• Women chat in the atrium at Trek Bikes' global headquarters in Wisconsin (Kath Bicknell)Source: Kath Bicknell
In an industry full of trends, it takes a lot to reach the top and to stay there. John Burke is the president of Trek Bikes, a company his father began in a small shed in the mid-70s.
Cycling Central
11 Oct 2016 - 11:29 AM 

Trek recently held their first ever Women’s Summit at their global headquarters in Wisconsin. The aim of the summit was to welcome 54 new women’s advocates from North and South America who will be working with the company to grow participation in cycling in their local communities.

In addition to learning more about Trek, its products and the research behind them, the Summit was a fascinating chance to learn more about the company culture.

I entered the doors of the huge building expecting to be bombarded with all the reasons their bikes are the best on the planet. What I learned instead was that the drive behind the company is as much about creating change, at a social and environmental level, and that they see the bicycle as having a central role in doing that. This is the side of the cycling industry that we don’t tend to talk about as much as perhaps we should.

Sitting down to interview Burke about the values he sees as integral in running a business like Trek, the other main themes of the interview were family and community. As you’ll see, when it comes to Trek, it’s not really possible to talk about the one without the other.

The back story

Cycling Central: Trek are best known to our own audience through their sponsorship of the Trek-Segafredo WorldTour team, and as one of the major bike brands in our local market. How important do you think the greater story behind a brand is, alongside the kinds of products they produce and the riders they support?

JB: Well I think the story, the reality, behind the brand is really important. Because I think people should want to buy products from companies they want to associate with.

I mean, does that company share the same values that I have? Or not? And I think, one of the things that we’ve really struggled with at Trek since our inception is telling our story. We’ve gotten a lot better with that over the last five years but we have a long way to go.

[Sitting in John’s office, it would be easy to feel intimidated. His voice is loud and confident, and resonates as he talks. He’s so tall, he often stoops as he stands to speak with others. But he’s also engaging and direct. If you’re open to others, they’ll be more open to you. Over the course of the Summit it becomes apparent this is a quality John values highly.]

CC: For people who don’t know your own story, can you briefly describe how you ended up in the role that you’re in?

JB: I ended up in the role that I’m in because my father started a bike company. And I always looked up to my dad. And I thought bikes were a pretty cool thing when I was a young kid and he started Trek.

I went to college and I raced bikes for a while and I got more into cycling. And after I graduated I said, well, I’ll go work at Trek. So I went to work at Trek.

Emily Bremer, Trek’s Women’s Marketing Manager, who is also in the room with us: When did you start?

JB: May, 1994.

EB:  What department?

JB: I was in sales.

CC: Was it ever a choice? […working in the family business]

JB: It was always a choice.

CC: And your mum is still involved?

JB: She is! Lainey! She’s awesome. [His voice gets louder and he instantly becomes more animated. Throughout the next part of the interview he starts doing impersonations of his mum, which I won’t even try to translate to type.]

She has the magic! She’s really good!

CC: What does she do?

JB: She’s the nicest person in the world. [The star son. Lainey would be proud. But really, what else does she do?]

CC: That’s her job title?

JB: It’s a full time job! Yeh. [He becomes serious again.]

She is one of the founders of the company. She is a part of the soul of the company because both she and my father were big on giving back. One of the reasons we do a lot of good things with our company, we do a lot of really good things, is because of her. [We’ll get to the good things shortly.]

A company is like a person [he says]. It develops a personality. So this company has a personality and part of it is Lainey. And that’s the giving part. So she is in that role. And she’s on the board of directors at Trek. And that’s a small group, so she has influence there.

She is a large shareholder in the bike company. And she’s also the president’s mother. [He starts laughing as he talks again.] Which gives her…she can chime in at any time as to what she’d like to say.

On giving

CC: As you’ve seen Trek grow over the years, what gives you the most satisfaction as you watch the company and its staff do their work?

JB: What gives me the most satisfaction are the people who work here [he says matter-of-factly, but with a gravity that cuts through the air.] Just that I’m part of the same team.

[He tells a story about a friend, Chris Kegel, who was recently given a serious cancer diagnosis. Trek staff were involved in putting together a ride/celebration for Chris, a bike retailer who is well known for his committed advocacy work and one-of-a-kind character: Chris’ slow roll.]

This was a long way away from where most people at Trek work [Burke continues], but there were probably 60 Trek volunteers who put the show on, and another 100 who showed up for the ride. There were 2000 people who showed up at this event. And we put it together in three days.

And it’s the other stuff we do. It’s this NICA program with biking in schools.

[NICA is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Trek have committed in excess of US $1,000,000 over five years to NICA, which they will raise through $1 from every Bontrager tyre sale. The company will also donate US $10 from every full suspension mountain bike sale and $1 from every helmet sale to other projects, and encourage retailers to match this. Burke didn’t mention this explicitly, it’s just ‘other stuff’ they do. I write it here not as advertorial, but in case there are others who are curious to read about these details too.]

We do this thing called ‘DreamBikes’ [he says next], which is hiring underprivileged kids to work in a used bike shop. And give those bikes back into the community, poor communities where kids can’t get bikes. That’s an amazing program that we’re working on.

We’re working on a program to really, I think, transform America. It’s called ‘Places for bikes’. And I think it’s got a place globally once we straighten it out here.

It’s not how much stuff we sell or, "We came out with the new Domane, it’s unbelievable." That’s not what the legacy is here. The legacy is the great things we did with the bike company.

On values

CC: What do you think are the core values of the company that give it that legacy?

JB: To me, there’s a bunch of core values that we have. I think energy and the ability to energise others. The people that you see around here are here because of that. I also think just taking care of the customer.

I’ve talked to you about how I take care of customers, but it’s something that happens in the whole building, it’s in our DNA, is how we take care of customers. I think that’s really good.

[Being] open to new ideas from everywhere. We like to learn, as an organisation. We have a really big learning engine. And I think the other thing is awesome products that we love, which, that’s a high bar, and that’s what we need to clear.

On other businesses

CC: When you look at the cycling industry, or other industries more broadly, what do you think are the biggest challenges that face small businesses today that want to grow?

JB: Themselves?

CC: Yeah. I mean, Trek started as a small company, and family is important, and you have staff longevity. People don’t leave.

JB: There was a great interview with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple and somebody asked him – I’m a huge fan of Apple and Steve Jobs - and they asked Tim Cook what Steve Jobs’ biggest lesson was. He said, the biggest lesson of Steve Jobs is that most people put themselves in a box. They think they can only do this much, when in reality, they could do that much.

So the biggest problem that businesses have today, is themselves. They put themselves in a box, and they think they can only do this.

CC: What advice would you give to those people?

JB: Put the best team on the field. Hire people who are better than you. Hire the best group of people you can and make it an awesome place to work.

[Sometimes the best advice is the simplest advice, but it takes conviction and confidence to follow these things through. I find Burke interesting in that regard. He’s able to say the things that matter when it matters, but, like the company he directs, he has his feet planted firmly on the ground. This provides a sense of confidence and perspective that’s far bigger than an identity determined by bikes or boxes, and speaks more to the reasons many of us get involved in cycling in the first place.]