Shoe dogs and sweatshops

I finished listening to the audiobook of Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog over the weekend. Knight is the co-founder of Nike and was in charge there for 40 years. It’s an amazing book — possibly one of the best business books I’ve ever read — there were so many moments when it could all have gone wrong and the key characters are amazing. I would love to find out more about Jeff Johnson who comes across as the creative genius of the bunch. He was employee number 1 and creator of the early shoes as well as the person who came up with the name Nike (the company was previously called Blue Ribband). These days Johnson apparently lives in the countryside with a giant library that he keeps open 24 hours for anybody to use. Knight — by his own admission — was a terrible manager in his early days but over time he grew as a CEO because he focused on culture rather than trying to manage everything himself.

Reading the book also took me back to my past and made me think about how much business has moved on in the last twenty years. When I was at university I was a campaigner. I was a member of People & Planet and was actively involved in campaigning about all kinds of environmental and human rights issues from supermarket policies towards Fairtrade, through to the university pension fund’s policies on ethical investment. Nike of course also came in for lots of flack from campaigners in the late 1990s and in the final chapter of the book Knight says the ‘sweatshop’ campaign was one of the most significant events in his career.

He took the allegations incredibly personally and reading the book and hearing the story of Nike you can tell why. Nike wasn’t just business for him or for the other key people in the company — it was their identity, their outlet, their personal mission to try and make a mark on the world. So when people started attacking the company he took it as a huge criticism of him as a person. He didn’t react well and now realises that his response — which was to become incredibly defensive — was the wrong one.

Eventually Nike took it as a lesson. They are now much more overt about trying to be a positive force in the world. As a publicly listed consumer-facing company they realised that to survive long term you need to acknowledge and address issues like that. Their supply chain still isn’t perfect but it is much better than it used to be. I think these days their big issue is how entwined they are in the grey areas of professional sport caused by the huge sums of money involved. Knight is out of the picture but it will be interesting to see how the culture he created deals with that.

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