Adidas vs. Puma: How it all started (Part 1)

The origins of the saga between the German companies Adidas and Puma.

The rivalry that started in the same household between two brothers went on for decades to become one of the most intense business rivalries of all time. It’s the story of the Dassler brothers who lived in Herzogenaurach, a small German town divided by the Aurach River. However for decades, Herzogenaurach was actually divided by two companies; Adidas and Puma, companies controlling the economy of the town. It became a norm in the town for people to always look down to see which brand of footwear that you were sporting before deciding whether they would speak to you or not.

Herzogenaurach, Germany. Birthplace of two apparel giants.
Herzogenaurach, Germany. Birthplace of two apparel giants.

In this series of Adidas vs Puma, the first episode focuses on the beginning of the brothers’ business until their split. Yes, before Adidas and Puma were born, the two brothers were together in business that they started, and thrived together.

Today, Herzogenaurach is home to more than 25,000 people. However, back in the 1920s when the story begins, the town was home to only a few thousand people. They began at a time when football was not even the most popular sport in Germany.

Orgins: Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory)

Adolf “Adi” Dassler and Rudolf “Rudi” Dassler’s parents lived in the town of Herzogenaurach in Germany. Their father Christoph Von Wilhelm Dassler worked at a shoe company and mother Paulina Spittula ran her own small laundry. Together they had three sons- Fritz, Rudolf, Adolf and a daughter, Marie. Paulina was supported by Marie with the laundry, while the Dassler boys did the delivery job around the town. Three brothers became known as “the laundry boys” in the neighborhood.

When Adolf was still at school, his eldest brother Fritz was working at a bank in Munich and Rudolf was learning shoe making with his father. However, as World War erupted in 1914, things changed for the family. Fritz and Rudolf were called upon and had to render service to the German Army, later (in 1918) Adolf joined the brothers on the Western Front.

Where it all began: the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik.
Where it all began: the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik.

In the meantime, as the war went on, nearly half of the Herzogenaurach shoe factories had to shut down. At the end of the war, the three brothers returned to the town fortunately unharmed. However, in the aftermath of the war, few people could afford the luxury of taking laundry services and Paulina had to give up her business. However, Adolf was determined to start something fresh and it all begun in their mother’s wash house in the early 1920s. Young Adolf designed and made footwear for sports. Later (in 1924) he was joined by his brother Rudolf and formed Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory).

Introvert Adi and Extrovert Rudi: the 1936 Olympics

Setting up a business at that time was a brave decision as the First World War ended not too long before, with Germany eventually suffering severe economic crisis. More interestingly, the brothers came up with a proposition that was entirely new — making shoes only for sports. Sport was still an uncommon pastime in post World War Germany , yet their small factory was attracting orders and making good money within years.

The two brothers got along very well in the early years. Although their characters were a lot different, Adolf was the quiet, thoughtful craftsman who designed and made the shoes, while Rudolph was the passionate salesman. They also had things in common, from an early age the brothers spent every spare minute in outdoor sports. There was always a certain rivalry between the two brothers, especially at sport tournaments.

Adi (L) and Rudi (R) Dassler.
Adi (L) and Rudi (R) Dassler.

However in the company, Rudolf established himself as the key marketing guy in the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik. He was a man of authority and was very popular especially among ladies. Rudolf was married (in 1928) long before Adolf and he and his wife, Friedl, had two sons, Armin and Gerd.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler seized power of Germany and it actually opened up new opportunities as the Nazi Party were very keen on sports. In May 1933, only a few months after Hitler came to power, the Dassler Brothers became members of Nazi party, a move they regretted later. However at that time, the brothers were solely focusing on building up their company.

Soon (in 1934) it was time for Adolf to settle down and older brother Rudolf was the best man in Adolf’s wedding to Kathe, who came from another city famous for the manufacture of shoes, Primasens. However in “the world” of Herzogenaurach, she was someone from the outside.

The business continued to flourish and “The Dasslers” were among the richest people of the town. The couples (Adolf & his wife and Rudolf & his wife) got along very well at first. Because of the booming demand for shoes under the Nazi regime, the brothers required a much bigger factory building. The company grew rapidly and the brothers’ wives Friedl and Kathe also played roles in running it. Friedl usually worked on Saturday and Sunday and her major job was to do the bookkeeping. After the birth of their son Horst, Adi’s wife Kathe was also expected to play a full role in the company but she had her own ideas. While Friedl was a reserved person, Kathe was of independent nature. Conflict between the ladies was inevitable as Kathe was very ambitious, a trait that created a tension in the family.

