Nike: Can A Colossus Still Be Cool?

By now, the story of how Nike Inc. grew out of the trunk of its founder's car is well known. In brief: A former journeyman middle-distance runner from the famed University of Oregon track team goes to Stanford Business School and writes a paper on how track shoes made in Asia could undersell the competition in the U.S. After B-school, he becomes an accountant but on the side starts hawking Japanese imports designed by his old coach. He hires a bunch of beer-swilling ex-runners and would-be jocks to travel the track-meet circuit, selling shoes from their cars. In no time, the company is growing like wildfire, they've created a marketing phenomenon called Air Jordan, and they're all rich.

That was the tale elaborated in Swoosh, published in 1992. Its authors--Laurie Becklund and J.B. Strasser, who was married to a onetime Nike executive--spent nearly 700 pages (at least 200 too many) chronicling Nike's swashbuckling early days. But for all its inside detail, the book suffered from the authors' lack of access to Nike Chairman Philip H. Knight.

Donald Katz faced no such handicap in writing Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. The famously enigmatic and insular Knight granted Katz more access to his company and his psyche than he has to any other journalist. While the result is hardly an in-depth analysis of the impenetrable Knight's personality, the book does plumb his thinking to an unprecedented degree just as his company faces something of an identity crisis.

Katz picks up the story in 1993, when Nike's six-year runup to revenues of $4 billion shows signs of slowing. Nike is a creative enterprise rich in entrepreneurial spirit that has discovered how--through remarkable image-making--to imbue its products with cool. Within its verdant Beaverton (Ore.) campus, an elaborate culture has grown up, devoted to such irreverent Nike-sponsored sports heroes as tennis star John McEnroe and basketball bad boy Charles Barkley. And behind his ever-present Oakley shades, Knight himself has become a corporate icon, symbolizing the entrepreneur's brash nature.

But size and power have created their own problems. For one, Nike's image as an iconoclastic underdog is threatened. Writes Katz: "Knight realized that Nike was fast becoming a lightning rod for all of the popular ambivalence about the general convergence of American business and American sports." And Nike's push to go global has its price, too. "As you get bigger," Knight tells Katz, "you do have to tone down your entrepreneurial instincts. But you have to do it in a way that doesn't put out the fire." To make matters worse, Nike's booming basketball business is slowing down just as Michael Jordan, its most potent salesman, has quit the court.

Katz's strength as a business writer is his ability to bring a corporate culture to life. The Big Store, about the crisis at Sears, Roebuck & Co. during the early 1980s, was remarkable because of his ability to get a bunch of proud but embattled Midwestern executives to talk freely. Just Do It contains much the same depth of reporting.

Katz takes us inside the back room of Michael Jordan's Chicago restaurant the night Jordan retires. He shows us Knight's ambivalence about the might of Nike's marketing machine--a machine that, Knight admits, is "capable of blindsiding the company" by making it appear too powerful. A long, anecdotal passage describes how Nike wrestled with the controversy when several Nike-sponsored Dream Team members refused to wear sweatsuits made by Olympic sponsor Reebok International Ltd. during the medal ceremony at Barcelona. Katz breaks news by detailing Nike's hope to one day build shoes entirely through computer-aided design and automation. And he describes secret talks with International Marketing Group Chairman Mark McCormack, in which Knight offered to buy the huge sports agency.

But the best stuff here are the personal glimpses of Knight, who talks with relative openness about his motivation and style. He remains passionate about the company he built: "I worry over it like I worry about my kids. There's just too much emotion involved."

Here is Knight the business philosopher, moving in and out of day-to-day involvement with Nike as he deems necessary. Much of his time, Katz discovers, is spent in a small room adjacent to his outer office. Rarely does anyone else enter the room, where "dirty running clothes" are "piled on the floor near piles of articles and papers." Grumbles Knight: "Once you let people in your office, they'll come in and out all day long. I need to think."

Unfortunately, Just Do It lacks the narrative drive of The Big Store. Although Katz tries to shape his story by describing the events of 1993, he digresses annoyingly, as when he goes into great detail about the L.A. Gear Inc. booth at Atlanta's annual sports-equipment Supershow. Katz has also developed a tendency to overwrite--saying "ostentatiously remunerated" instead of "overpaid," for instance--which drags down his worthy reporting. That makes his book a slog in places. But for anyone who wants a glimpse inside one of America's most successfully entrepreneurial companies, Just Do It is worth the trouble.

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