Nike founder Phil Knight only hired accountants and lawyers to lead the company in its early days - here's why

Phil KnightAP/Rick Bowmer

  • Phil Knight cofounded Nike in the 1960s and served as its CEO and chairman for decades.
  • In his 2016 memoir "Shoe Dog," Knight writes about taking Nike from a Japanese sneaker importer to a global sports retail powerhouse.
  • Knight recounts why he seemed "to hire nothing but accountants. And lawyers."

Nike has been synonymous with cool for decades.

But in the company's early days, before it even made clothing, co-founder Phil Knight did not surround himself with the most street-savvy cool kids.

"I did seem to hire nothing but accountants. And lawyers," he writes in his memoir "Shoe Dog," which was published in 2016.

Knight writes that it wasn't that he had some "bizarre affections" for people who work in those two professions.

He just didn't know where else to find talent.

"There's no shoe school, no University of Footwear from which we could recruit," he recalls telling Del Hayes, one of Nike's first employees.

Instead, Knight says he wanted to hire people with "sharp minds."

"That was our priority, and accountants and lawyers had at least proved that they could master a difficult subject. And pass a big test," Knight writes. "Most also demonstrated basic competence. When you hired an accountant, you knew he or she could count. When you hired a lawyer, you knew he or she could talk."

Knight contrasts this with hiring people in other fields, like a marketing expert or product developer.

"What did you know? Nothing. You couldn't predict what he or she could do, or if he or she could do anything," he says.

Read more: 10 lessons anyone can learn about success from the founder of Nike, an $85 billion company

Knight also says the typical business school graduate "didn't want to start out with a bag selling shoes" and most people right out of school had no experience, "so you were simply rolling the dice based on how well they did in an interview."

This hiring practice did not always work out.

In 1978, Nike was gearing up to launch its first apparel line. Knight tapped Ron Nelson, an accountant, to develop it. He reasoned that apparel, when compared to footwear, was easy.

"There wasn't any technology or physics involved," Knight wrote.

It turned out to be a disaster. Unfortunately, according to Knight, Nelson had no sense of style and came up with a line of clothing that resembled "soiled workout shorts, ragged T-shirts, wrinkled hoodies - each putrid item looked as if it had been donated to, or pilfered from, a dumpster."

Knight transferred Nelson to the production department and tapped eventual Nike president Bob Woodell, who did his "typically flawless job."
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