LIFE AND WORKCHRONICLE AND BIOGRAPHY OF ADI & KÄTHE DASSLER

1900 - 1919: Childhood and Youth in Herzogenaurach

The trace of Adolf Dassler’s life begins on the third of November, 1900 when he was born the fourth child of Christoph and Pauline Dassler. The older siblings were named Fritz (born 1892), Marie (b. 1894) and Rudolf (b. 1898). In 1900 the middle Franconian town of Herzogenaurach, where the Dasslers made their home, had a population of approximately 4,000 people. Most of the citizens earned their living working for the numerous shoe makers in town.

In the house at the address “Am Hirtengraben”, mother Pauline operated a small laundry service. Adi supported his mother by transporting it to and from customers. However, through his father Christoph Dassler, who worked in one of the shoe factories, Adolf gained insight into another manner of work: that of the shoe maker.

In 1913 Adolf, known to his friends as “Adi”, completed his high school education and, in accordance with his father’s wishes, began an apprenticeship as a baker. But Adi did not see his future in the bakery. At heart his interests revolved around sports and he shared this passion with his childhood friend, Fritz Zehlein. Adi Dassler and Fritz Zehlein - two true athletic companions fascinated with numerous sporting disciplines such as track and field, soccer, boxing, ice-hockey, and javelin, as well as skiing and ski jumping. And so, during their free time, they frequently slipped into the role of the sprinter, football striker, or fighter.  No wonder then that the thought of becoming a baker didn’t inspire him. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, having fulfilled the promise to his father, he pursued other interests. 

Adolf Dassler as a young man

Adolf Dassler as a young man

1920 - 1922: Inventive Spirit and First Shoe Production

Adi Dassler, himself an accomplished and active athlete, was also a precise observer. He recognized that the athletes of each discipline lacked specialized shoes. In his eyes, this was a disadvantage. His concept: If an athlete wore shoes optimized for their specific sport, it would certainly result in improved performance. In Adi awoke the idea that would guide his life and revolutionize sport: The sporting world needed specialized, dedicated, professional shoes for each specific discipline. Adi was convinced that athletic success would improve with correctly constructed shoes. From then on, he aspired to help athletes achieve better performance.  

However, before he could chase his own ambitions, he again had to fulfill obligations others set before him.  In June 1918 during the final months of World War I, Adi, who had yet to turn 18 years of age, was drafted into the military where he served until October of 1919. By the time he returned, his concept of specialized athletic shoes had advanced to the point where he converted his mother’s wash room to a shoe workshop. In1920, together with the experienced shoe maker Karl Zech, he began developing athletic footwear and sandals.

After the first World War, Germany was mired in an economic depression and conditions did not favor the successful founding of a company. Where, during a time of crisis, would the material for the shoes come from and who would buy them? To earn a living, Adi repaired shoes for the citizens of Herzogenaurach and to begin production of sport shoes, he used various materials originally made for military use. After the war, not only were raw materials in short supply but the electrical service in Germany was also inadequate. Still, Adi possessed an innovative spirit.  With belts, he rigged a leather milling machine to a bicycle mounted to wooden beams and the first employee, Josef (Sepp) Erhardt, worked the pedals to power the machine.

Adi sent samples of his shoes to sports clubs in the region to demonstrate the quality of his product to players, managers, and trainers and they rewarded him with numerous orders. During long hours of detailed work and refinement, Adi continued to develop his shoe models and even tested them himself.

Adi was a keen athlete, seen here reaching the finish line in 1935

Adi was a keen athlete, seen here reaching the finish line in 1935

The first machine in Adi Dassler’s shoe production workshop: a bicycle pedal-powered milling machine, now a museum piece

The first machine in Adi Dassler’s shoe production workshop: a bicycle pedal-powered milling machine, now a museum piece

1923 - 1927: Founding of the Dassler Brothers’ Sport Shoe Factory

Adi’s brother Rudolf, who was two years older, initially forged his own way and trained to become a policeman. Shortly after completing his training, on 1 July 1923, Adi brought him into his young business. They named the company “Gebrüder Dassler Sportschuhfabrik” (Dassler Brothers Sport Shoe Factory) and listed it in the commercial register on 1 July 1924. The brothers divided business responsibilities according to their respective talents. Adi, with his love of sport, led the technical development, Rudolf was head of sales and marketing.  They seemed to complement one another perfectly. Adi was the quiet, focused inventor while Rudolf was the more extroverted salesman. In the first two financially difficult years, a dozen workers produced about 50 pair of shoes per day, among which were the first football (soccer) shoes with leather studs and track shoes with metal spikes. Together they survived the economically challenging times and in 1926 demand increased significantly. They had outgrown the family washroom so Adi and Rudolf decided to take over unused production space at another Herzogenaurach firm located next to the train station. At the second location, they installed more machinery and increased the staff to 25 people who produced 100 pair of shoes daily.  

