TR Robertson — The story behind the rise of two of the most significant and powerful shoe and apparel companies is surrounded in a bit of mystery and a large amount of sadness. The history of Adidas and Puma goes back to the mid-1940’s, but the history that led up to the establishment of the two companies, goes back years and years before this.
Adolf & Rudolf Dassler started out in a poor family in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Rudolf was born in 1898 and Adolf was born in 1900 to parents Christoph and Pauline. They had two other siblings, Marie, and Fritz. Christoph worked in a shoe factory in the town. To earn some extra money, the family made homemade slippers that became extremely popular in the town. As time went on, the brothers, who had stayed in the shoe business, decided to open their own sports shoe company in 1919. The named the company Sportfarbrik Gebruder Dassler (Geba), the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoes. Adolf was the creative mind of the company, designing the shoes and Rudolf specialized in the marketing and sales part of the business.
Over the years, the small company struggled along, but their big break came at the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Germany under the guidance of Adolf Hitler (prior to the beginning of WW II). Hitler was going to use the Olympics as a showcase for the German Aryan race, but this was thwarted by a talented African American from the United States named Jesse Owens. Just prior to the start of the Olympics, the Dassler brothers convinced Owens to wear their shoes for his four events, the 100 and 200 yard dash, the high jump and the 4×100 relay. Owens won all four events, walking away with 4 gold medals. Word spread about the sports shoes he wore for the events and the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoes became famous worldwide. But another outcome of the success for the Sports Shoe Company was the beginnings of a deterioration of the brother’s relationship. To this day, there is no specific reason given for the problems the brothers were having. Instead there is just a series of rumors.
One rumor is the wives of the brothers did not like one another. The two families lived in the same house and the close proximity of the families may have led to infighting. Another rumor surrounds the rise of Hitler in Germany and the conscription of many of the German citizens. Rudolf suspected that Adolf was behind Rudolf’s conscription into the army, the time he had to spend away from the shoe business and a short imprisonment Rudolf had to serve at the end of WW II when he was held by the Allies. During WW II, the shoe factory was converted to make leather goods for the Nazi army. Later the factory was taken from the Dressler’s and converted into a factory for making a bazooka type weapon. As the brother’s differences grew, Rudolf tried to turn the factory into supplying army boots for the Nazi army, but this idea failed. The factory was saved from destruction by the Allied Army.
Rudolf had been getting angrier by the year at Adolf’s continued attempt to have major control of the shoe company. Adolf had refused to hire two of Rudolf’s sons, saying there was enough family in the shoe business. There was also a possible woman involved, a young girl Adolf had offered a position to in the shoe company. The young seamstress had been laid off by Fritz Dassler, Adolf’s brother, who worked at a leather pouch company Fritz operated. Whatever the cause, by 1948 the Dassler Brother Sports Shoe Company was finished.
Adolf has started a sports shoe company he named after himself, Adidas, in 1946. Rudolf started a competing company called RUDA, which he later changed to PUMA. Adolf kept 2/3 of the workers from the Dassler Brothers company. These were the workers that approved of Adolf’s product development style. The other workers went to work at Rudolf’s company, they approved of Rudolf’s sales-oriented approach. The town of Herzogenaurach was split in two and the brothers did not allow their workers to socialize with one another out of fear they would slip-up and give away trade and style secrets. Over the years, each company filed a variety of lawsuits against one another dealing with a variety of claims.
Adidas supplied shoes and uniforms to the West German soccer team for the 1954 World Cup. West Germany beat Hungary for the World Cup title. PUMA was the 1970 World Cup supplier, which was won by Brazil, with soccer phenom Pele wearing PUMA’s in the final.
The brothers never reconciled. Adolf died in 1970 and Rudolf 1974. They are buried in the same cemetery as far away from each other as possible. In 2009, Adidas and PUMA workers played a soccer match against one another in a show of reconciliation. Financially, Adidas is the winning company with 40,000 workers (pre-COVID) and the company is worth $16.48 billion as of 2019. PUMA employs 10,000 workers (pre-COVID) and is worth $4 billion as of 2019. Surprisingly, only Adolf has a statue in Herzogenaurach.