Can low-key Nike swoosh into top sport-shoe spot?

There is an aura of informality at Nike headquarters here.

Neil Goldschmidt, international marketing vice-president for the shoe company , is excited about a poster portrait that has just arrived.

''Hey, come see who is going to sell Europe,'' yells the former US transportation secretary and past mayor of Portland, Ore., as he tacks up a poster showing Nike's European staff.

They're obviously not an Ivy League crowd. Gathered in front of an out-of-the-way diner near London, the grinning crew sport longish hair and ski jackets. They look more like a college fraternity than a hard-driving sales team.

And the people back in the office here, some of whom are wearing running shoes with the ubiquitous Nike ''swoosh'' trademark, are just as casual.

Nike may have the atmosphere of informal after-work jogging. But it's really a supercharged Olympic competition of motivation and creativity. These people are serious about becoming No. 1 in the world sports-shoe market.

Goldschmidt, who at 41 sees himself as one of the older staffers, says of the younger, rising stars: ''They are hungry.''

Their appetites must be enormous. When founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman launched their own athletic-shoe line in 1972 after several years of partnership with a Japanese firm, the first year brought sales of $1.96 million.

In 1981 Nike US shoe sales reached $399 million--a 63 percent increase over the previous year. Overseas revenues were up 56 percent to $25.8 million.

Nike also reported substantial growth in children's shoes sales and its new apparel line.

Nike sales raced past those of the German-based Adidas in 1979 to become the top-selling athletic shoe in the US. The company is now expanding and experimenting on a grand scale, with an eye on the world market.

In fiscal 1981 Nike shoes were distributed in 30 foreign countries. The firm is unleashing its best and brightest on the tough-to-crack European market. Manufacturing plants have been set up in China, and Goldschmidt recently visited Brazil to discuss manufacturing for export there.

Dennis Rosenberg, a securities analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. in New York, rates Nike as a ''tremendous success.''

''They have doubled their size every year for the past five years,'' he points out. Gains might be a little lower this year. Mr. Rosenberg predicts a 45 percent revenue increase for the fiscal year ending in May.

People at Nike say their key to success among runners and tennis players springs from an understanding of what it is like to be an athlete. That seems entirely plausible in a company where managers wear running suits to the office.

But the corporation's success seems to come from elsewhere. Nike was started as a family business. Phil Knight ran track under Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon. Early employees were often Knight's friends. That family atmosphere has been retained somewhat.

People come to Nike from a variety of fields totally unrelated to sports or shoes - witness Goldschmidt the politician or David P.C. Chang, formerly an architect in New York, now a Nike vice-president.

''Knight looks not at education and training, but for a specific kind of person,'' says Tim Renn, a Nike spokesman. A common denominator among personnel is a great love for sports and a competitive spirit.

But many of the staff are trained accountants, Goldschmidt points out. ''They know how to read a balance sheet. They are not just good-times guys.''

Nike has relied little on conventional advertising, banking heavily instead on grass-roots level promotions such as Nike-sponsored track meets and marathons.

Nike also gives shoes to school and professional teams and supports a track club, Athletics West, for athletes who are out of school.

''We spend three times more on promotions than on ads,'' says Goldschmidt. One such promotion put John McEnroe into his first Nikes when he was a hot college tennis player. ''It was not when he was already the best in the world.''

The firm also gets involved in sports politics. When the boycott of the Moscow Olympics was proposed after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Phil Knight went with runners to the Denver meeting of the US Olympic Committee to lobby against a boycott--unsuccessfully, as it happened.

And Nike was involved in getting a women's marathon included in the Olympics. It is to be run starting with the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

''It's our way of putting something back into sports,'' says Mr. Renn.

Nike's thrust into the rest of the world is determined. Nike owns distributorships in Japan, Sweden, and Britain, among other places. But the toughest spot for Nike will be Europe, where both Adidas and Puma are firmly entrenched.

Dennis Rosenberg of Oppenheimer admits that if Nike has a weakness, it is in European distribution and marketing. ''I think they will find it more arduous than they thought.''

Nike's strategy will be to first establish itself in the running market before tackling sports like soccer, where Adidas and Puma hold a strong advantage.

How can Nike possibly compete with firms that have most of the major European soccer teams wearing their shoes? Goldschmidt, whose expertise hasn't been in international marketing, either isn't giving any secrets away - or else isn't quite sure. He simply crooks his eyebrows and smiles.

''Patience,'' he finally says.

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