The shoe factory near Herzogenaurach train station in 1928

The shoe factory near Herzogenaurach train station in 1928

1928 - 1936: Olympic Success and Marriage to Käthe

In 1928 the Summer Olympics were held in Amsterdam. For such a fantastic celebration of sports, it was imperative for Adi to be there - namely with shoes of his design. He was determined to use this world stage to prove that top athletes, with proper shoes, could run faster, jump higher and win many more laurels. Adi gave the German distance runner Lina Radke a pair of track shoes he had developed. Wearing the Dassler product, each shoe equipped with six spikes, she went to the starting line and, after only 2:16.8 minutes, won the race for Adi and became the new world record holder. With her 800 meter gold medal, she confirmed Adi’s theory and the whole world witnessed it: higher, faster, further was possible with shoes from the Dassler forge. With that, Adi saw his “Olympic Idea” proven correct – that an athlete with the right shoe was capable of greater performance.

In 1929 the Dassler brothers negotiated a partnership agreement which defined the rights and duties of both partners. This same year also saw initial patents being registered. Beginning in 1930 Josef Waitzer assisted with the development of Dassler shoes. As National Track and Field Trainer and himself a former athlete, he provided much technical expertise and experience. Adi Dassler and Josef Waitzer pursued, each in his own way, the same goal. Waitzer wanted to lead the German Track and Field Team to great success and Adi wanted to collect more evidence that athletes could perform better than the competitors who did not wear Dassler shoes.

In 1932 the next Olympic Games took place in Los Angeles. More athletes than ever entered the competition with Dassler shoes. More importantly however, that same year Adi decided to attend the Shoe Technical School in Pirmasens. In that “shoe town”, Adi not only deepened his knowledge of shoe making, business techniques, and model building, he also met his great love Katharina (Käthe), daughter of the renowned shoe mould producer Franz Martz. Käthe and Adi were married on 17 March 1934. 

A short time later, Käthe’s sister Marianne moved to Herzogenaurach. She worked in the Dassler firm and supported Käthe by assisting with the children. There was certainly plenty to do since Adi and Käthe became parents to five children: Horst, the only son was born in 1936, followed by Inge (1938), Karin (1941), Brigitte (1946) and the youngest daughter, Sigrid (1953). 

In 1936, with Berlin hosting the games, Adi had the first opportunity to showcase his shoes to the world from his own country. As such, the Olympic Games in the German capitol became a spring board for the company as Adi equipped numerous athletes from around the world. Among the most famous, the American Jesse Owens, wearing track spikes from the Gebrüder Dassler, ran the meet of his life and sprinted to four gold medals. The lightweight shoes were low-cut and outfitted with six specially arranged spikes. The sporting world celebrated and Adi used the world stage in an impressive manner. No fewer than two world and three Olympic records, as well as seven gold, five silver, and five bronze medals were captured by athletes in Dassler shoes.

Josef Waitzer (centre) with Rudolf (left) and Adi (right)

Josef Waitzer (centre) with Rudolf (left) and Adi (right)

Wearing white Gebrüder Dassler running shoes, Jesse Owens was the star athlete of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Wearing white Gebrüder Dassler running shoes, Jesse Owens was the star athlete of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Adi and Käthe Dassler on honeymoon after their wedding in 1934

Adi and Käthe Dassler on honeymoon after their wedding in 1934

8 Postkarte

Postcard from Waitzer

In letters and postcards, Josef Waitzer regularly reported back to the Dassler brothers on athletes’ experiences with their running shoes.

