Adolf and Rudolph Dassler were brothers born in the small town of Herzogenaurach, Germany. Rudolf was born in 1898 and two years older than his brother. The brothers were nicknamed Rudi and Adi.
Their family came from a long line of weavers, but once the textile industry was overtaken by industrialisation, Rudi and Adi’s father Christoph learned the art of shoemaking.
In 1913, Adi began an apprenticeship as a baker, but he was much more interested in athletics. After completing his apprenticeship, he decided against being a baker and instead began to learn about shoemaking from his father.
Adi began thinking how different types of shoes could potentially affect how athletes perform in different sports.
After serving in the army for over a year at the end of World War I, Adi decided to start his own shoemaking business that focused on innovative athletic shoes.
Adi started the business in his mother’s laundry room, but he had many challenges in the beginning. Germany was devastated after the war, and there were very few sources of materials or machines. But Adi was creative and resourceful.
He found debris left over from the war to find materials he could use such as army helmets with leather that could be used for soles and parachutes that could provide silk for slippers He also created a leather milling machine that could be powered by a stationary bicycle.
Adi had a strong vision for a unique shoe company that would focus on specialised shoes for various sports. He was constantly experimenting with innovative designs and materials like shark skin and kangaroo leather to see what would be most effective for different sports.
Rudi wanted becoming a police officer after the war but saw his brother’s shoe business and decided to join him on July 1, 1923. They opened the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Factory one year later and began making football boots and track shoes with hand-forged spikes.
By 1926, they had moved the company out of the family home and were producing 100 shoes a day with a staff of 25 people.
Both brothers joined the Nazi party in May 1933, and Adi expanded production by supplying shoes to sports clubs in the Hitler Youth movement.
In 1934, 34-year-old Adi married 16-year-old Käthe [Kate-uh] Martz, which would lead to problems later on, but more about that in a minute. The brothers’ would experience their big break two years later.
However, their greatest exposure came from American Jesse Owens, who accepted a pair of shoes from Adi and went on to win four gold medals while wearing the shoes.
This led to a major spike in business internationally, and by 1938 their company was producing 1,000 pairs of shoes a day with specific designs for 11 different types of sports. But then World War 2 started and everything changed.
While Rudolf was conscripted into the army, Adi was permitted to remain as the head of the factory. Rudi resented this and thought that his younger brother was trying to take over control of the company, which he very well may have been.
Rudi even threatened to have the factory shut down just so that his brother would also have to go to war. Although Adi continued to make shoes, the majority of the production was geared toward weapons and supplies for the war effort.
Near the end of war, Rudi defected from the army but was caught and arrested. He was in prison for a month before the Allied liberation in May 1945.
After the war, tension got worse between brothers and in the house where Adi, Rudi, their wives, and their mother all lived.
There are a number of theories why the brothers finally split and never spoke to each other again.
The most popular theory of this rift dates back to a 1943 Allied bomb attack. Upon entering a shared bomb shelter with Rudolph and his family, Adolf yelled “Here are the bloody bastards again” referring to the war planes. Due to his insecurity, Rudolf took this personally.
After their argument, Rudolf was picked up by American Soldiers accusing him of being a member of the Waffen SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party organization. Although impossible to prove, Rudolf was furious and certain that his brother had turned him in.
The other theory is that when the brothers were investigated for their ties to the Nazi party and they each tried to save themselves and threw each other under the bus.
In 1948, Rudolf left along with one-third of the staff and went to the other side of the river in their small town, where he started his own shoe company, which was initially called Ruda and then PUMA.
After the brothers were done splitting the assets of their business, they never spoke again.
After the split, Adi Dassler named his new company Adidas after a shorter form of his name. In March 1949, Dassler came up with the idea of the “three stripes” trademark to set his shoes apart from all others.
Adi became known as the “national shoemaker” as his shoes were worn by the German National Football Team and many other German athletes.
In 1952, Adi expanded beyond shoes to clothing, balls, and and field warm-up suit, all featuring the distinctive three stripes.
By the 1960s, Adidas was the largest producer of sports shoes worldwide with 22,000 pairs of shoes produced per day in a total of 16 factories.
In the 1972 Olympic games, 80 percent of the track athletes that won gold medals were wearing Adidas shoes.
Adi never lost his innovative spirit and continually evolved his products. Before his death in 1978, he registered hundreds of patents to protect his ideas from his competitors, including his brother’s company PUMA.
Puma on the other hand, Rudolf established PUMA and focused on developing a football boot with screw-in studs that he called the Super Atom.
His shoes were worn by many people throughout Germany and a number of Olympic athletes.
Rudolph created a much better partnership with Brazilian football legend Pele, who was wearing PUMAs when he helped his team win the World Cup in 1962 and 1970.
In 1967, the PUMA cat logo was created, and the company expanded beyond shoes to other types of athletic apparel.
Just seven years later, Rudolf passed away, leaving PUMA in the hands of his son, Armin, who was able to increase the popularity of the brand worldwide.
It Is said that the brothers never spoke again, and their bitter rivalry even divided the town of Herzogenaurach, where they built their competing factories on the opposite banks of the town’s river.
Even citizens of their town, Herzogenaurach, took brand loyalty to new levels. Shopkeepers would favor one brand and not serve customers wearing the other – a tradition that still exists today.
Fast forward 70 years, Adidas and Puma are now both multi billion dollar companies that are just as relevant and powerful as ever.
This little known story just shows what ambition, determination, and a hint of insecurity can push people to accomplish.
It wasn’t until September 2009, long after the brothers’ deaths, that the companies put aside their feud and faced off in a friendly game of soccer an appropriate meeting for two companies who’ve become independently famous in the field of sports shoes.