Chasing Down Their Dreams

UPDATED: October 26, 2012
PUBLISHED: October 26, 2012

Phil Knight was an accounting major who ran track in shoes
cobbled by his coach. Even in grad school, Knight was thinking
about running shoes—there had to be a better, less expensive
product than the pricy, German-made shoes of the day.

John Schnatter made pizza in a broom closet at his father’s
bar and dreamed of opening his own chain, delivering pizza to
homes nationwide.

Johnny Morris was a fisherman since boyhood who envied
the specialized lures and high-tech tackle used by the pros in bass
tournaments. When a local retailer rejected his request to carry the
equipment, Morris literally wouldn’t take no for an answer.

What Knight, Schnatter and Morris have in common is that they
acted on their hunches and chased their dreams. Rather than letting
the big idea slip by, they grabbed opportunities, took control of their
lives and ultimately created business empires. Knight, of course,
founded Nike; Schnatter, Papa John’s Pizza; and Morris, Bass Pro
Shops Inc. Here are their stories.

Just Do It

Phil Knight was very much aware of his shoes while a middle distance
runner at the University of Oregon in the 1950s. “The
American shoes were offshoots of tire companies. Shoes cost $5, and
you would come back from a five-mile run with your feet bleeding,”
he told a reporter. “Then the German companies came in with $30
shoes, which were more comfortable. But [Coach Bill] Bowerman
still wasn’t satisfied. He believed that shaving an ounce off a pair
of shoes for a guy running a mile could make a big difference. So
Bowerman began making shoes himself, and since I wasn’t the best
guy on the team, I was the logical one to test the shoes.”

When Knight was working on his MBA at Stanford, he wrote a
paper for a small-business class about importing running shoes from
Japan, where labor was cheaper, to compete with the popular and
expensive German brands. Knight later said the class was an eyeopener.
After his professor defined the makeup of an entrepreneur, “I
realized he was talking about me,” he said. “I remember after writing
that paper, saying to myself: ‘This is really what I would like to do.’ ”

Knight nevertheless followed a traditional path after graduating
from Stanford. The son of a lawyer turned newspaper publisher,
Knight followed his father’s suggestions and got a corporate job as a
CPA for an accounting firm.

But his entrepreneurial passion remained stoked, and in the early
1960s, he traveled to Japan and negotiated a deal to become the first
American distributor of the shoe brand then called Tiger. He created
a company, Blue Ribbon Sports, and signed his former coach,
Bowerman, as co-founder.

Knight slowly built his new company while keeping his day job
as an accountant and later as an accounting professor at Portland
State. He sold shoes out of the trunk of his car at track meets. He
also handled the finances while Bowerman designed shoes, an employee managed the retail store in Santa
Monica and another employee, who later
became Knight’s wife, handled the books.

In 1971, when he had trouble with his
Japanese distributor, he founded a new
company, Nike. His store manager, Jeff
Johnson, came up with the name. A local
graphic artist designed the swoosh logo.
Within 10 years, jogging was hot and Nike
was on fire. Nike revenue in 2008 was
$18.6 billion.

A Very Big Fish Story

Johnny Morris gained a love of fishing
and an entrepreneurial spirit from his
father. As a business student at Drury
College in Missouri, the younger Morris
competed in some tournaments held by the
pro bass fishing tour. After seeing the pros’
specialized lures and high-tech tackle, he
had to have them. But when a local store
known for its fishing department showed
no interest in carrying the items, Morris
took action.

He went to his dad, who operated dry
cleaning shops and Brown Derby Liquor
stores in the area, and asked if he could sell
fishing merchandise in one of the liquor
stores. The elder Morris wasn’t too interested;
he had tried unsuccessfully to sell
bait. But his son was insistent and persuaded
his dad to give him 8 feet of shelf space and
to cosign a $10,000 loan to buy inventory.

After graduation in 1971, Morris hit the
road to buy regional fishing lures. The bass
fisherman knew his market. He talked to
customers and traveled to tournaments to
see which lures the winners used. His Bass
Pro Shops took off with word of mouth.
People began calling to buy by phone, so he
started a catalogue company that eventually
gained a reputation as being the bass fisherman’s

Within a decade Morris was also selling
exclusive products to independent sporting
goods stores, had expanded into boat
building and sales, and was designing his
first showroom: Outdoor World.

Intended as a place where customers could handle the merchandise,
Outdoor World morphed into a 300,000-square-foot superstore,
a Disneyland for outdoorsmen. In addition to fishing gear,
Outdoor World offered all sorts of sporting equipment, as well as
boats, cutlery, wildlife art and gifts. With a four-story waterfall,
indoor cabin, gun and archery ranges, taxidermy shop, and even a
trout stream meandering through it, the Springfield store became
the largest tourist attraction in the state. Revenue for Bass Pro Shops,
which remains publicly held, was estimated at $2.6 billion by Forbes
in 2006, the most recent year figures were available.

Today, the catalog and Internet business is still going strong
and there are 52 Bass Pro Shops in the United States and Canada.
Not bad for an enterprise that began with 8 feet of shelf space in a
liquor store.

Delivering Success

Like every other college kid, John Schnatter loved pizza. But his
interest ran deeper than most. From high school on he worked in
pizza restaurants, starting as a dishwasher at a family-owned place
in his hometown of Jeffersonville, Ind. As a student at Ball State
University, he worked at a local Greek’s Pizza and
almost quit school to buy his own franchise.

Instead, he waited and began dreaming of
his own national pizza franchise. Another
student who lived in his dorm helped
him with the name: Papa John’s.

And, after earning his business
degree, Schnatter started business
in 1984 on his own terms;
selling his prized, 1972 Z28
Camaro to buy $1,600 worth of
used restaurant equipment, and
serving pizzas out of a renovated
broom closet in the back of Mick’s
Lounge, co-owned by his father in
his hometown. The bar patrons were
brutally honest about what they liked
and didn’t like, and Schnatter took advantage
of the feedback.

When a retail space opened next door to the bar, he opened his own
restaurant. “We built a sit-down restaurant, but the people wanted the
pizza delivered,” he told an interviewer. “The customer kind of told us
that was the way we needed to go; we just listened to the customer.”

In his heart, Schnatter knew pizza delivery was the way to go,
too. In the next 15 years, Papa John’s saw tremendous growth,
becoming the third-largest pizza chain in the country. Benchmarks
came in 1993 with the 300th store and an initial
public stock offering netting $18 million.
The following year, the Louisville, Ky.-based
chain opened its 400th restaurant and
made its second public offering, with $22.4
million in proceeds.

Today, there are more than 3,000 Papa
John’s with $1 billion in sales in 2007. Even
Schnatter says he didn’t see it getting quite
so big—as he sold pizza out of that broom
closet at Mick’s Lounge, he imagined maybe
100 stores. Today he thinks, why
not 5,000?