Hamburg, 4/6.32

Sehr geehrte Herren! Gestern lief die 4 x 100 m Staffel in der Besetzung Köring, Lauers, Borchmeyer, Jonath. Borchmeyer ist sehr zufrieden. Jonath zeigte mir seine Schuhe (von uns), tadellos in Ordnung, nur die Dornen schon abgenützt. Die dünnen finnischen Dornen schleifen sich auf harten Bahnen sehr schnell ab. Recknagel muss sie noch besser härten oder wir müssen die Dornen auch bei den leichten Sprinterschuhen etwas kräftiger machen. Fahre heute nach Bochum, wo ich mit den besten Sprintern zusammentreffe. Schreibe dann weiteres.

Beste Grüsse Ihr Waitzer

Ein typischer Sonntag Nachmittag bei den Dasslers

Diese Original-Aufnahmen aus dem Jahre 1941 zeigen Adi gemeinsam mit Sohn Horst und Bruder Fritz beim Sport im Garten. 

1937 - 1945: Nazi Germany and the War Years

Shortly after the National Socialist German Workers’ party ascended to political power in 1933, Adi and his brother Rudolf felt pressured to join the National Workers Party. It was a requirement if they wanted to remain in business and foremost among the motivating factors for the decision was their obligation to maintain job security for more than 100 employees. To refuse party membership would have negatively impacted the business and jeopardized the workforce. Adi was unimpressed by the so called “movement” and was never politically active. To him, it was athletic competition that mattered most.  In that respect, he applied his technical knowledge and brought it to bear as supervisor of the town’s Hitler Youth Sports league. His sole purpose was to support athletes, regardless of political affiliation, religious faith, or ethnicity. The fact that he outfitted the Afro American Jesse Owens with Dassler shoes at the 1936 Olympics, under the scrutiny and displeasure of National Socialist leadership, gave testament to his political disinterest.

In 1938 Adi and Rudolf opened another factory on Würzburger Street in Herzogenaurach to meet the increased demand that followed the Berlin Olympics. By then 118 workers produced 1,000 pair of shoes with products for eleven different types of sporting disciplines. Then came the severe setback that would forever impact their business and personal relationship: World War II restricted the athletic and business success of the brothers and periodically brought them to a near standstill. With the start of the war in 1939 Adi and Rudolf were required to report for the military draft and from the middle of July 1940 Adi served as a radio operator in the Air Force. Due to the sharp drop in production caused by the war, the brothers closed the so called “Factory II” on Würzburger Strasse. On 23 January 1941 Adi was released from military duty and the Dassler Brothers were instructed to produce 10,500 pair of athletic shoes for the German army. 

In addition to external pressures, internal strife began to manifest itself in the early 1940’s as the brothers disagreed over business matters. For Adi, shoe development took priority while his brother was fixed on the cash flow and profitability of the company. With the drafting of Rudolf into the military in 1943, the disagreement escalated. In Rudolf’s opinion, Adi did not possess the business acumen to lead the company. During his absence, he wanted to be informed about every business decision and, additionally, suggested that his wife Friedl act on his behalf. Adi declined his brother’s suggestion because it ran counter to their prior agreement that stipulated the remaining brother would perform the duties of both owners.  The conflict, which through multiple letters took on a progressively hostile tone, irreparably damaged the relationship. The bond between the brothers appeared cut, their separation was only a question of time. 

During the war years, despite the disagreement with his brother, Adi dedicated himself to leading the company with élan - more than anything, to safeguard the jobs of the female employees whose husbands were away fighting. In 1943, the Dassler firm was the only company in Germany still producing athletic footwear. Because raw materials, especially leather, were in short supply and increasing numbers of workers were called to military duty, the ability to satisfy orders was compromised. Even for the German Army, the production of sport shoes took a back seat since priority for resources went to the weapons industry. On 28 October 1943, Albert Speer, the national minister of industrial and military production, issued a policy directing the allocation of work in the defense industry. The directive forced the Dassler shoe factory to cease production that same day. Adi suspected Rudolf had arranged the standstill to facilitate Adi’s conscription into the war. Machines and personnel were redirected to the war effort and, under subcontracts to local companies, the Dassler factory produced weapon parts from November of 1943 until the War’s end.

