In small Herzogenaurach it was almost like a religion at times: people decided on Puma or Adidas once in their life – and stuck with it. The rivalry between the two shoemaker brothers Rudolf and Adolf “Adi” Dassler from the Franconian province shaped entire generations of athletes and ultimately created two global brands.

Puma always remained the smaller of the two companies behind Adidas. After all, he is the older one: almost a year before Adidas, Rudolf Dassler had the company name Puma entered in the commercial register on October 1, 1948. 75 years later, the company is close to reaching 10 billion in sales – even if it hasn’t always been a steep uphill climb.

From Lothar Matthäus to Serena Williams

The Dasslers brought their fratricidal struggle to the population in the region northwest of Nuremberg. You had to decide which of the two camps you wanted to belong to; the path was often predetermined. Lothar Matthäus’s, for example: His father was a caretaker in one of the Puma factories. It goes without saying that the highly talented footballer played in shoes with the big cat from an early age. Or that of Helmut Fischer. His father took young Helmut fishing, and Rudolf Dassler was also in the group at the time. This influenced the now 74-year-old so much that he now goes by the nickname “Mr. Puma”.

Over the years, Fischer rose to become Puma’s advertising manager. Over many decades, his path crossed with countless greats of world sport: world athletics stars like Armin Hary and Merlene Ottey, tennis legends like Boris Becker and Serena Williams and, of course, countless footballers. When Fischer – who still works as a part-time archivist at Puma today – strolls past the display cases on the glass connecting bridge at Puma headquarters, many old anecdotes come to mind.

Johan Cruyff’s, for example: The Dutchman, under contract with Puma, refused to put on an Adidas jersey like the rest of the team at the 1974 World Cup. But the puma big cat didn’t work either. So the superstar played in a jersey and pants with only two stripes. Or that of Neymar: The Brazilian turned down a lucrative contract with the US industry leader Nike for Puma because he really wanted to wear the shoes of his idol Pelé.

The first colored football boots

This in turn was responsible for football boots becoming more colorful. For the 1970 World Cup, Pelé had a bright yellow Puma stripe sewn onto his previously traditionally pure black shoes. “Pele was the first athlete who dared to wear colored shoes. Only the superstar could afford that,” says Fischer today.

As in sport itself, celebrated successes and bitter blows of fate are close together in the sporting goods industry. Fischer gets serious when he walks past Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari red racing boots. “Two weeks before his accident he brought me the shoe with the words: It’s better off with you.”

Computer shoe flopped in the 1980s

The history bridge also bears witness to achievements and sometimes also to flops. A computer shoe in the 1980s was ahead of its time – the market didn’t buy it. Boris Becker, who, in Fischer’s opinion, made Puma a real global corporation, played a racket whose length and weight distribution could be adjusted. Nobody talks about the so-called “power control system” anymore. The track and field athlete Heike Drechsler set records with the Puma Disc – the model without laces but with a turntable on the tongue never caught on on the mass market.

Fischer’s archive in the basement of Puma headquarters with thousands of shoes, balls, textiles and advertising paraphernalia tells volumes about the company’s history, but also about its sports history. There he collects the racing suits of Formula 1 greats like Sebastian Vettel – and, if possible, every pair of shoes that Puma has ever produced. These include long-running favorites such as “Suede”, which, after the emergence of the fad drug, is no longer allowed to be called crack as it used to be. And unusual designer pieces that never went into series production.

Checkered economic history

Puma’s economic history is checkered. The rise until the 1980s was followed by a dry spell in the 1990s. Helmut Fischer complains today that the Dassler family had withdrawn, financial investors ruled, and the family element had been lost. CEO Jochen Zeitz got the company back on track, also by tapping into new target groups in the fashion industry, thanks to collaborations with designers such as Jil Sander and Alexander McQueen. The Norwegian Björn Gulden later took over. The former football professional even temporarily brought Puma AG, which has been listed on the stock exchange since 1986, into the Dax. In the meantime, Gulden was drawn to local competition, and his former “crown prince” Arne Freundt took over the helm.

Right at the start of his term in office, the North German was able to announce the best economic result in the company’s history for 2022. Sales of 8.5 billion euros and a consolidated profit of 354 million euros were recorded. “Puma has strong momentum and clear strategic priorities. We are continually working to increase our brand desirability, optimize the product offering and improve sales quality,” says Freundt. He wants to focus even more on the markets in China and the USA, where he expects sustainable growth.