Historian Scott Reames has seen Nike grow to $44.5 billion in revenue and 73,000 employees.getty images
Three decades is a substantial amount of time to be employed anywhere. At Nike, where company historian Scott Reames recently retired just short of 30 years, it meant watching the biggest brand in sports explode in revenue from $3 billion to $44.5 billion; in employee count from 10,000 to around 73,000; and transform from a brand which depended largely on domestic sales to one in which more than 60% of revenues are from outside of North America.
So yeah, there’s been some changes within the Beaverton berm.
“The scale now is just drastically different,” said Reames, 60. “When I started, we were just beginning to get onto team sports, leagues, and federations then. We’d always been focused on athletes.” That’s still true, even with the swoosh now on the jerseys of MLB, NBA and NFL athletes.
Another measure of the difference in magnitude now: The Serena Williams Building at Nike HQ is 1 million square feet — enough to hold all the buildings from the corporate campus Reames stepped onto in 1992. Back then, there was a single cafeteria and gym at Nike; you could occasionally find Phil Knight in one or the other.
Reames started at Nike in event marketing when the first Niketown stores were opening in America’s largest cities; moved into athlete marketing and appearances; then into PR, before becoming the keeper of Nike’s history in 2005. His initial title was “Editor of the Nike Story,’’ and it was a time when design chief Tinker Hatfield was enthused about building a Nike museum, like the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
That was never built, but Reames helped combine the company’s archives and records, and built DNA, the Department of Nike Archives. Within that, he began a 15-year run of correcting Nike employees who “knew the whole story” of whatever important company innovation. Except they often didn’t. Nike Employee 1, Jeff Johnson, was firm that the corporate name was formulated in the fall of 1971, until Reames found a patent application and magazine ad with the brand in it from that June.
He started an exacting corporate timeline, which has grown to 70 pages. When Knight read it, he said it would be the backbone of his memoir, “Shoe Dog.”
“I don’t think any historian could be happier than when I heard that,” said Reames, acknowledged by Knight in “Shoe Dog” for “deftly sifting facts from myths.”
Retirement always brings two questions: Why now and what’s next? Reames admits he was starting to feel just a little bit of “done that before,” even on events as big as an Olympiad. The death of a younger brother last year, and the tough lessons of the pandemic, also contributed. “Those were mortality reminders,” he said. “You always think you have plenty of time, but…”
As for the rest, a few weeks after Nike, he has no plans more definitive then taking a course in Italian and resuming control of his own yard work from the professionals.
With the Nike campus largely closed by COVID, as it has been for 18 months or so, Reames’ final day on campus was anticlimactic. He parked outside the John McEnroe Building and waited until a techie retrieved his laptop. Then there was a last walk around the man-made lake on the original campus. “I don’t remember seeing people, but if there were any, they were wearing masks,” he remembered.
Some Nike highlights: Being in the McEnroe building in 2003 to witness Ralph Green, Adam Helfant and the rest of Nike’s top marketers hammer out a deal with an 18-year-old LeBron James; returning the waffle iron on which Nike’s first prototypes were made to the company; and working on the 2001 “Run Across America” done shortly after 9/11 to raise money for victims’ families, in which 265 runners traversed the continent, visiting firehouses each night. “Probably the most emotional thing I did,” he recalled.
More remarkable than its growth — and undoubtedly essential to it — is that Nike has stayed relevant to an unceasingly fickle group of core consumers. Consider the challenges of a 50-year-old relating to not a few, but nearly every teenager. That’s a tribute to its corporate culture: Knight’s alchemical mix of Western and Eastern business principles, combined with the perseverance of an athlete.
“Our business is change,” says the first of an oft-cited list of Nike principles. That’s likely as close as anyone has come to defining the culture which built Nike. Even for a man charged with gathering and documenting the company’s history, that’s been problematic.
“The culture’s been impossible to distill because it’s always changing, and it’s been somewhat dependent on senior leadership,’’ said Reames, who has now added emeritus to his historian title. “There’s a sense of people challenging each other that’s been part of almost every great innovation — inclusion has been a common thread. But we’ve been relevant for 50 years, and there’s not a secret formula in a vault we can look at.”
Terry Lefton can be reached at email@example.com