer on speaking terms, with some of the family, such as their mother Paulina, siding with Rudolf, and some of the family, such as their sister Marie, siding with Adi.

In the split, Adi got to keep the original factory and family home, while factory equipment was divided between the pair. Beyond this, the employees were likewise allowed to pick who they’d side with. With Rudolf and those following him, about 1/3 of the staff comprising mostly sales people and administration, setting up shop on the other side of the river in the town. As for those who stuck with Adi, these were most of the designers and production staff. At this point Kathe and Marie also came on board directly to take over some of the work of the departing sales and administrative staff. After this brotherly divorce was complete, Adi and Rudolf reportedly never spoke to each other again.

Soon after this, Adi officially rebranded his product as Adidas, more or less just contracting his moniker “Adi” with his last name “Dassler”. As for Rudolf, he officially registered his product as “Ruda”, but ten months after coming up with that brand name, changed it to “Puma”, the Quechua word for cougar, wanting to associate his product with speed, agility, and endurance.

Going back to Adi, to further distinguish his shoes from his brother’s and other brands, he decided to begin coloring the side straps reinforcing the shoes white, with his sister, Marie, and wife, Kathe, deciding on three stripes as the ideal number. The result was the basis of one of the most famous trademarks in business history in the process.

From here, it was on. Both brothers saw quick success with their respective shoes, although more the brains behind the actual shoe innovations, Adidas soon led the race. Adidas further saw a huge boost during the 1954 World Cup thanks to their extremely lightweight shoes (reportedly about half the weight of many competitors at the time) that also had an innovative design of spikes which could be swapped out depending on exact weather conditions. This was important when the day of the World Cup final saw rather soggy conditions. In this match, the West German national team stunned the world by defeating the five year unbeaten and reigning Olympic Champion Hungarian team 3-2. In the process, this helped highlight Adidas’ rather innovative shoes on an international level and in quite dramatic fashion.

On the other side, Puma was flourishing as well thanks to various athletes wearing their shoes, eventually even the legendary footballer Pele. Who they apparently even contracted at one point to stop and re-tie his shoes on camera, just to get the extra exposure.

As the two companies flourished and became two of the biggest employers in the small town, soon residents were caught up in the rivalry, with businesses in the town reportedly checking shoes before deciding whether to serve someone or not, and likewise customers being loyal to only businesses that supported their respective shoe company. Beyond that, reportedly even intermarriage between supporters of the two sides was heavily frowned upon for a few decades there.

As for the brothers, as alluded to, to their deaths they never reconciled or ever spoke again. In fact, they were even buried at opposite ends of the town cemetery. That said, one of their descendants, Frank Dassler, grandson of Rudolf, controversially within his family broke the trend, beginning work for Puma for a time before ultimately switching sides to Adidas (where he worked up through 2018). As for his thoughts on the feud, he naturally thought it was kind of silly at that point. And further noted of his grandfather and Adi, “They stayed kind of enemies during the rest of their lives. It’s certainly sad, but from a business point of view it was a good decision, since it motivated both companies to innovate.”

On that note of switching sides, fast-forwarding to modern times and, in the last couple decades, the rivalry in the town has finally mostly gone away, outside of friendly banter and occasional sporting competition pitting workers from one side against the other. And while their respective histories saw many ups and downs, today Adidas sits as the second largest sporting shoe manufacturer in the world, while Puma sits comfortably as number three. But while they were dividing efforts and duking it out in Europe, they largely ignored the American market, with Rudolf even going so far as to chastise his son when he attempted to focus on it and the competition there instead.

Which all brings us to our Bonus Fact of the day:

As for the number one sporting shoe maker in the world, Nike, their origins were much less Nazi-centric. Enter American businessman Phil Knight, who was convinced that the way to compete with the German product was to introduce cheap, but high-quality running shoes from Japan. But though he had a great idea and a solid plan, Phil didn’t have the money to achieve his goal.

This native Oregonian – who today has a net worth of around $43 billion, back then was nothing more than a young man with a freshly minted MBA from Stanford University. As a former middle-distance runner in college, he was dreaming of a way to combine sports and business, and make a living at it.

During a world tour in 1963, Knight landed in Japan where he managed to make an appointment with Onitsuka, the parent company of Tiger running shoes. Tiger Shoes was interested in selling sneakers to American runners, and gave Knight samples, which he sent to the man he trusted most- his former coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman was known for his experimentation in matters concerning track racing. When manufacturers didn’t listen to his advice, he went to his garage and altered existing models to create the lightest, and most comfortable shoe for his runners.

