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Benjamin Romberg

HERZOGENAURACH - The thing with the brush shoes gets Helmut Fischer going to this day. The small man with the friendly smile and pirate goatee sits in the visitors’ room of Puma Deutschland in the small, central German city of Herzogenaurach.

Around here, Fischer is known as “Mister Puma.” The 63-year-old has been working for the company for more than 30 years and has plenty of stories to tell, even from the decades befor his arrival.

This one comes from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, where the old cinder tracks had been replaced with tartan that athletes wearing spiked track shoes were getting stuck in. Puma had an idea: brush shoes, that replaced the big spikes on the soles with a lot of small nails. Before the Games, American athletes wearing brush spikes had been running from world record to world record: the Games could be a big success for Puma. But two weeks before they started the track and field commission ruled that brush spikes would destroy the new tracks.

“That’s the only reason they gave,” snorts Fischer. Inside of Puma, the story goes that what had actually happened was that chief competitor Adidas had bribed officials to make the decision, though there's never been any proof.

Relations between the two global sports equipment manufacturers, which both hail from Herzogenaurach, are no longer as toxic today; what is probably a unique tale of enmity between two companies in German economic history has over time become professional competition.

Still, even today the relationship is far from entirely cordial. Competition can be fundamentally invigorating, particularly in business. In best-case scenarios, competitors spur each other on to higher levels of performance, greater innovation – and more success. But competition can also cause damage, as when two companies are so focused on beating the other that they lose sight of other, more important things.

Adidas and Puma have experienced both kinds of competition.

The brush shoes incident is one of many examples marking the early relationship between the two companies – the way they stalked one another, eyes peeled on each others’ every move and every product.

“When something didn’t turn out, it had to be their fault,” recalls Frank Dassler, grandson of Puma founder Rudolf Dassler. The wiry 57-year-old stands two heads higher than Helmut Fischer. He knows Mister Puma from when both of them worked for the brand with the big cat logo. That was in the 1980s. Today Frank Dassler is a lawyer. Under his sports jacket he’s wearing a white polo shirt with the Adidas three-stripe logo on it – Adidas, the company created by Rudolf’s older brother Adolf. Since 2004 he has been head legal advisor at Adidas. He says it’s his “dream job.”

Post-War break

That somebody like him – a grandson of the Puma founder – would say something like that would have been unheard of back in the day. Rudolf and Adolf -- who went by the nickname Adi -- ran the Gebrüder Dassler (Dassler Brothers) shoe factory jointly for nearly 25 years. In 1920 Adi, a shy tinkering type, had started making sports shoes in his parents’ laundry room. Rudolf, the business man, came on board a few years later.

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Adidas outlet in Herzogenaurach (Felix Reimann)

Business was good and the company grew. But there was a falling-out after World War II; Rudolf and his family moved out of the villa they all shared, and the company was divided up. Adi remained in the factory south of the Aurach, and his combined nickname and first three letters of the family name would become a world-famous brand.

Rudolf took over the factory north of the river, and founded Puma, also a multi-billion-euro company today (2012 turnover: 3.3 billion euros, profits of 70.2 million euros) albeit substantially smaller than Adidas (2012 turnover: 14.9 billion euros, profits 524 million euros).

To this day, the reason for the falling out between the two brothers is unknown. Some say they bad-mouthed each other to the Allies after the war ended. But relations between them had already soured before that. Frank Dassler remembers a story his great-aunt told him, of an American air attack when both families still lived in the same house. “My family, including my grandfather, was already down in the air raid shelter,” Dassler relates. Adi and his family came down just as the raid began. “Here come the pigs again,” said Rudolf – meaning the Americans. But Adi took it to mean him and his family.

Helmut Fischer has a different version: Rudolf had an affair with Adi’s wife Käthe. He learned this from former employees, he says. Fischer also remembers conflict between Rudolf’s son Armin and Horst, Adi’s son. “You could be my brother,” Armin is said to have told his cousin after a few drinks, at which point the cousin “exploded.”

Whatever the truth is, after the falling out it wasn’t only Rudolf and Adi’s families that were split: all of Herzogenaurach was. “There was the Adidas butcher and the Puma butcher,” Dassler remembers. And people kept their eyes fixed downward, Fischer says: checking out other peoples’ shoes to see what side they were on.

Adidas was always a step ahead. The decisive moment in the development of the two companies came with the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final – the thing with the screw-in studs, as Fischer remembers it. Before the soccer tournament, West German national trainer Sepp Herberger went to Rudolf Dassler to ask for money in return for his team wearing Puma shoes. At the time, such deals were not common, and Rudolf refused.

“He was the kind of guy who was so tight-fisted he got hot under the collar over five cents when you played cards with him,” Fischer recalls. After Puma refused him, Herberger went to Adidas – and was successful.

After the final in which underdog West Germany beat Hungary, it wasn’t only the German team that got the kudos – but also Adi Dassler’s shoes. Many believed the screw-in studs gave the German team an advantage on the rain-soaked field. It was a major step for the Adidas brand that to this day partners with the German national soccer team.

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Puma headquarters (Sunflower)

Rudolf and Adi’s heirs continued the rivalry. “I had very little contact with the other family,” Dassler says. Once he saw Adi “from afar” at a trade fair. He met Adi’s son Horst at another event. “He used the formal Sie with me,” Dassler recalls: “I found that a little strange.”

Stepping back

Rudolf and Adi’s sons, Armin and Horst, stepped back from the companies in the 1980s, as did other members of the family. A symbolic reconciliation took place in 2009, when Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz and his Adidas counterpart Herbert Hainer organized a soccer match with teams made up of both Puma and Adidas employees.

Today, Frank Dassler is the only family member working in either of the firms. He lived in the United States, then opened his own law practice before signing on. As far as the rivalries are concerned he’s chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. He’s laid-back about his “defection” and says the folks at Adidas were happy to have him.

“They said, Great, finally another Dassler in the company.” Although some at Puma considered that he’d betrayed his grandfather, there are no longer any issues he says: “A lot of water has flowed under the bridge.”

Helmut Fischer sees it differently. Born in Herzogenaurach, as a kid he fished with Puma founder Rudolf Dassler. Today, he proudly shows off a large Puma tattoo on his arm. The subject of Frank Dassler’s job at Adidas wipes the smile right off his face. He considers the move to be a “capital sin,” something that Dassler is going to have to sort out with his own conscience.

Still, even in enmity, no one doubts that the firms' rivalry spurred each other on. “The competition was beneficial,” Fischer says. Dassler sees it that way too, pointing out that particularly in the early years the rivalries helped to make each firm focus on developing ever-better products.

Only once did the hometown battle do real harm, in the 1970s, with both companies so focused on each other, that nobody saw a newcomer rising across the Atlantic: Nike. With that to think about, animosities between the two clans waned. Today, Nike is Adidas’s largest competitor (2012 turnover 24.1 billion euros).

Most Adidas and Puma products are now made in Asia and North America, not Herzogenaurach, and Adidas has moved its HQ into Puma territory north of the river. Both firms are interested in their company histories, and Fischer wants to open a museum with objects he’s carefully collected over the years, like the shoes (one from each pair) Usain Bolt sent him after every world record. Fischer had shown the six-time Olympic winner the room where he stores all the memorabilia.

Just how much of the old rivalries remain? Fischer points to a Cameroon soccer team jersey Puma designed for the 2004 Africa Cup. It’s a unique one-piece suit, top and shorts together, and FIFA initially gave it the green light before suddenly withdrawing approval. Adidas had filed an official complaint.

“Friends or enemies, they’re our competitor," Fischer concludes. "And they always will be.”

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