Thanks to Alberto Salazar, the Nike shoe company is now Ronald Reagan's footman. It was a pair of $62 Nike Mariahs that Salazar, the winner of the New York marathon and world record holder for the 26.2 mile race, gave to Reagan the other day in a White House ceremony. This gift to the man who runs the country was also an immeasurably large gift of free publicity to Nike, whose corporate headquarters dominate this small eastern Oregon town.
Two days after Salazar, Reagan and the Nike shoes were splashed across the front pages of the nation's newspapers, officials here didn't know whether to be prouder of Salazar for his triumph in the streets of New York or in the garden of the White House. At both places, the runner, a Nike consultant, was fast on his feet in delivering the goods.
"We didn't put Alberto up to it," said a Nike public relations man. "But obviously we aren't disappointed."
In fact, corporate disappointments at Nike have been so few in recent years that the story of this company's spectacular growth since it began a decade ago tells as much about America's fitness boom as herd-mass races like the New York Marathon. It is also a story of creative marketing that is found less and less in American business, but which is needed more and more.
In 1972, Nike employes numbered 45. Today, 3,600 are on the payroll on five continents. As the work force grew 80-fold in 10 years, sales soared 350 times. In 1978, when the running mania first began to get full traction in America's leisure lane, revenues were $71 million. In 1982, they reached $693 million. Earnings per common share in 1978 were 22 cents; in 1982, $2.74.
In this run for the money, the corporate fleetfoots at Nike did something more than merely enrich themselves. They were entrepreneurial patriots. Through innovation, they have strided past two of the foreign giants in the world shoe industry; Adidas, the West German power, and Onitsuka, the Japanese firm. In 1964, Phil Knight, then a 24-year-old accountant, joined Bill Bowerman, his college track coach at the University of Oregon, to become the exclusive U.S. distributor of the Tiger running shoes by Onitsuka.
But in only a few years Knight and Bowerman knew that with a bit of risk and creativeness they could beat the Japanese and the West Germans by making better shoes. They knew, for sure, that competition from the American shoe industry was negligible. It was offering runners little more than flatsole, foot-punishing sneakers that hadn't been redesigned for decades.
In 1972, Knight and Bowerman persuaded several distance runners in the U.S. Olympic trials to wear the Nike shoe, named after the Greek goddess for victory. In the marathon trial, four of the first seven finishers wore Nikes.
Since then, Knight and Bowerman have reversed the pattern. A U.S. company has done better at what the Japanese and West Germans were already doing well. It has meant jobs. In 1974, Nike set up a shoe factory in Exeter, N.H., which was to be one of three plants in New England. Five years later, it was reported that with 1,500 employes in New Hampshire and Maine, Nike was the largest employer in both states.
This success means that the days of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who won the 1960 Olympics in Rome in his bare blister-proof feet, are long gone. Today, for $80, any turtle-paced neo-jogger can get a toehold on life with a pair of Nike Odysseys.
Many of the company's shoes come with permafoam mid-soles, head-stabilizing plugs, waffle-pattern outsoles, front-to-back air tubes and cobalt-blue upper meshwork. No humble cobbler produces this. At Nike, he has been replaced by the Advanced Concepts Department, the Chemistry and Materials Research Department, the Sports Research Lab and the Product Development Department.
But the humble joggers are valued. These foot soldiers are part of the 5,500 volunteer consultants who wear Nikes and send forms back to the company describing, in excruciating detail, how the shoes affect their joints, bones or muscles that aren't making it to the finish line unstrained or unbroken. The data are used to create tomorrow's perfect shoe for the unperfect runner.
Ronald Reagan is now on the Nike team. He should watch it. In mixing with presidents, Nike has something of a track record. In 1979, Jimmy Carter, low in the polls at the time, collapsed in a footrace at Camp David. In this ill-fated event -- Carter hit the wall early at three miles -- the First Feet were shod in a pair of gift Nikes.