“Betrieb II”, the Dassler brothers’ second plant on Würzburger Strasse in Herzogenaurach, which was brought into service in 1938

“Betrieb II”, the Dassler brothers’ second plant on Würzburger Strasse in Herzogenaurach, which was brought into service in 1938

Letter from Adi Dassler to the collective “Gemeinschaft Schuhe”
Letter from Adi Dassler to the collective “Gemeinschaft Schuhe”
Customer information regarding the factory’s shutdown
Customer information regarding the factory’s shutdown

1945 - 1947: The Postwar Years

The two most difficult years for Adi, Rudolf, and their families began in May of 1945.  Adi struggled after the end of the War to keep the business and production of sport shoes alive. The US Government also had an interest in seeing him succeed as the Americans strove to revive the German economy. Thanks to a connection with American Officers, who since 16 April 1945 lived in the Dassler family house, Adi gained access to left over war materials he could use to resume shoe production. With adaptable ingenuity, such things as rubber textile from aircraft fuel tanks, tent canvas, and rubber rafts were made into sport shoes.  They weren’t as suitable as leather but functioned as a necessary substitute. Nevertheless, Adi could not protect the factory from another crisis in 1946. During the de-nazification process he was categorized as a party member and barred from owning a business. In his defense, he was able to prove he was never an active supporter of the party thanks to many employees and distinguished residents of Herzogenaurach who spoke on his behalf. A Jewish friend testified under oath that Adi had taken him in and protected him from the Nazis. On 30 July 1946 the authorities reduced the charges. Adi was redesignated as a “lesser offender”, given two years of probation, and allowed to resume service within the company under the supervision of a custodian. On 22 September 1946, the degree of Adi’s party affiliation was again reclassified to the lesser offense of “follower” and a few months later, in February 1947, he was allowed to resume management of the company as an owner.

“Lesser Offender” verdict
“Lesser Offender” verdict
Removal of trusteeship
Removal of trusteeship

1948 - 1949: Separation of the Brothers and Birth of the Three Stripes

In 1948, Adi and his brother Rudolf decided to go their separate ways. It was the foreseeable consequence of many years of disagreement punctuated by Rudolf’s accusation that Adi brought about his one-year internment in 1945, an allegation that Adi denied and managed to disprove.  

It was an irreconcilable break. Their differences in character and opposing views on how to run the business were counterproductive and became a danger to the company. After the bitter separation, the brothers never spoke to each other again. Adi kept the factory by the train station while Rudolf took over the facility on Würzburger Street and established the company “Puma”. Approximately two thirds of the workforce decided to stay with Adi, many of whom were engaged in product development and production.

Adi first named his company “Adolf Dassler – Special Sport Shoe Production addas”.  In 1949, when he registered his company on 18 August, he added a handwritten “i” on the registration form because the name “addas” was already being used by a company that made children’s shoes.

A year prior, Adi had developed a football shoe that incorporated three parallel straps that brought more stability to the shoe and foot. What began as a technical innovation also made the shoes very recognizable and as such the three stripes evolved to become the company trademark.

The onetime brick facade is gone. The adidas shoe factory in the 1950s

The onetime brick facade is gone. The adidas shoe factory in the 1950s

Entry of ad(i)das into the commercial register
Entry of ad(i)das into the commercial register
One of adidas’ first promotional cards.

One of adidas’ first promotional cards.

1950 - 1953: Boundless Hospitality and Breakthrough with Stud Shoes

As the chaos of the Second World War subsided and the separation of the brothers finalized, a new, successful decade began. Käthe became more involved in her husband’s business with a focus on the blossoming sales. In addition to leading a rapidly growing company, Adi and Käthe were known to athletes and distributors as endearing hosts. Sports stars and customers from around the world visited the Dassler house to discuss the perfect sport shoe and numerous friendships developed with legendary sports figures such as the German national football team trainer, Sepp Herberger. In that respect, with her discretion, knack for getting along with people from contrasting cultures, and impressive adaptability, Käthe stood at the center of the adidas team. She was respected and esteemed by retailers and key figures in the world of sports as a representative of the brand while, among employees, she was known as someone who would listen to and address their concerns.  To her credit, she facilitated the conversion of Adi’s technical genius into business success.

