He might never have played pro sports or owned a sports team, but Philip Knight has been dubbed the most powerful person in sports by Sports Illustrated. Worth an estimated $7.1 billion, Knight turned an idea he first penned in a college essay into the largest sportswear supplier in the world. Today, Nike Inc. earns revenues in excess of $15 billion and has become one of the worlds most recognized brands.
Born on February 24, 1938, in Portland, Oregon, Philip H. Knight was the son of a lawyer turned newspaper publisher. He discovered his love for running at a young age, and was a key member of the track team at Cleveland High School. From there, Knight moved on to the University of Oregon, where he found himself competing with Olympic distance runners.
Knights experience at the University of Oregon would be life changing for it was there that he met and trained as a middle-distance runner with the legendary track coach Bill Bowerman. During Bowermans 24 year tenure as coach, the Oregon track and field team would win all but one of their seasons. Knights nickname was Buck, and although he was known more for his enthusiasm than his natural running talent, he struck up an immediate friendship with Bowerman.
I was very aware of shoes when I was running track, recalls Knight, in part because he had become Bowermans human guinea pig when it came to trying out new running shoes. The American shoes were offshoots of tire companies, says Knight. Shoes cost $5, and you would come back from a five-mile run with your feet bleeding. Then the German companies came in with $30 shoes, which were more comfortable. However, Bowerman still wasnt satisfied. He believed that shaving an ounce off a pair of shoes for a guy running a mile could make a big difference, says Knight. So Bowerman began making shoes himself, and since I wasn't the best guy on the team, I was the logical one to test the shoes.
In 1959, Knight graduated from Oregon with a degree in journalism. He had been an indifferent student and, still not knowing what to do with his life, Knight enlisted in the army. After completing a year of service, Knight decided to enroll in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. It was a decision that would change his life forever.
Finally, at Stanford, Knight actually began to enjoy school and learning about something other than sports. There was one course in particular that struck his fancy and that was Frank Shallenbergers small business class. Shallenberger had given his students an assignment in which they had to invent a new business, describe its purpose, and create a marketing plan. Knights paper was called, Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras? In it, Knight developed a blueprint for superior athletic shoes, which could be produced cheaply in Japan.
That class was an aha! moment, says Knight. First, Shallenberger defined the type of person who was an entrepreneur and I realized he was talking to me. I remember after writing that paper, saying to myself: This is really what I would like to do.
Despite having found his calling, Knight succumbed to his fathers wishes and took up a real job with a Portland-based accounting firm after graduating from Stanford. He didnt last long there; a trip to Japan would soon change everything.