In 1943, at the age of eight, Joe Foster won an 80 yards sprint race in his home town of Bolton and was given a dictionary as a prize.
Fifteen years later, looking in that same dictionary, he found the word reebok, meaning a small gazelle, and his new sports shoe brand was born.
Reebok is now a huge name in trainers, with sales of around £1.5billion in 2019. Singers Ariana Grande and Rita Ora, and model Gigi Hadid are among the big names seen in their classic sports shoes.
In his new book, Shoemaker, Joe tells the story of how a small family firm became a global giant.
Towards the end of the 19th century my grandad, also Joe Foster, became a purveyor of invention almost by accident. As a 15-year-old, he had two main interests: running in the Bolton Primrose Harriers, and repairing shoes and boots in his bedroom.
The latter pursuit he was good at. The running, like me, not so much. What Grandad Joe did have, though, was an inventive mind.
Fed up with being a backmarker in every race, he figured he would combine his two skillsets to get to the finishing line quicker.
Grandad Joe likely learned his cobbling skills through visiting his grand-father Sam’s shoe workshop in Nottingham.
Sam reputedly repaired the soles for lots of local sportsmen, and Joe had maybe seen the spiked cricket boots his grandad had made to give them more grip. Perhaps a seed had been planted.
As it was, in his bedroom at 90 Deane Road, my Grandad Joe set about designing a pair of spiked running shoes for himself.
In 1895, to test their effectiveness, he decided to try them out in a middle-distance track event.
The night before his first race, the shoes were still not finished.
He had hand-sewn only one of the clumps – the added outer sole on the front of the shoe from which the spikes protrude.
Working by candlelight late into the night, he had neither the visibility nor the patience to sew the clump on to the other shoe. He simply hammered it on with nails.
His fellow racers were both intrigued and amused. How on earth would these ugly, and mismatched, shoes give him an advantage over standard plimsolls?
As the starting gun went off, Joe’s spikes dug into the cinder track, giving him a perfect kick-off into his stride, his feet lifting light in shoes that felt barely there.
By the first bend, he was already several yards in front.
But as he began his last lap… he felt a strange sensation in his right foot. It felt like he was running over glass, every step sending agonising needles of pain through the ball of his foot. He looked behind to see the second and third-place runners catching him up. But, even more worrying, he spotted the dusty, spiked clump from his right pump lying on the track like a dead rat.
Joe finished second to last. He snatched off what was left of his running pumps and hobbled home.
This gut-wrenching experience was just a reminder that there are no short cuts. His next pair wouldn’t let him down and, for the next few months, he worked again on the design, making the perfect, lightweight running pumps. When he tried them in a race, he came a very unlikely second.
Now his clubmates all wanted a pair of these new wonder shoes…
Fast forward to May 18, 1985, I reached the halfway milestone of my life when I turned 50.
I wasn’t yet ready to down tools and kick back in a rocking chair.
As president of the International Division, I needed to finish the job I had started all those years ago and make sure Reebok was a global brand. Reeboks were soon becoming the rock stars of footwear, and sales exploded.
That year Mick Jagger donned Reebok trainers to leap around with David Bowie in the music video Dancing in the Street.
The next year I was in a cinema in Manchester, jumping out of my skin as Sigourney Weaver hunted down extra-terrestrial killers while wearing Reebok “Alien Stompers” in Aliens. Other glamorous celebs including Cybil Shepherd also sported the brand.
Our next wave of attack was to increase our standing in tennis. Reebok became a major sponsor of international competitions, the most glittering of which were the World Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournaments in Monte Carlo.
They were incredibly glamorous events. Celebrities flocked to take on the pros. Most of the celebrities playing to win, especially Roger Moore and John Forsythe.
Reebok always had a VIP box overlooking the four show courts of the Monte Carlo Country Club.
The adjacent box had been reserved for Frank Sinatra and I remember one surreal moment when Robert De Niro popped his head into our box to ask if we knew where Frank was.
I told him that Frank had a whole floor reserved at the Hôtel de Paris and maybe he would find him there. Sean Connery and Roger Moore appeared at one of the tennis events. Sean was panicking, patting all the pockets of his 007-style tuxedo.
“I’ve lost my lunch tickets,” he whispered. “I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting in,” I reassured him.
Tennis would also provide success with numerous high-profile wins by Reebok-sponsored players, including Michael Chang and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
We were then introduced to the exclusive world of polo in the UK.
Through Major Ronald Ferguson we sponsored events at the Royal Berkshire Polo Club and a special event at Windsor Great Park, when I was presented with a crystal bowl by Prince Charles.
Was this all real? Was I really hobnobbing with royalty in the polo clique, my company providing shoes for Princess Diana, the Duchess of York, and their children? Reebok was now a brand that was recognised around the world, but it saddened me that not many people in Bolton were aware of its local origins.
Very few made the connection between Reebok, J. W. Foster & Sons and my Grandad Joe, creator of both the spiked running shoe and the trainer.
I felt it was my duty to do something about that.
Fortunately, an opportunity came up to help make that connection.
I had over 20 overseas distributors to manage and ne eded to find a separate office for this monumental task. I was adamant that it would be in my hometown of Bolton.
Some 29 years after starting the journey with my brother Jeff in a disused brewery in Bury, I stood on the pavement in Institute Street, and watched the cranes swing over our new International Division office in my hometown.
Grandad Joe would have been honoured that all of his initial work had come to this.