For Adi, Käthe was the most important adviser and enabled the latitude necessary for him to focus on his passion and concentrate on his greatest strength. In that respect for example, he painstakingly studied the motions and mechanics of athletes. Furthermore, at the age of more than fifty, as he always had, Adi practiced numerous sport disciplines simply to obtain insight needed to deliver the perfect shoe technology to the athlete. He wanted to completely understand the practical needs of the athlete and believed that was only possible if he was familiar with the demands of each discipline through personal experience. Using this knowledge, he developed shoes for track and field athletes, football players, tennis players, Nordic skiers, boxers, basketball players, bowlers, fencers and many more. He even made special shoes for marksmanship to provide shooters with better stability. Prior to Adi Dassler, many athletes had never experienced professional athletic footwear.

Especially unique was that “The Chef” (Boss), as he was known within the firm, didn’t just do things differently - he did them for the first time. Throughout the sporting world, they spoke of his innovations. Whatever sportsman had a problem with shoes, travelled to Herzogenaurach to meet with Adi Dassler.  In discussions with athletes, Adi’s introverted manner fell away. He spoke their language because he saw himself as an athlete. He listened to their concerns and in the process of finding a solution, spared no expense to address the needs of the athlete. His contemporaries described him as ambitious, creative, and tireless. When sporting events were being broadcast, he sat before the television with great concentration, precisely observing the movement of sportsmen’s feet. There exist many handwritten notes, spanning his adult years, that bear witness to Adi’s passion for detail because notepads were always on hand throughout the home so he could jot down thoughts and ideas at every hour of the day or night. 

Athletes and sports teams came together on a regular basis in the shoe factory’s “Bundesliga Room”

Athletes and sports teams came together on a regular basis in the shoe factory’s “Bundesliga Room”

Käthe and Adi Dassler at a company event

Käthe and Adi Dassler at a company event

Adi Dassler and footballer Bernd Trautmann

Adi Dassler and footballer Bernd Trautmann

1954 - 1959: Removable Cleats and the Football World Championship 1954

Thanks to his technical competence, Adi regularly accompanied and advised the German National Football Team. As the “National Shoemaker” he listened to players’ shoe woes and advised them ahead of each game regarding the type of interchangeable studs they should employ to adapt their footwear to weather and field conditions. The words spoken to Adi by German national coach Sepp Herberger have become legendary: “Adi, studs on!”. In the final game of the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, Germany faced Hungary, the tournament favorite. At halftime, Adi screwed longer studs onto the players’ shoes. As a result of the quick modification, the German players gained an advantage thanks to better traction on the muddy, rain soaked ground. Their long studs emerged clean from the turf while dirt clung to the Hungarians’ short studs and their already heavy shoes became more burdensome.  Germany won a surprise 3:2 victory and the game went down in history as the “miracle of Bern”. For adidas, the detachable screw-in cleats proved the ultimate breakthrough.

Until 1952 adidas only produced shoes. Then a sports bag became the company’s first non-shoe product. Clothing, balls, and many other products adorned with the three stripes followed. In 1955, the factory in Herzogenaurach was expanded and in 1959 the company established a factory in France under the management of Adi’s son. Horst shared his father’s love of sports and demonstrated a strong talent for business. He led the subsidiary on a growth oriented path, always with an eye on profitability. 

The four daughters Inge, Karin, Brigitte, and Sigrid, were also active contributors to the business from an early age. Inge nurtured connections with the German sporting world.  Karin was responsible for press releases, advertising, and public relations. Brigitte handled international customers and Sigrid managed the textiles department. Until her retirement, Käthe’s sister Marianne managed sales throughout Germany and served as a member of the company leadership team.  

Adi Dassler and Uwe Seeler screwing in longer studs; in the background: German national football coach Sepp Herberger

Adi Dassler and Uwe Seeler screwing in longer studs; in the background: German national football coach Sepp Herberger

1960 - 1977: Worldwide Success

In the nineteen sixties, adidas numbered 550 employees and was the world’s largest producer of sport shoes. By the end of the decade, the brand with the three stripes operated 16 factories and produced 22,000 pair of shoes per day. Nevertheless, Adi Dassler remained modest. He never sought the spotlight and seldom gave interviews. He was more interested in tinkering with new inventions, developing new ideas and putting them to practical use. Throughout this creative process, he approached his work in a precise, earnest, structured and always creative manner. Over the years, he registered hundreds of patents to protect against competitors, Puma being one them. His best-known innovations: the continuous improvement of the screw-in cleats for football shoes, replaceable spikes for track athletes and the use of nylon soles to drastically reduce weight. Adi devoted himself not only to the functionality of the shoe, but also to weight reduction. From the beginning, pliability and light weight distinguished his shoes from those offered by the competition. To achieve these design goals, Adi promoted the development of thin, strong, lightweight leather and suppliers made every effort to meet his demand. The weight of the newer models was cut in half with each shoe tipping the scale at only 140 grams. However, more than just the rewards of technical innovation drove his ambition. The subsequent success of “his athletes”, with whom he felt a strong bond, was to Adi both affirmation of his philosophy and a source of further motivation.