Despite the tension between the ladies, the two families together moved into a splendid mansion right next to the factory. Adi’s family lived in the ground floor and Rudi’s in the first floor. Living under one roof, however, was bound to cause problems as Kathe and Friedl continued to not get along.

Then came the Summer Olympics 1936, and for a while new business opportunities pushed the family problem in the background. Athletes world-wide came to Berlin to compete in the most prestigious of sporting evenst. US Sprinter Jesse Owens was one of the Olympic athletes. Adolf Dassler went to Olympic village with a suitcase full of spikes and persuaded Jesse Owens to use them.

Jesse Owens' Dassler Brothers shoes for the 1936 Olympics.
Jesse Owens’ Dassler Brothers shoes for the 1936 Olympics.

The Olympic stage was the perfect stage for Dassler Brothers’ products. The eyes of the world were focused on Adolf Hitler and it was hoped they would also notice the running shoes made by a far less prominent Adolf. Many shoemakers made it to the Olympic Village, but Jesse Owens was most impressed by Adolf Dassler’s running shoes.

Owens’ four gold medals created huge awareness of the Dassler Shoes and the company made full use of that in advertising its products.

World War II and The Split

The outbreak of the Second World War caused a break in the company’s future. Both brothers were called up but Adi was soon allowed to return to the firm and he was ordered to continue limited production. Rudolf often had to report for duties and the gulf between the brothers increased during the war.

Rudolf was far off when allied bomber targeted his home region. His wife Friedl went to a bomb shelter along with her boy Armin and her sister Betti. The day that the bombs fell marked a turning point for the city and for the Dassler brothers. Adi, his wife Kathe and son Horst were last to find refuge. After an allied bomb attack, Adolf and his family took cover in the same bomb shelter occupied by Rudolf and his family. “The dirty bastards are back again” Adolf said, apparently referring to the planes, but Rudolf thought the comment was an attack against his family.

After the Second World War both the brothers were summoned by the Americans. Adi’s shoemaking experience had helped him ease the questionings. The Americans were particularly impressed on how he helped US athletes in the Olympic Games and released him. As Rudolf was summoned by the Americans and his Nazi past proved a real problem for him. The Americans mistrusted him and Rudolf really had to battle for his future and his factory. He was sent to an American internment camp and while he was there a nasty suspicion grew in him.

In the internment camp, Rudolf was told by some Americans that he was denounced by someone close to him. His first thought was that his brother had betrayed him,to take possession of the firm which by this time had built up again.  That made him angry.

Rudolf was particularly suspicious of his sister in law Kathe, who Rudolf thought was manipulative. But did Adolf and Kathe really wanted to force Rudolf out of the family business? Rudolf had no solid proof; even so, he could no longer restrain himself. Rudolf was ready to go war again, this time against his brother. He told the Americans that his internment could only have been the result of false and malicious accusations.

While Rudolf was being held in the internment, his brother Adolf went in search of business. The Americans wanted him to produce baseball and basketball shoes. During this time, Adolf and Kathe took lead the company, while Rudolf’s wife Friedl tried to protect her husband’s share of the company.

Rudolf was released after 12 months in the internment camp. The entire Dassler family was relocated in the factory tower post war. In this situation, children of the families watched their parents clash more fiercely. Adolf and Rudolf both wanted sole authority in the company that they together managed so well before the war. The tension and distance between the brothers were enormous. Then quite unexpectedly, Adolf was interrogated a second time, which caused further suspicions between the brothers.

The only solution was to divide up the firm and the workforce had to be told. One day, Rudolf assembled the workers and informed them that the brothers have decided to go their separate ways. He wanted the workers to choose who the workers wanted to work for and neither of the brothers would feel offended about workers’ personal choice.

The workers were stunned; no one knew for sure what happened between the brothers. Around two thirds of the workers, mostly shoemakers stayed with Adi, while the remaining one-third, mostly sales people, went with Rudolf.

Thereafter, Adi founded Adidas and Rudolf founded Puma (it was first named Ruda and then changed to Puma), just 500 meters apart. The clash of two brothers became a rivalry of two companies. In Herzogenaurach, it was said that, “people first looked at your feet to see whether you are wearing Adidas or Puma”.

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Tousif is a football writer based in Bangladesh and is a massive fan of Germany National Football Team.

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