Chairman, Reebok International
Born: February 14, 1944, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Education: Attended Boston University.
Family: Married Phyllis (maiden name unknown); children: three.
Career: Family sporting goods store, ?–1979; Reebok International, 1979–, chief executive officer.
Awards: Business Ethics ; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights; International Human Rights Law Group.
Address: Reebok International, 1895 J. W. Foster Boulevard, Canton, Massachusetts 02021; http://www.reebok.com.
■ Paul Fireman founded Reebok USA in 1979 and as of mid-2004 had been the company's only CEO. Reebok USA was formed when Fireman, attending a sporting goods trade show in London, bought the rights to the Reebok line of custom running shoes from the British shoe company J. W. Foster & Sons. Fireman introduced the first women's athletic shoe, for aerobics, in 1982, spurring a fitness wear and fashion revolution that molded Reebok into one of the fastest-growing companies of all time. Under Fireman Reebok expanded rapidly throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The Reebok brand eventually became available in more than 170 countries.
Fireman's sense of timing and ability to predict marketplace trends assured his rapid success when he spotted the J. W. Foster & Sons Reebok shoes, which had been made by hand for elite runners since 1950. Seeing the potential of the Reebok brand name, Fireman persuaded Foster & Sons to sell him the American distribution rights to the shoes. The introduction of Reebok shoes to the U.S. market was not successful at first. The company faced strong competition from other
footwear firms, and the average retail price for the Reebok shoes was $60.00 per pair, placing them among the most expensive running shoes in the country. Out of capital in 1981 Fireman sought additional financing. He sold a majority share in Reebok to Pentland Industries, a London-based holding company. By 1984 the partnership was so successful Fireman and Pentland Industries purchased Reebok from Foster & Sons for $700,000. Reebok also began systematic buyouts of competitors and diversification of its product base. Reebok purchased the following brands and companies: Avia, Ellesse athletic and leisure wear, Rockport Shoes, Greg Norman Collection, On-Field, and Boston Whaler, a successful boat manufacturer. Reebok also manufactured footwear under the Ralph Lauren label.
Fireman believed that Reebok was founded as a corporation to make a difference in society. "We felt we were a company that was clearly about freedom of expression and we felt we could express ourselves with better quality, better visuals. We introduced color that this industry never had," Fireman told Black Collegian (1990). Reebok's first entry into the U.S. footwear market was the Freestyle athletic shoe, which was made available in a variety of colors from bright orange to cobalt blue. Priced at approximately $60 per pair, Freestyle was among the most expensive athletic shoes in the marketplace. Sales were low at first, but Freestyle eventually became one of the best success stories in the American footwear industry. Fireman's marketing savvy was essential. Reebok's efforts in promoting aerobics as a fitness regimen included certification courses for aerobics instructors and publication of fitness newsletters.
In the late 1980s the American economy changed, and Nike returned to the number one spot in the footwear industry. Reebok experienced growing pains caused by the hiring of managers who did not have experience in the shoe industry. Building on the success of the Freestyle aerobic shoe, Reebok began diversifying its product lines. Tennis and basketball shoes followed aerobics shoes, as did corporate sponsorships of athletes and events. Reebok introduced "the pump," a revolutionary type of athletic shoe in 1989. The success of this shoe was followed by the introduction of double-pump athletic shoes in 1991. Marketing of the double-pump shoe was launched with a successful campaign based on the slogan: "Life is short. Play Hard."
In 1992 Reebok began a transition from being a company identified principally with fitness and exercise to being one equally involved in sports. It created a host of new footwear and apparel products for football, baseball, soccer, track and field, and other sports. The company signed numerous professional athletes, teams, and federations to sponsorship contracts. Reebok slipped behind Nike and Adidas to become the world's number three company in sports shoes. Like its rivals, Reebok felt the effects of a global shift away from its core products. Reebok was slower to rebound than the other two companies despite diversification into other footwear and clothing lines.
Fireman maintained a strong stance for human rights. In 1986 Reebok became one of the first companies to pull out of South Africa because of that country's practice of apartheid. In 1988 Reebok International sponsored the Amnesty International Human Rights Now tour, which featured artists such as Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. Fireman established the Reebok Human Rights Award program and with the musician Peter Gabriel and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights founded Witness, an organization that provides communications equipment to activists working on the front lines to document human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, "Through Fireman's personal courage and vision, Reebok's embodiment of creativity, free-spiritedness and individualism has gone beyond public relations to support and nourish the rights of others."
Fireman was an unlikely candidate to lead a successful multinational corporation. A college dropout, he became a quintessential entrepreneur of the 1980s. Reebok succeeded on the basis of its goal to serve as a role model and maintain a corporate culture different from most and still be financially superior. Fireman maintained a fresh outlook in his day-to-day running of the company, and his goals were long-term. Fireman stated when reporting the company's first-quarter earnings for 2004, "We believe that the investments we are making in advertising and marketing as well as in our supply chain, information systems and other areas of our Company are appropriate and necessary for our long-term growth prospects."
See also entry on Reebok International Ltd. in International Directory of Company Histories .
Kazi-Ferrouillet, Kuumba, "Straight Talk from the Top Reebok," Black Collegian 21, no. 2 (November/December 1990), pp. 130–134.
"Reebok Reports First Quarter 2004 Earnings," http://www.reebok.com/us/about/ir/press/2004/Q1_2004.htm .
"Running Fast for Over a Hundred Years," http://www.reebok.com/us/about/history/1990.htm .
"The Third Annual Amnesty International USA Media Spotlight Awards: Corporate Leadership—Reebok," http://www.amnestyusa.org/events/media1999/honorees/reebok.html .
—Beth G. Maser