By the beginning of the decade, Adi had begun developing cutting edge sport shoes in close coordination with orthopaedic doctors and sports medicine specialists which led to specialized shoes for injured football players and track athletes. Uwe Seeler’s customized football shoe, with padding and additional laces in the heel, is the most notable example. Without this special shoe, which he wore during the legendary game against England at Wembley Stadium, he would not have been able to play due to an injured Achilles tendon.  With this special shoe, Adi prevented Seeler’s premature departure from the game.

Adi Dassler also received recognition outside the field of sports as evidenced by the bestowment of two special honorary awards.  In 1968 he received the “Bundesverdienstkreuz Erster Klasse” (German Order of Merit, First Class) and in 1974 the state of Bavaria recognized him with the Bayrischen Verdienstorden (Bavarian Order of Merit).

A unique challenge: Shortly before the Olympic Games in Mexico 1968, cinder tracks were replaced with rubberized, manmade material. In dry conditions, the surface was rough but when wet, the track was slippery. Contemporary long track spikes were no longer suitable because they penetrated too deeply and remained lodged in the new surface. Adi’s business competitors sought to address the problem by constructing shoes with a multitude of fine needles (Brush Shoes) but the Olympic Committee banned this type of shoe due to the increased chance of injury to the athletes. Adi chose a different technique and developed the blunted triangular element (spike) that didn’t get stuck in the plastic track and noticeably reduced strain on the athletes’ Achilles tendon. The resulting number of medallions won at the Olympic Games 1972 in Munich, the large majority of which were obtained by runners, spoke for itself: 80 percent of medals awarded went to track athletes wearing adidas shoes.

In 1971 Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier both wore adidas boxing shoes when they met at Madison Square Garden in New York to engage in the “Fight of the Century” and in 1972 the American tennis player Stan Smith won Wimbledon in shoes from Adi Dassler. Decades later, that same tennis shoe was recreated as part of the legendary “Originals” line of shoes and became one of the world’s most popular leisure time shoes.

In the 1970’s as sports became ever more professional and more money came into play, Adi had little tolerance for athletes who chose their sporting goods outfitter based solely on who paid the most.  Throughout his life, he had only one wish: That athletes choose to wear his shoes because they were the best on the market and would carry them to the greatest success. The trust of the athletes in Adi’s innovative spirit showed itself outside the world of competitive sport.  In 1963, several athletes asked if he could produce a practical shoe they could wear in the locker room or, better yet, even in the shower. Adi Dassler responded and the result was the Adilette (rubberized modern form of sandal). Although it occurred to no one at the time, this adidas product not only became a best seller but also achieved cult status and continues to be worn by regular people for everyday use.

In 1967 he produced the first track and field warmup suit, emblazoned with the iconic three stripes, so athletes could wear functional clothing before and after events. With this move he intuitively laid the groundwork for the expansion of sportswear into the leisurewear market and simultaneously achieved a significant increase in public exposure to his trademark.    

Unfortunately, the decade of the seventies was marked by more than positive developments.  Adi endured personal loss as he became the last surviving family member of his generation. On October 27, 1974, Adi’s brother Rudolf passed away followed in December 1975 by the oldest brother Fritz. Maria, the only sister to the Dassler brothers, had already died in July 1958 at the age of 64.

Muhammad Ali’s legendary boxing boots

Muhammad Ali’s legendary boxing boots

Adi Dassler exchanges views with athletes

Adi Dassler exchanges views with athletes

1978 - 1984: The Death of Adi and Käthe Dassler and Continuation of Their Life’s Work

In 1978 Adi Dassler was the first non-American admitted into the “National Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame”. A few months later, on 6 September, he died after a brief illness in the company of his close family. With him passed the title of “Chef” (boss) since that’s how he was always addressed.  After his death, no one at adidas was ever referred to as “Chef”.

