Review of Phil Knight’s Shoedog

It may seem surprising that a review of a “sports book” would appear on my site, where book reviews are essentially reserved for the domain of politics and economics.  But that surprise would stem from a gigantic misunderstanding, for Shoedog is no “sports book.”  Rather, it is a virtual economics textbook.  And one every business student in America should read.  Indeed, it is one a certain White House occupant should read as well.

For those interested in sports, as I am, history, as I am, and business, as I am, this book was a tremendous synthesis of the three, in the particular context of describing the birth of one of the greatest brands in American history – indeed, in world history …   I doubt the story of a company’s founding and rise to greatness has ever ended a couple decades before the company’s peak, but that is the genius of Shoedog.  Nike founder, Phil Knight, begins the story of this iconic brand at the most embryonic of stages, and ends the story in 1980, at their public offering, despite two and a half decades of utter domination that commenced subsequently.  The story of Nike to us mere mortals is Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and “Just Do It.” But as readers of this fine book will discover, the real story of Nike took place in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, as the formative challenges that make a business took place.  And if any company would become rightful heir to “Just Do It” — it was Nike.

Nike has employed hundreds of thousands of people over the decades, and has created untold amounts of wealth by giving consumers something they wanted: Initially, a high quality running shoe; eventually, a brand — a belief — an affiliation.  But the genius of finding future basketball, track, and golf stars to endorse the brand was a small part of the story of this company’s ascension.  The genius that created Nike is the genius of this book: It focused on personnel management, on global cost synergies, on harnessing an international supply chain the likes of which the world had never seen, on overcoming legal adversity, and above all else, managing the challenges of liquidity and capital that nearly any company faces in the early innings of their existence.  This is an economics book.  It is a tribute to the miracle of free trade which has created more wealth than any other phenomena in the history of civilization.  It is a rebuke of the evils of crony capitalism and those rent-seeking piranhas who would attempt to use government alliances to strangle healthy competition.

We are living in an era when forces on the right and the left are capitulating to a childish view of globalization — one seeking to make it a bogeyman for anything and everything — and ignoring the absolutely indisputable evidence for the enhancement of quality of life globalization has created.  Few companies better illustrate what matching willing buyers and sellers around the world can mean for consumers, for producers, for shareholders, for employees, and for indeed all stakeholders in a given organization than Nike.  While countless others do, for it is a universal lesson, Nike is the story of a young man and his track coach creating $100 billion of wealth that has circulated across a vast, vast ecosystem, by understanding the miracles of global trade.  I cannot recommend this book strongly enough for one looking for a biographical narrative version of an economics lesson, versus the academic attempts that often prove too dry.  The story of Shoedog was anything but dry, and the message of Shoedog is anything but trite.