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Phil Knight

The Womens Conference

How He Empowers Others

Philip H. Knight is a native of the Pacific Northwest, born in Portland, Oregon, on February 24, 1938. Knight ran track at Cleveland High School in southeast Portland and joined the University of Oregon cross-country and track teams when he enrolled in Eugene in the fall of 1955. Knight earned three varsity letters in track and field, primarily running the mile distance for an Oregon squad coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman.

After he graduated from the University of Oregon in 1959 with a degree in business, Knight entered the US Army as a 2nd lieutenant, serving at Fort Eustis in Virginia and Fort Lewis in Washington, which would be followed by a seven-year reserve duty.
Knight then attended Stanford University to earn his M.B.A. While there, Knight was unsure what his ultimate goal would be upon earning his master's degree, until he took a class on entrepreneurialism called "Small Business Management." It was a topic that had intrigued him. He wrote a paper that asserted that low-priced, high-performance well-merchandised exports from Japan could replace Germany's domination of the U.S. athletic shoe industry.

After receiving his degree in 1962, Knight went to Japan and contacted the Onitsuka Company, manufacturers of Tiger brand athletic shoes, and persuaded Onitsuka to give him a distributorship for Tiger shoes in the western US. Put on the spot to name his distribution company, Knight made up "Blue Ribbon Sports," the forerunner of Nike.

In 1963, as Knight waited for his first sample shoes to arrive from Japan, he took a job with a CPA firm in Portland. Upon receiving the Tiger shoe samples in January 1964, Knight mailed several to Bowerman, hoping to sell a few shoes and pick up an influential endorsement. To Knight’s surprise, Bowerman proposed that the two become partners.

Knight and Bowerman sealed their partnership with a handshake agreement on January 25, 1964. Each pledged $500, which would cover the cost of the first shipment of 300 pairs of Tiger running shoes that would arrive in April.

Knight began distributing shoes from his father's basement, selling them out of the back of his car at local and regional track meets. Believing his new company would support him, he quit his accounting job, but BRS was still not yet financially sound so he again became an accountant for another Portland firm. In fact, BRS’s business would grow, but not enough for Knight to give up his ‘day job’ until 1969. Knight was teaching accounting at Portland State University where he met his future wife Penny. They were married in 1968, and by the following year BRS was solid enough for Knight to work full-time for the company he had co-founded five years earlier.
By 1971, BRS and Onitsuka Co. were approaching a crossroad. Onitsuka wanted to take away BRS’s exclusive national distribution rights to Tiger shoes in the US, making BRS one of five regional distributors. Knight realized long-term success hinged on BRS having its own brand and line of shoes.

Toward that goal, he asked Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student from Portland State, to create a brand mark that connoted speed and motion. She came back with several options, including a design that today is known around the world as the “Swoosh.”
With a new brand chosen, BRS next needed a shoe on which to put it. Knight bought a soccer/football cleat from a shoe manufacturer in Guadalajara, Mexico and had white Swooshes sewn onto the black cleats. The next step was to name the brand of the shoe. Knight favored “Dimension Six,” but his BRS colleagues balked at the idea, spurring Knight to challenge them to come up with something better.

Jeff Johnson, whom Knight had hired as BRS’s first full-time employee back in 1965, literally dreamed up the name “Nike.” Nike, reasoned the well-read Johnson, was the Greek goddess of victory and an excellent choice for the first non-Tiger shoe that BRS would sell. Knight and others were underwhelmed, but could not come up with anything better, so in June 1971, the first Nike shoes were sold at retail in the US.

The Nike shoe received mixed reviews, primarily because it had a tendency to crack in colder weather climates. But the name would stick, leading BRS to debut a Nike line of footwear at the National Sporting Goods show in Chicago in February 1972. Although the new brand and name were virtually unknown, retailers agreed to carry the new line based in part on their trust in Blue Ribbon Sports.

The first major “coming out party” for new Nike shoes would fittingly be at the same venue where Knight and Bowerman first met: Oregon’s Hayward Field. The 1972 U.S. Olympic Track-and-Field Trials took place at the venerable track facility, and BRS rushed to get several hand-cobbled pairs to select athletes of a new prototype designed by Bill Bowerman. Nicknamed “Moon Shoes,” they featured a nylon upper adhered to a newly designed rubber outsole that had been inspired by Bowerman’s family waffle iron pattern. The Waffle Trainer, which would evolve from this prototype in 1974, helped put BRS and its Nike brand on firm ground.

In 1975, a protracted legal battle between BRS and Onitsuka, and subsequent appeals, came to a close with a ruling in favor of BRS. The courts gave BRS the exclusive right to use shoe names including Boston and Cortez, and perhaps more importantly ruled that Onitsuka had to pay all the legal fees. By 1978, BRS had incorporated and changed the name of the company to Nike, Inc.
In 1977, Knight signed an agreement with Frank Rudy, an aerospace engineer who had patented the idea of infusing a fully enclosed air bag in the sole of a shoe. Nike designers worked with Rudy to encapsulate “Nike Air” into a running shoe called the Tailwind, which debuted at the Honolulu Marathon on November 30, 1978.

By 1980, Knight was ready to take Nike public. On December 2, Nike began selling on the NASDAQ market at an initial price of $22 per share. Overnight, Knight and more than a dozen investors became multi-millionaires. In June of 1983, for the first time, Phil stepped out of the role of president, replaced by Bob Woodell, one of BRS’s first employees. Yet just 15 months later, Knight stepped back in as president and CEO, guiding Nike through turbulent times in the mid-80s.

In 1984, the signing of NBA rookie Michael Jordan took the brand to a new level. The success of Jordan was part of a larger brand strategy: to align with the best athletes in the world. Phil sought athletes who embodied the Nike spirit – rule-breakers with a passion for excellence and a fierce competitive spirit. A successful Nike athlete partnership, like Michael Jordan, was nothing short of magic. Nike pushed the athlete to succeed and the athlete pushed for better product. In 1988, the iconic marketing campaign “Just Do It” was conceived and launched, a campaign still used by the company today.

In December 2004, Knight stepped down as CEO but has remained Chairman of the Board. In FY08, Nike’s revenues topped more than $17 billion.

From the beginning, Knight and Bowerman’s goal was always to serve the athlete. “When we started Nike around a track in Eugene, Oregon, our goal was simple. Nike came into being to improve athletic performance at every level. We believed then that our mission was to help athletes enjoy sports more and get injured less,” said Knight. Nike’s deep alliance to the athlete was and is still felt through every message, every innovation and every product.

Knight has continued to explore other opportunities in business, including another one of his passions: movies. He is the owner of Portland-based Laika, an animation studio. Laika released its first major film, Coraline, on February 5, 2009.

Knight and his wife Penny have three children: sons Travis and Matthew (deceased) and daughter Kristina. The Knights have seven grandchildren.