Käthe, who until then was primarily responsible for sales and export, assumed leadership of the company. She had long been a driving force and with years of experience was suitably skilled to run the business and continue Adi’s lifework. Käthe Dassler led adidas to further commercial success.  With a daily production of more than 280,000 shoes, the company, four years after Adi’s death, continued to be the largest sporting goods producer in the world.

By the 1980’s, worldwide competition within the sporting goods market reached a new level and the family business built by Adi and Käthe was unprepared for the rapidly shifting market conditions. Käthe recognized the challenges facing the company and feared losing Adi’s life work. She set aside internal family disagreements that derived from the French operation, and requested her son Horst to return to Herzogenaurach to manage the parent company. From then on Horst Dassler applied his business savvy and close connection to international sporting organizations to manage the entire company rather than just his operations in France.

On 31 December 1984 Käthe passed away unexpectedly from heart failure. The death of Adi and Käthe marked a critical change for the company, the impact of which at that time, was unforeseeable.

Käthe Dassler at her desk

Käthe Dassler at her desk

Post 1984: The Death of Horst Dassler, Crisis and Present Day Success

After Käthe’s death, Horst assumed leadership of the company in 1985.  He pursued a business strategy to further the success of adidas in the lifestyle market. In addition to athletes, popstars and celebrities would also wear the three stripes. As such, the “sneaker trend” took off with people both young and old wearing adidas products as a matter of daily course.

On 9 April 1987 Horst Dassler died unexpectedly at the age of 51 continuing a phase marred by upheaval and changes of direction. The Dassler heirs entrusted management of the company to a business executive and for the first time, adidas was no longer led by a member of the Dassler family. Under the new leadership, adidas fell into an existential crisis. The market for sport shoes had become saturated and competitors had grown stronger.  In addition to perennial rival Puma, Reebok and American rivals like world market leader Nike pushed into Europe after having long established dominance in the critical U.S. market. 

In Herzogenaurach, they had mistakenly overlooked the increasing popularity of amateur running and failed to capitalize on that trend. In 1989 adidas booked a loss in the high tens of millions.  Adi and Käthe’s four daughters, now the owners, faced a critical decision. Should they try to raise capital by entering the stock market or sell the life work of Adi and Käthe? For the daughters, it was a bitter decision but to save adidas they opted to sell.  The French business man Bernard Tapie led the buyout and, with 80% ownership, became the primary owner.  Nevertheless, he was unable to successfully execute a turn-around. It was Robert Louis-Dreyfus, after buying the firm, becoming chairman in 1993, and listing the company on the stock market in 1995, who brought adidas back to the top of the sporting industry.           

In 2001 Herbert Hainer became the chief executive of adidas corporation. Together with long time adidas co-worker Erich Stammiger, he recalled and returned to the roots of the company; to the unique, core principles instilled in the brand by Adi Dassler. Adidas realized that the birth and history of the firm, when compared to American rivals, presented a rare marketing advantage because, unlike a manufactured product, the intriguing history of adidas could never be replicated.

Since then, adidas is again closely connected with its founder, Adi Dassler.  Today, every shoe with the three stripes incorporates Adi’s creative, innovative spirit and his unending love of sport while adidas headquarters remains firmly rooted in Herzogenaurach. With over 50,000 employees worldwide and sales revenue in the tens of billions, the company is the second largest sporting goods producer in the world. In 2016 adidas achieved the best results in company history.  Sales revenue increased by 18% to 19.29 billion Euro and profit improved 41% to just over 1 billion Euro marking the strongest growth in nearly 20 years.  

The latest CEO is Kasper Rørsted, from Denmark, who assumed the position on 1 October 2016.  Guided by a corporate work ethic that remains true to the founder’s core principles, and a history tested by personal, political and business crisis, Mr. Rørsted and the people of adidas are uniquely equipped to carry Adi Dassler’s legacy well and proudly into the future as sport shoe makers not only to the Nation, but to the world.

The adidas building "Laces" in Herzogenaurach, inaugurated in 2011

The adidas building "Laces" in Herzogenaurach, inaugurated in 2011

The Adi Dassler's statue near the main entrance of the "World of Sports" company building

The Adi Dassler's statue near the main entrance of the "World of Sports" company building