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Nike's Phil Knight, 77, To Step Down As Chairman


Nike is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, but long before the first pair of Air Jordans hit the courts or even the swoosh itself debuted, there was Phil Knight. The chairman of Nike co-founded the company in 1964, reportedly putting up $500 of his own money. Today, Nike, which is based near Portland, Ore., is worth more than $90 billion and Knight is stepping down. Joining us now to tell us what Knight meant for Nike is Allan Brettman. He's a business reporter for The Oregonian.



WERTHEIMER: I wonder if we can start with Phil Knight's history at the company. When he started it, he was just a guy who knew something about what made a good running shoe.

BRETTMAN: He was, and I actually heard him talk at Stanford last year to the graduating class of Stanford Business School. He described in some detail about his Hail Mary pass of getting Nike started by essentially making a cold call to the makers of Tiger running shoes in Japan. And basically, by going on a post-college field trip and lining up a meeting with Onitsuka Tiger executives, he managed to get a distributorship for the United States as a result of the idea. He was about 25 years old at the time.

WERTHEIMER: Nike is still a very successful company. They just announced a big jump in profits. Why is Phil Knight stepping down now?

BRETTMAN: He's 77 years old, so I guess he has it coming to him. But I think he has seen, over the past few years, and has taken steps over the past few years to position the company for this transition at this point in time. Stock analysts I've talked to have said they have not been surprised by this announcement and nor do they believe that Knight is going to completely step away from the company.

WERTHEIMER: I think it's fair to say that Nike has become more than just a shoe company. It is certainly part of the American culture now. Was it Phil Knight who made that happen?

BRETTMAN: I think Phil Knight certainly gets credit for setting that in motion, but he had a core of employees in the early going who were as passionate as he was about making sure this was a success.

WERTHEIMER: Not to mention Michael Jordan and a few other folks.

BRETTMAN: They sort of got lucky on that, didn't they? Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

BRETTMAN: The Jordan brand is still one of the biggest revenue generators for Nike. The signature shoes for LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durand sell quite well, but nothing like Michael Jordan's shoes.

WERTHEIMER: Knight's legacy is not 100 percent wonderful, though. Nike manufactured shoes in Asia and used child labor. That caused a bit of a scandal when it became public. Nike hit a real bump because of it.

BRETTMAN: Absolutely, and you know, when President Obama visited the Nike campus a month or two ago, it did not dawn on me until after the spectacle was over that Phil Knight was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the face of the worst of outsourcing for American corporations was nowhere around.

WERTHEIMER: Allan Brettman covers business for the Portland Oregonian.

Thank you.

BRETTMAN: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.