Beyond The Swoosh: How Oregon Can Be More Like Nike

by | Jul 15, 2015

Earlier this month Nike announced the start of a succession planning process that will conclude in the appointment of the company’s next Chairman.

Enigmatic Phil Knight, Oregon’s only billionaire, will relinquish his powerful Chairman role. At the same time, his son Travis ascends to a seat on the company’s board of directors.

The Oregonian’s editorial board came out in favor of these moves, and in favor of success in general. “Oregon is known as hip, innovative, tolerant and an overall cool place to be. Unlike Nike, it’s not necessarily known for success,” the board argued.

According to the state’s largest newspaper, success is attained by building a great brand, going beyond your natural strengths and not letting mistakes cripple you. All lessons that we can glean from Nike’s path from Blue Ribbon Sports to the global sports powerhouse it is today. Provided we’re willing to overcome any reservations we may have about Nike and Knight.

Despite all his success, Phil Knight was never hugely popular in Oregon, except among fans of Oregon Ducks sports teams. Some of that probably is a product of his personality and some of it because Oregon does not easily embrace financial success. And maybe that’s the biggest difference of all between Nike and Oregon. It’s hard to be successful without fully embracing success.

When you strip out these words and lay them bare: “Oregon does not easily embrace financial success,” they seem absurd. What do Oregonians embrace? Bottomless bowls of granola? Nature, and a more humane approach to work? I think yes, Oregonians do follow their own rules and the rules are relaxed. At the same time, the people of Oregon are complex and can’t be summed up that easily. For instance, the state has a rich industrial history, and we continue to lean heavily on manufacturing today. Locally, “Made in the U.S.A.” means “Made in Oregon.” Nike, of course, manufactures its shoes in overseas plants. That’s at odds with the Oregon way, and you might say the American way. Making shoes in Oregon would reduce profits, but it would win a lot of hearts and minds.

Back to the idea of not embracing financial success. It sounds like a Sunday School lesson from the New England Puritans who came West, not for gold but for a virgin land upon which to imprint their indelible and chaste stamp. Of course, none of that squares with the history of bar owners, loggers, ship builders, fishermen, cowboys, and various other rogues who also made Oregon what it is today. I don’t know if Phil Knight identifies with the Puritans or the rogues. What matters is resolving in some way these conflicting views of ourselves as Oregonians. To truly reject the creation of wealth makes us outcasts in the American experiment. It seems to me what we want is the creation of sustainable wealth through more conscious means.

For too long being pro-business has meant being anti-environment. Here again we find tension between the poles, when what we need is agreement to meet in the middle. We can achieve controlled growth, but it is growth, nonetheless. Ideas about Californians going home are stale. Statistically speaking, no one’s going home. Now, let’s meet the reality of population growth with economic growth, so the great majority can afford to benefit from the world-class schools, healthcare, transportation, food and beverage, architecture, arts and sports that help define Portland and Oregon. The magical beauty and mild weather are gifts. The rest we must work to perfect.