Bowerman was impressed by the Tiger shoes Knight sent him and proposed that they work together to market them in the U.S. After finalizing a deal with Onitsuka, they shook on the details of a partnership on January 25, 1964, creating Blue Ribbon Sports with an investment of $500 each (about $4600 each today).

However, by 1970, the working relationship between Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka was collapsing, primarily as Knight thought that the financial arrangement with the Japanese firm was strangling his chances for expansion, so the association was dissolved and, in 1971, Blue Ribbon Sports launched its own line of footwear. They named the line “Nike,” the name of the Greek Goddess of Victory, although said Goddess pronunciation is more like Nee-kay.

As for their now iconic logo, they used a design created by Carolyn Davidson, At the time she created the now world famous logo, Davidson was a student at Portland State University where Knight was teaching as an assistant professor in accounting.

It was simply by chance that Davidson met Knight at all. She was in the middle of a conversation with a fellow student in the graphics design department explaining that she didn’t have enough money to take an oil painting class. Knight overheard and later approached her and asked her if she’d be interested in doing some graphics work for his business, offering her $2 an hour for the gig (about $14 per hour today).

Davidson accepted and began doing various freelance jobs for Blue Ribbon Sports, mostly making charts and things of this nature. A few years later, when, as noted, Knight was deciding it was time to move the business away from being just a U.S. distributor of Japanese running shoe, Knight decided his new company needed a distinctive logo.

Thus, in 1971, Knight asked Davidson to design a “stripe”, which was the slang term at the time for a logo for a shoe. He further instructed her that he wanted it to give the impression of motion. Knight was particularly fond of the Adidas logo, and though he said it couldn’t look too similar to that, he was apparently enamored by it. As Davidson said, “Oh, he loved Adidas. That was part of my problem. He loved the Adidas stripes, he loved them. Well, when you really love something, try to get somebody to look over here at something different.”

Davidson doodled for nearly three weeks off and on on the project. Her process was to draw “a picture of a shoe and then I drew (logos) on tissue. I’d lay it over. And then I’d [crumple it up] because it has to look good on a shoe.”

Finally, with a deadline looming, Davidson presented several designs for Knight, Jeff Johnson (who incidentally was the one to suggest the name “Nike” for the brand), and Bob Woodell to look over. Knight’s response was underwhelming. The first design he looked at was the “swoosh”. He then passed it up and looked at the rest, then came back to the swoosh and said the words every designer longs to hear, “I don’t love it, but I think it will grow on me.”

Somewhat disappointed at his reaction, Davidson asked for time to perfect the design, but Knight said no. She then submitted her invoice of $35 (about $320 today).

One might think in retrospect she might be kicking herself not asking for more, considering the logo she created went on to become one of the most well known in the world. However, Davidson didn’t see it this way as she was happy with the wages at the time and had agreed to make the logo for that amount, so fair’s fair. The fact that it became world famous was simply a nice feather in her cap.

However, this is not the end of the tale. For starters, after leaving Nike in 1975 (she had been given a job there after graduating from college in 1971), she went on to freelance where being the designer of the Nike logo certainly helped her acquire clients over the years, and at a premium price.

A more direct benefit happened in 1983, a few years after the company went public. Knight decided to honor Davidson for having created the company’s logo and for her early work with Nike, so invited her to lunch, which actually turned out to be a surprise party in her honor. At the party, he gave her a gold ring that had the swoosh on the top with a diamond in it. But this wasn’t the big payoff. He also gave her, according to Davidson, 500 shares of the company.

So how much were 500 shares of Nike worth at the time? Around $8000 or about $23,000 in today’s dollars. Quite a sum given Knight was not obligated to give her anything, nor was there any pressure to do so. But this wasn’t the end of it. Davidson wisely held onto those 500 shares of Nike stock. Since that time, there have been several instances where the stock has been split, with today those shares worth about $3.5 million, though it isn’t clear if the now retired Davidson has sold them since her last interview about it a little over a decade ago. Whatever the case, not too bad for producing something in a few weeks of part time work.

Going back to Nike’s rise, the new Nike line of footwear made its debut in 1972 at the U.S. Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, and things pretty rapidly took off from there. Their product particularly saw a huge surge in the 1980s thanks to the Air Jordan line and sponsoring the basketball legend, which helped propel the company to top dog in the world of sporting shoes. Today, Nike, Inc. not only dominates the global sports footwear market, but all shoe companies, with a market capitalization of $169.77 billion compared to Adidas’ $20.9 billion, and Puma’s $7.64 billion. And, as noted, Knight’s personal net worth alone is almost double the total combined valuation of Puma and Adidas, despite their otherwise enormous size for shoe companies.


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