Biographies

Phil Knight: Biography, Success Story, Nike Co-Founder

Phil Knight biography 2
Phil Knight

Phil Knight is a billionaire entrepreneur known for co-founding and serving as chairman emeritus of Nike, Inc. Phil Knight’s biography is a compelling success story of innovation, perseverance, and philanthropy. Knight co-founded Nike, Inc., transforming it from a small startup into a global athletic footwear and apparel powerhouse. His journey from selling shoes out of his car trunk to becoming a billionaire exemplifies the American dream and highlights the impact of visionary leadership in the business world.

Introduction

Philip Hampson Knight, born on February 24, 1938, is a well-known American billionaire and business tycoon, recognized for co-founding and serving as the chairman emeritus of Nike, Inc., a leading global company specializing in sports equipment and apparel. Knight, who previously held the positions of chairman and CEO at Nike, has an estimated net worth of $45.0 billion as of December 2023. Besides his involvement with Nike, he owns Laika, a company that produces stop-motion films.

Knight completed his education at the University of Oregon and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His athletic journey began in the track and field club at the University of Oregon, where coach Bill Bowerman guided him. Bowerman later became Knight’s partner in founding Nike.

Over the years, Knight has generously contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to both his alma maters and the Oregon Health & Science University, with his total donations surpassing $2 billion to these institutions.

Early Life and Education

Phil Hampson Knight, born on February 24, 1938, in Portland, Oregon, had an early life marked by ambition and determination. His parents were Bill Knight, a lawyer who became a newspaper publisher, and Lota Cloy Knight. Raised in the Portland neighborhood of Eastmoreland, Knight attended Cleveland High School. A telling episode from his youth was when his father, believing Phil should earn opportunities on his own, refused to give him a summer job at his newspaper, the Oregon Journal. Phil instead found work at the competing newspaper, the Oregonian, where he tallied sports scores on the morning shift and ran seven miles home every morning.

When you really understand who you are, it enables you to fight and believe. – Phil Knight Click To Tweet

Knight’s higher education unfolded at the University of Oregon in Eugene, notable for its esteemed Oregon track and field program. While there, he also worked as a sports reporter for the Oregon Daily Emerald and was a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity member. After just three years, he graduated with a business degree in 1959, and in the same year, received his Army Reserve Commission as a Distinguished Military Graduate.

An accomplished middle-distance runner, Knight’s personal best in the mile was 4 minutes, 13 seconds. He earned varsity letters for track in 1957, 1958, and 1959. Knight’s passion for running extended into his professional life; in 1977, Knight, Bowerman, and Geoff Hollister established an American running team called Athletics West.

Career

In the early stages of his career, before the success of Blue Ribbon Sports, which would eventually become Nike, Phil Knight embarked on a career in accounting. He started as a Certified Public Accountant, initially joining Coopers & Lybrand, followed by a stint at Price Waterhouse. His path then turned toward academia, where he became an accounting professor at Portland State University.

Nike Inc.

After graduating from the University of Oregon, Phil Knight served in the Army for a year and continued with seven years in the Army Reserve. His next significant step was enrolling at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Here, Knight wrote a paper predicting the potential success of Japanese sports shoes in the American market, similar to the rise of Japanese cameras over German ones. This paper hinted at his future venture into the running shoe business, aiming to import high-quality, cost-effective Japanese running shoes to the U.S. He completed his master’s degree in business administration at Stanford in 1962.

After Stanford, Knight embarked on a world tour, stopping in Kobe, Japan, in November 1962. There, he encountered Tiger brand running shoes by Onitsuka Co., later known as Asics, and was impressed by their quality and affordability. Knight managed to meet Mr. Onitsuka and secured the distribution rights for Tiger shoes in the western United States.

It took over a year for the first Tiger shoe samples to arrive. In the meantime, Knight worked as an accountant in Portland. Upon receiving the samples, he sent two pairs to Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon, aiming for a sale and an influential endorsement. Unexpectedly, Bowerman ordered the shoes and proposed a partnership with Knight, offering his product design insights. They sealed their partnership with a handshake on January 25, 1964, marking the establishment of Blue Ribbon Sports, which would evolve into Nike.

Knight’s initial sales were from a green Plymouth Valiant at track meets in the Pacific Northwest. By 1969, he had left his accounting job to focus full-time on Blue Ribbon Sports.

