Business Columns & Blogs

What are your key turning points? Phil Knight, of Nike, had several

Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike, Inc., heads to a session at the Sun Valley Inn for the 2011 Allen and Co. Sun Valley Conference.
Phil Knight, co-founder and chairman of Nike, Inc., heads to a session at the Sun Valley Inn for the 2011 Allen and Co. Sun Valley Conference. AP

I never realized that long before Nike was Nike, it was Blue Ribbon.

I’ve been reading books on business firms and leaders recently, such as Shoe Dog (by Phil Knight), Alibaba (Jack Ma), and Brick by Brick (about Legos). A common feature seems to be the role of turning points and how much difference they can make.

Phil Knight’s story provides several examples. As part of a “crazy idea,” in 1962, Knight wanted to import shoes from a Japanese firm called Onitsuka, based in Kobe, Japan.

When he first introduced himself to the Japanese, they asked what firm he represented. He writes that he had to come up with a company name on the spot: “Blue Ribbon Sports of Portland, Oregon,” was his response. The company became official two years later when he and University of Oregon track and field coach Bob Bowerman agreed to join forces.

Knight and his firm had a rocky go, from finding financing to maintaining the relationship with the Japanese. But along the way, he faced several turning points that helped the fledgling company keep going. He found a perfect employee and a bank willing to work with him, or made a crucial contact. At each turning point, he was desperate and couldn’t continue on the path he’d been on, so had to be open to alternatives.

Then, in 1971, frustrated with the Japanese firm, he sought out a shoe producer in Mexico, with the odd name of “Canada.” To produce his own shoes, he needed a logo and new company name. According to Knight, the logo idea came from a Portland State University artist named Carolyn Davidson who generated several rounds of sketches. The group finally decided upon one that looked like a “wing,” a “whoosh of air,” or something “a runner might leave in his or her wake.” They paid her $35 for the design.

The new firm’s name emerged in an equally spontaneous manner, when it was down to the wire and shoes were going into production.

A few employees tried to find a name that all could agree on. Knight liked Dimension Six but no one else did. Other options were Falcon, Bengal and finally Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Knight had loved Greece during his trek around the world in the early 1960s. That connection helped him warm to the Nike name. Also, one of his employees then mentioned that great brand names—Clorox, Xerox, Kleenex — had common features: a strong sound, no more than two syllables, and some letter like “K” or “X”.

“Nike” fit that bill. As we know, a lot more came after that.

What I find intriguing is that along the path, Knight had several turning points, which had major impacts. Whether he trusted his gut or just had to make a decision fast, he did so and then found a way to make it work. As he described these moments, he knew they were key crisis points and that he had to make a decision that would have long-term implications. But from the sounds of it, no matter what decision he had made, he would have found a way to make it work.

That ability to recognize a choice point, use it, and then make it work? That sounds like a leadership characteristic many of us could use.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor in the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University.