Adolf Dassler (1900–78)

Leisure pursuits, links with sporting stars and the cult of celebrity and powerful brand names are characteristics of some twenty-first century industries. The careers of Adolf Dassler and his brother Rudolf Dassler (1898-1974) exemplify these tendencies. They also show how global corporations could still grow in the twentieth century from small beginnings in uncelebrated towns.

Adolf Dassler was born in Herzogenaurach, a town of rather more than 20,000 people in eastern Franconia, 23 km north-west of Nuremberg. He trained as a shoemaker and when he returned to Herzogenaurach after military service in the First World War began to make sports shoes, for some of which spikes were provided by a local blacksmith. In 1924 his brother Rudolf (1898-1974) became his partner, and they traded as Gebrüder Dassler Schufabrik (Dassler Brothers, shoemakers). They came to international attention in 1936 when they provided running shoes for Jesse Owens (1913-80), the United States athlete who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Both brothers joined the Nazi Party, and Rudolf served in the Wehrmacht, while Adolf directed the family company which, during the war, made soldiers’ boots.

They separated in 1948, supposedly because Adolf made derogatory remarks about Rudolf during a bombing raid in the closing months of the war. Adolf’s nickname was ‘Adi’ and he renamed the business ‘Adidas’ – i.e. ADI DASler. His company, based in Herzogenaurach, prospered, providing clothing, footwear and other items for many kinds of sport and other leisure activities, gaining a great deal from celebrity endorsements.

Meanwhile Rudolf established a parallel business which he called ‘Puma’, with offices and factories on the opposite side of the River Aurach. Long after the two brothers died their two companies were reconciled in 2009 by a charity football match between teams of employees.