The name “Nike,” proposed by Jeff Johnson, the company’s first employee, was adopted in 1971, inspired by the Greek goddess of victory. The same year, the now-iconic “swoosh” logo was commissioned by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson for $35. Despite Knight’s initial ambivalence towards the logo, it has become one of the most recognized symbols worldwide. Davidson later received Nike stock for her contribution, which Knight detailed during an appearance on the Oprah Show in April 2011, revealing he gave her “a few hundred shares” when Nike went public.

Knight fostered close connections with leading athletes, including Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, further cementing Nike’s status in the global sports and apparel market.

Vinton Studios Becomes Laika

Will Vinton Studios, a well-known animation company, experienced a surge of mainstream success in the late 1990s, which led them to seek external investments to support their growth. In 1998, Phil Knight stepped in as an investor and took a 15 percent stake in the company. Around the same time, Knight’s son, Travis, who had completed his education at Portland State University after exploring a career in rap music, joined the studio as an animator.

After identifying issues with the studio’s management, Knight took a more significant role by purchasing Will Vinton Studios. He then leveraged the expertise of Nike executives to gain control over the company’s board. In late 2003, Will Vinton stepped down and left the company with a severance package, so Knight positioned his son Travis on the board. Following these changes, the company was rebranded as Laika.

Phil Knight invested $180 million in Laika, setting the stage for the studio to develop its first stop-motion feature film, Coraline, released in 2009. Coraline’s financial success led to Travis Knight’s promotion to CEO and president of Laika, guiding the studio into a new era of animation and storytelling.

Death of Phil Knight’s Son

In May 2004, a tragic event unfolded for Phil Knight’s family. His son, Matthew Knight, who was 34 years old, went to El Salvador to create a fundraising video for the nonprofit organization Christian Children of the World, based in Portland. Unfortunately, during a scuba diving excursion with colleagues Vincenzo Iannuzzelli and Robert McDonell in Lake Ilopango, near San Salvador, Matthew suffered a fatal heart attack 150 feet underwater. This sudden event was attributed to a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect. Phil Knight and his son Travis made the journey to El Salvador to bring Matthew’s body back to the United States.

In memory of Matthew, Laika Studio dedicated its 2005 short film Moongirl to him, honoring his life and contributions.

The loss of his son led Phil Knight to resign from his role as Nike’s CEO on November 18, 2004, a few months following Matthew’s funeral. However, Knight continued to serve as the chairman of the board. William Perez, formerly of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., succeeded him as CEO before Mark Parker took over the position in 2006.

To honor Matthew’s memory further, the Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon was named after him in 2011, serving as a lasting tribute to his life.

Stepping Down as Nike’s CEO

After stepping down as Nike’s CEO, Phil Knight remained significantly involved in various activities, including philanthropy and advocacy. Between 2009 and 2010, Knight emerged as the most substantial individual donor opposing Oregon Ballot Measures 66 and 67, which eventually passed and were designed to increase the income tax rates for certain corporations and individuals with high incomes.

In June 2015, Knight and Nike made a significant announcement, revealing that he would be stepping down as company chairman. Mark Parker, who was then serving as president and CEO, was named as his successor. Knight officially retired from the Nike board by the end of June 2016, marking the end of an era.

However, Knight’s retirement wasn’t a complete withdrawal from professional engagements. In September 2017, he made a notable return to the spotlight by deciding to reintroduce black into the University of North Carolina (UNC) jerseys for the Phil Knight Classic, a basketball event held in Portland, Oregon. This move underscored Knight’s ongoing influence in sports and his continued passion for enhancing the game’s visual and competitive aspects.

Shoe Dog, a Memoir Book

Phil Knight shared his journey in the business world through his memoir, Shoe Dog, published on April 26, 2016, by Simon & Schuster. The book achieved notable success, landing a spot as the fifth best-selling business book in July 2018, according to The New York Times. Shoe Dog offers a deep dive into the origins and rise of the Nike brand, starting from its early days of importing Japanese shoes to its evolution into a global powerhouse, including the challenges and milestones along the way, such as being under federal investigation.

We knew we could fail; we just didn't think we would. – Phil Knight Click To Tweet

Philanthropy

As of March 2021, Phil Knight’s net worth was $60.8 billion. In 1990, he established the Philip H. Knight Charitable Foundation Trust, highlighting his commitment to philanthropy. By 2016, the Portland Business Journal acknowledged Knight as the most generous philanthropist in Oregon’s history, with his lifetime donations nearing $2 billion.

