Rags To Riches – Phil Knight

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Phil Knight

“Play by the rules, but be ferocious”

Born on February 24, 1938 in Portland, Oregon, Phil Knight is the founder of Nike. His success story is not exactly a typical rags to riches story. His father, Bill Knight was a publisher of Oregon journal and earned decent amount to raise his family providing all the basic comforts and education of his children, so Phil didn’t started as dirt poor but the success he achieved was not due to resources but because of his never say die attitude. As he said:

“Make history or be a part of it.”

Early Life

Phil Knight graduated from University of Oregon in Eugene and earned a master’s degree from Stanford. He completed a yearlong service in U.S. Army at Fort Lewis and Fort Eustis. Right from his youth he wanted to leave a mark on the world and as he wrote in his book Shoe Dog, he wanted his life to be play. In his final classes while studying, he wrote a research paper about shoes and soon it became an obsession for him. So much so that he decided to start a career in selling shoes for which he sold his car and got the rest financed by his father.


Phil Knight gave wings to his ambition when he started importing tiger shoes from Onitsuka shoe factory in Japan. He initially named his company Blue Ribbon. For the first few samples he borrowed 50 USD from his father and started his company with his running coach Bill Bowerman as partner in April 1964 from back of his car. In the first year itself the sales were $8000. For Knight it was not selling but believing in the product. Blue Ribbon grew fast and within two years they opened their first ever retail store. During this initial time Knight attracted an inner circle of employees who were extremely dedicated and equally passionate like him about running and shoes. Though they were tight on budget most of the times, they were high on enthusiasm for what they were doing.

Ironically the banks did not want to finance him as the growth in the sales was fast and it impacted the cash flow. They wanted that he sacrifice growth and go for stability, an idea which never found favor with Knight. He used to say, “Life is growth. You grow or you die.” Since he did not draw any salary in first few years so that he didn’t became a liability on the Blue Ribbon, he worked part time as accountant at Price Waterhouse. This also helped him in learning how companies sold their things and what were the trouble areas. This education became very useful in running of his own company.

There was always a challenge that their supplier, Onitsuka was most often behind schedule for the deliveries and their first priority was their local market in Japan. At the same time they were looking to appoint some other distributor with more financial muscle. The problem grew severe and forced Knight to think about something that can end his dependence on the Japanese company and in such circumstances Nike was born.

Knight renamed Blue Ribbons as Nike after his Japanese suppliers went back on the agreements. He sourced other factories for quality shoes and poured all his expertise and innovation in the new brand. The company grew leaps and bounds due to dedicated and passionate employees and customers. By 1980 it attained 50% share of the U.S. athletic shoe market. On December 2, 1980 Nike went public. Today Nike has an extended product range including various sports shoes, apparels, sports equipment and street fashion.

Personal Life

Knight married his coworker Penelope Parks on September 13, 1968. The couple was blessed with two sons and a daughter, Matthew, Travis and Christina. In May 2004 his elder son Matthew died due to heart attack while scuba diving. Soon after Knight resigned as CEO of Nike on November 18, 2004. His younger son Travis is an animator and CEO of animation company and studio Laika.

Knight has been active as an philanthropist. He donated US$105 million to Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2006. In 2016 Knight-Hennessy Scholars graduate level program was started with his US$400 million contribution. He has also donated to Oregon University, UO Athletic Legacy Fund, Oregon Health and Science University

Knight has received several accolades for his philanthropy and other contributions in the field of business and corporate leadership. He has also written his memoir with the name ‘Shoe Dog’. In November, 2015 Forbes named Knight as the 15th richest person in the world. His net worth as of June, 2017 is 24.9 billion USD

Related article: Rags To Riches – Andrew Carnegie

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