Born: February 24, 1938
Cofounder and CEO, Nike, Inc.
Phil Knight has been called many things—from a track geek and free spirit to brash, rebellious, arrogant, even brilliant. Yet regardless of people's opinions, no one disputes his business skills or dedication to Nike. As chief executive officer (CEO), president, and chairman, Knight turned his competitive spirit and his obsession with sports into an international athletic footwear, apparel, and equipment giant. His rise from selling shoes out of his car to a billionaire is one of America's most compelling success stories.
"In my era, kids grew up knowing their cars. The kids nowadays grow up knowing their shoes."
Philip H. Knight was born in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, to a stay-at-home mom and politician father. He was shy yet bright, did well in school, and loved sports. His slim build kept him out of football, and he never mastered baseball, so young Phil chose running. His speed and endurance were perfect for the track team at his high school, and Knight practiced by running several miles to and from an after school job at a local newspaper. When it was time for college, he chose the University of Oregon at Eugene because of its famous track program, which was coached by Bill Bowerman (1911-1999).
In 1957, Knight arrived at the University of Oregon and earned a spot on the track team, running the mile in under four and a half minutes. While on the team, he and Coach Bowerman became such good friends that Bowerman would eventually become Knight's future business partner. Knight earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1959, and decided to attend graduate school in California at Stanford University. He completed his studies, earning a master's degree in business administration (MBA) in 1962. After graduation, he took a trip around the world, stopping at Japan along the way.
Japan was a logical stop for Knight since he had written about the country while at Stanford. He believed Japan had superior production facilities and low-cost manufacturing processes; this made it a good choice for importing goods to American consumers. If costs were kept low, selling prices could be lower as well. Knight's instincts proved correct. While in Japan, he discovered an athletic shoe that he felt was far better than any available in the United States—the Oniksuka Tiger. Knight took an enormous chance: he bought a large shipment of the shoes to sell at home. This marked the beginning of Knight's future in athletic shoe sales.
Knight returned to the United States to work at the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. At the same time, he patiently waited for his Tiger shoe shipment to arrive at his company headquarters called Blue Ribbon Sports. Blue Ribbon was made up on the spot when Knight placed his order; his company's headquarters were located in his parents' house. Knight also brought his former coach on board, and the two formed a partnership. Bowerman handled the research and development end of the business, while Knight focused on marketing and sales.
When the two hundred pairs of Tiger shoes finally arrived in 1963, Blue Ribbon Sports became the only distributor in the United States selling the Japanese-made running shoes. Knight knew the shoes wouldn't sell themselves, so he spent hours after work and on weekends talking about them to anyone who would listen. He got the best response from runners like himself, so he went to countless athletic events with a trunk full of shoes and big dreams.
During its first year in business, Blue Ribbon Sports made $8,000; ten years later Knight and Bowerman changed Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike and were making $2 million in sales. Over the next several years Knight became one of the most recognized and powerful men in sports. By 1983, however, he had grown tired of running a company and decided to leave Nike. Since he had once taught business classes at Portland State University in Portland, Knight considered returning to the classroom full-time. Yet after he left his Nike kingdom, business began to suffer and so did he. Knight missed Nike as much as the company missed his leadership, so not long after, he went back to reclaim his throne.
Knight returned to Nike with a new appreciation of the company, its products, and extraordinary atmosphere. The headquarters, called a "campus," was always teaming with people—both employees and often the athletes endorsed by Nike. Knight had built an empire unlike any other, but he knew the job was far from over. Nike continued developing the shoes and clothing of the future, while giving something back to communities by promoting environmental awareness, sponsoring athletic events, and even building gyms and skate parks.
Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, is like a giant playground for athletes with miles of running and jogging trails surrounding the building.
Over the years Knight remained loyal to the University of Oregon, where he had met Coach Bowerman and run on the track team. Knight became the school's largest donor, giving huge sums of money to help promote not only athletics, but to build a library, a stadium and to provide for other needs. In 1993, Sports Illustrated magazine said Knight was the most powerful force in sports, an interesting honor since he neither participated in nor owned a professional sports team. Instead, Phil Knight was a powerful force of a different kind—he ran a company so closely identified with sports and champions, that everyone wanted to be seen in Nike shoes or clothes, or using Nike sports equipment. Still an athlete himself, Knight runs five miles everyday and, yes, he wears Nike shoes.
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