Stanford University

Knight’s generosity extends beyond Oregon, significantly impacting Stanford University, where he completed his MBA. In 2006, he made a landmark donation of $105 million to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, marking the most significant individual contribution to a U.S. business school at the time. This led to the campus being named “The Knight Management Center,” celebrating Knight’s philanthropic efforts.

In 2016, Knight announced a $400 million donation to launch the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program at Stanford, aimed at graduate-level education with an ethos similar to that of the Rhodes Scholarship. This initiative focuses on preparing graduates to address pressing global issues, such as climate change and poverty, with the inaugural class of 51 scholars from 21 countries set to commence in the fall of 2018.

Furthering his contributions to Stanford, Phil and his wife, Penny Knight, committed $75 million in May 2022 to establish the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience. This initiative, part of Stanford’s Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, aims to research cognitive decline and degenerative brain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It marks another significant step in Knight’s philanthropic journey.

University of Oregon

Phil Knight has significantly contributed to the University of Oregon, donating over $1 billion by 2023, starting in the late 1980s. By 2000, he had donated over $50 million. His funding has supported both academic initiatives—like partially renovating the Knight Library, constructing the Knight Law Center, establishing endowed chairs, and pledging $500 million in 2016 for a research science complex—and athletic developments. This includes supporting the Moshofsky Center, creating a $100 million UO Athletics Legacy Fund in 2007, financing the $68 million football facility that opened in 2013, and donating $19.2 million in 2015 to the Marcus Mariota Sports Performance Center. Knight’s contributions have also supported the construction of the Matthew Knight Arena in 2010 and the renovation of Hayward Field in 2021, underlining his deep commitment to enhancing the university’s academic and athletic facilities.

Controversy

Phil Knight’s donations to the University of Oregon’s athletic department have led to controversy. In April 2000, students demanded fair labor practices and the university’s support for the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), leading to protests against the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which they viewed as influenced by corporate interests, including Nike. Knight withdrew a $30 million donation for Autzen Stadium’s expansion after the university signed a contract with the WRC, criticizing its approach and praising the FLA’s balance. University President Dave Frohnmayer sided with Knight and, based on legal advice, opted not to join the WRC.

On February 16, 2001, the Oregon University System mandated a politically neutral stance in selecting business partners, effectively ending ties with both the WRC and FLA. Knight then reinstated and increased his donation to over $50 million following the university’s disengagement from the WRC.

Knight also faced criticism for his role in appointing Pat Kilkenny as the university’s athletic director, despite Kilkenny’s lack of a college degree or experience in athletic administration. Kilkenny, a former insurance executive who left UO without completing his degree, had grown his business substantially before selling it in 2006.

Other Philanthropic Projects

In October 2008, Phil Knight and his wife committed $100 million to the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Cancer Institute, renaming it the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. This was the largest donation in the institution’s history. Knight continued his philanthropic efforts by donating millions in October 2010 to establish scholarships at the Catlin Gabel School.

In May 2012, he contributed $65,000 to a political action committee focused on enhancing autonomy for Oregon University System schools. In September 2013, he pledged $500 million to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. This pledge was contingent on OHSU matching the funds within two years, which was achieved by June 2015, totaling $1 billion for cancer research.

Knight also supported Marylhurst University by funding the Marylhurst Knights Opportunity Scholarship Program, leading to the naming of “Knight’s Green” in their honor. In December 2016, he donated $112 million in Nike stock to charity, underscoring his ongoing commitment to philanthropy.

Achievements and Accolades

Phil Knight has received numerous honors for his contributions to sports and beyond. In 2000, he was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame for his significant contributions to sports in Oregon, having donated around $230 million to the University of Oregon, primarily for athletic programs.

On February 24, 2012, it was announced that Knight would be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in recognition of his role in Nike’s substantial support of U.S. basketball. His formal induction took place on September 7, 2012.

I've been fortunate to be around good people. – Phil Knight Click To Tweet

Knight’s achievements were recognized in 1989 when he received the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement. Furthermore, in 2015, his contributions to business and philanthropy led to his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 2020, a poll among University of Oregon alums and fans to select four alums for a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of the university saw Knight chosen alongside Ducks track legend Steve Prefontaine, NFL player and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, and Sabrina Ionescu, celebrated for her outstanding college basketball career with the Ducks.

