How the Shoe Fits
For one of the best insights into the making of a corporate history, see Donald R. Katz’s preface in his 1994 profile of Nike Inc., Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. Katz relates that when he first approached Nike founder Phil Knight with his book idea, Knight said no, explaining, “Our competitors already just follow our lead. Why should we let everyone else know how we do it?”
That was in the summer of 1993, when Katz had already completed an article on Nike for Sports Illustrated. Two weeks before the article was published, Knight called and said he had changed his mind. He did not yet know how the Sports Illustrated piece would treat his company, but he allowed Katz to head for Asia with open access to Nike’s people and factories. Katz spent months inside Nike, and his book catches the hyperkinetic atmosphere of the company. Katz says Knight knew the book would have some negatives about Nike, but that was acceptable to him. He recognized that “an honest portrait of a company in motion must include such errors and setbacks.”
Did competitors glean valuable intelligence from Just Do It? Very unlikely. Nike continued its dominance of the athletic shoe business, which apparently provoked the 2005 merger of its competitors Reebok and Adidas. Barbara Smit’s book, Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport, published in 2008, describes how Paul Fireman, CEO of Reebok, felt about his main competitor: “Nike always thinks of whoever is their number one opponent as a warlike enemy. They’re insane, sick, disgusting.” (What a poor loser he was.) Readers of Smit’s book might well apply those epithets to the two companies at the center of her inquiry, Adidas and Puma, established by two brothers who hated each other so much that they started rival companies in the small Bavarian town where they were born.
I end this essay with these two books about the athletic shoe business because they demonstrate the strength and weakness of the corporate history form. Such histories provide a view of business life that no other form can provide — certainly more sweeping and compelling than the average case study — but they are as poor at helping companies become more successful as books about wars are at helping prevent future ones. Nevertheless, I want to put in a good word for the corporate history. If nothing else, learning about the roots of a company’s culture is fascinating. Who wouldn’t want to know that many of the early cookie brands baked by Nabisco were named after towns near Boston: Brighton, Beacon Hill, Melrose, Shrewsbury, (fig) Newton? (See Out of the Cracker Barrel: The Nabisco Story, From Animal Crackers to Zuzus, by William Cahn [Simon & Schuster, 1969].) Or that Procter & Gamble was the first company to establish a profit-sharing plan, in 1887? (See It Floats: The Story of Procter & Gamble, by Alfred Lief [Rinehart, 1958].) Or that Alfred Krupp, great-grandson of the founder of the German industrial giant bearing his name, lived in a 300-room castle on the Ruhr River and purposely had his study placed over the stables so that he could smell the horse manure, which he found enriching? (See The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester [Little Brown, 1968].)
Maybe corporate histories don’t help business leaders learn from others’ mistakes. But at their best, they remind us that corporations are human enterprises, with human roots, which make them diverse and even powerful in ways that will never be captured by a balance sheet alone. And if a company needs to change direction or renew itself (as so many do, these days), perhaps the most compelling way for its leaders to start is by reminding themselves of the epic nature of a great company’s life trajectory — from the gleam in a founder’s eye to an enterprise that employs thousands and changes the world, and then sometimes to a kind of rebirth.