Personal Life

Phil Knight’s personal life is marked by significant relationships and events. He met his wife, Penelope “Penny” Parks while working at Portland State University, and they married on September 13, 1968. The couple lives in La Quinta, California.

Tragically, Knight’s son Matthew passed away in a scuba diving accident in El Salvador in 2004. His other son, Travis Knight, is at the helm of the Laika animation studio, with Phil Knight serving as its chairman.

Knight’s primary residence is in a rural area just outside Hillsboro, Oregon, despite official records listing Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton as his home address. He also owns a personal flight hangar and two private jets at the Hillsboro Airport, which showcase his accomplishments and lifestyle preferences.

Personality Traits

Phil Knight is often characterized by a set of distinctive personality traits that have contributed significantly to his success in building a global brand. The distinctive personality traits of Phil Knight are as follows:

  1. Visionary: Knight is widely recognized for his ability to foresee and capitalize on future sports and athleticwear trends. His vision for what Nike could become has always been a driving force behind the company’s innovative products and marketing strategies.
  2. Innovative: He has a knack for innovation, not just in terms of product development but also in marketing and brand positioning. Nike’s partnership with athletes, the development of Air technology, and the “Just Do It” slogan are examples of this innovative approach.
  3. Risk-Taker: Knight’s career is marked by his willingness to take significant risks. Starting Nike with an order of shoes from Japan without a solid business plan is a testament to his risk-taking propensity, which has often paid off.
  4. Resilient: He has shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from setbacks. Nike faced numerous challenges in its early days, including financial struggles and fierce competition, but Knight’s resilience helped steer the company through tough times.
  5. Competitive: Knight’s competitive nature extends to his personal interests as well as the business arena. This trait has been central to Nike’s aggressive marketing strategies and positioning as a leading sports apparel and footwear brand.
  6. Introverted: Knight is known for his introverted personality despite leading one of the most recognizable brands in the world. He has often stayed out of the public eye, preferring to let the brand and its endorsers take center stage.
  7. Philanthropic: Beyond his business acumen, Knight is also known for his philanthropy. He has donated billions to educational and research institutions, showcasing a commitment to giving back to the community and supporting various causes.

These traits, combined, paint a picture of a complex individual who has not only changed the face of athletic wear but also left a lasting impact on global business practices.

Politics

Phil Knight, a registered Republican, is known for his significant contributions to Republican political candidates in Oregon. In 2010, he donated $400,000 to Chris Dudley, the state’s Republican nominee for governor. Despite his Republican affiliation, Knight has occasionally supported Democrats, including financing Neil Goldschmidt’s successful campaign in 1986 and contributing $250,000 to Democrat John Kitzhaber’s re-election campaign in 2014.

In the 2018 Oregon gubernatorial election, Knight donated $3.5 million to Republican candidate Knute Buehler, critiquing Oregon’s fiscal management under Democratic governance. His political involvement continued into the 2022 gubernatorial race, where he initially supported independent candidate Betsy Johnson with a $3.75 million donation until September 2022. As Johnson’s poll numbers declined, Knight shifted his support to Republican Christine Drazan with a $1 million donation in October, followed by an additional contribution later that month. That year, he donated $2 million to a political action committee (PAC) to elect Republican state legislators in Oregon. He contributed another $2 million to the same conservative PAC in April 2023.

If there's one thing, I've been pretty good at evaluating people. – Phil Knight Click To Tweet

Knight’s political stance has sparked discussion, especially after a 2022 The New York Times interview where he expressed concern over Oregon’s government leaning too far left and described himself as “more conservative than Nike.” This was in the context of criticism for supporting an anti-abortion candidate, contrasting with Nike’s progressive social justice image. For its part, Nike donated $75,000 each to Drazan and Johnson’s Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek, who won the election.

Epilogue

Knight has also made significant philanthropic contributions throughout his career, affecting various sectors, including education, sports, and health. His generous donations have supported institutions like the University of Oregon and the Oregon Health & Science University, leaving a lasting legacy beyond the corporate sphere. Phil Knight’s biography is not just a success story; it’s a testament to the power of strategic philanthropy and the enduring influence of innovative thinking in shaping our world.

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