A typical morning for John Burke, weather permitting, starts with a 22.3-mile pedal from his home in Maple Bluff to the Trek Bicycle Corp. headquarters on Highway 19 outside of Waterloo. Usually, Burke will ride a Trek Domane road bike, but lately he’s been mixing in an electric-assist model.
On weekends, Burke and his wife, Tania, president of the luxury bike tour business Trek Travel, try to get in a 100-mile ride to prepare for events like the L’Étape du Tour, a citizen ride held each year before a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The couple have been regulars since 2006.
“The first year we did it, I thought it was a tour … until the gun went off and everybody charged out like a race,” Burke says. “So now we really try to train for it.”
When you’re president of America’s largest bicycle company, sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between work and play.
But Burke manages to log 5,000 miles a year in the saddle while also heading a $1.2 billion corporation with 3,000 employees worldwide. His philosophy? Hire talented staff and let them do their thing.
“We’ve got some amazing people working for us, which isn’t by accident,” he says. “We treat everyone like it’s a family company, because it is.”
Ask Burke about Trek’s commitment to philanthropy, advocacy or the environment and he claims he’s simply following the example set by his parents: Trek co-founder Dick Burke and mother, Lainey, a mail carrier’s daughter, who grew up on Madison’s Dunning Street.
“My mother and father didn’t start out with a whole lot, but they were always looking to help other people and taught us to give back,” he says. “It’s something I never forgot.”
This much is clear: John Burke has grown a business launched in a barn in Waterloo into a bicycle brand known internationally for its innovation and quality. There have been some ups and downs along the way, but Trek has cemented its place as a Wisconsin nameplate company alongside Harley-Davidson Inc. and Miller Brewing Co.
“John took over Trek when it was faltering and built it into the premier bike manufacturer in the world,” says former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who worked with Burke while serving as executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Federation after leaving politics.
Today, Trek has 17 offices around the world and gets 60% of its business from outside the U.S. It sells its bikes through some 5,000 retailers globally. Last year, Trek sold more than 1.5 million bikes of all shapes and sizes, making it No. 2 in the world behind Taiwan-based Giant.
Those who know Burke, 57, say he’s driven and demanding. He’s not afraid to make tough decisions, whether it’s taking a chance on a new bicycle design or cutting ties with underperforming staff.
At the same time, Burke has a glib sense of humor, likes his beer and punctuates public speaking appearances with phrases like “bam” or “boom” when showing how the bicycle can address challenges ranging from global warming to childhood obesity. His yearly reading list of 50 books runs the gamut from American history to modern management theory.
Burke has also written two books himself: “One Last Great Thing,” a farewell to his father, who died in 2008, and a political offering called “12 Simple Solutions to Save America.” He has an updated version, to be published in May, called “Presidential Playbook 2020: 16 Nonpartisan Solutions to Save America.”
“It’s a real page turner,” Burke quips during a recent interview at the company’s headquarters.
There’s nothing funny about the $16 million raised by Trek since 1990 in the fight against childhood cancer. The annual Trek 100 benefits the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, or MACC, Fund. Former NFL stars Bo Jackson and Brett Favre, along with 17-time Tour de France rider Jens Voigt, are regulars on the Trek 100.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m kissing the ring or anything, but John Burke is an amazing individual,” says MACC Fund co-founder Jon McGlocklin, a member of the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA championship team. “JB is smart, he’s a leader and he’s been a tremendous supporter of ours.”
Bicycle junkies in Wisconsin may already know much of the Trek story — how entrepreneur Dick Burke and friend Bevil Hogg set up shop in Waterloo in 1976 making moderately priced road bikes that could slot between the U.S.-made Schwinn clunkers and the expensive, lightweight European bikes of the day. They chose Waterloo because it was halfway between where Hogg lived in Madison and the Burke family home outside Milwaukee.
The fledgling company got off to a decent start, making about 900 steel bikes its first year. The bikes proved popular, and Trek was on an upward growth trajectory.
John Burke started working at Trek as a freshman in high school, loading boxes and taking inventory. He then left for Boston University, where he majored in business, did lots of bicycling and decided he wanted to make a career at Trek. This was around the time Americans like Greg LeMond were starting to appear in the professional peloton in Europe.
The younger Burke’s first real job at the company was as a sales rep in the western U.S., driving around in a Chevy Cavalier station wagon. But like many family businesses, Trek started to outgrow itself and management problems surfaced, leading to plunging sales and significant losses between 1985 and 1986.
That’s when Dick Burke made the decision to bring his son back to Waterloo and put him in charge of sales and marketing at age 24. The company was doing about $16 million in sales at the time.
“My dad told me, ‘You get your name on a door but the rest is up to you,’ ” recalls Burke, who has two adult children from a previous marriage, including a daughter who works at Trek in retail marketing.
What followed was a commitment to customer service and a mission to deliver quality products on time to retailers. The hard-driving John Burke and his team of young, go-getting bicycle lovers helped fuel growth that eventually spread to the U.K. and Germany.
The company also launched an employee stock ownership program that helped it recruit and retain top talent. In 1997, after sales had exceeded $300 million, John Burke took over as president.
The View From HQ
The elder Burke might not recognize operations today. The sparkling headquarters in Waterloo resembles a trendy technology startup with glass offices, open meeting rooms and a health-conscious company cafeteria.
Of course, there is a workout room with indoor bikes for employees to use on break. Spirited lunchtime rides remain a staple at what might qualify as the fittest workforce in Wisconsin.
Like all of its major U.S. competitors, Trek manufactures its bicycle frames and parts overseas these days. But custom paint jobs and final assembly still take place in Waterloo under a program called Project One, which offers customers a choice of 11 models and limitless color options.
“People can choose from something pre-made or design something to their heart’s content,” says Eric Bjorling, director of brand marketing and public relations, during a tour of the painting facility, where teams of blue-suited employees in clean rooms apply the finishing touches to bicycles retailing for $10,000 and up.
Over the past two decades, Trek has expanded into kids’ bikes, electric bikes, the travel business and city bike-sharing. Madison’s BCycle, which Trek runs, saw a fourfold increase in ridership last year following the introduction of an all-electric fleet.
Burke says there is no doubt that electric bikes are the wave of the future, although he recalls how Trek came up with an e-bike back in 1997 that never really caught on with customers.
“We had this prototype in-house that everybody loved and thought we were going to sell 10,000,” he says. “We ended up selling 352.”
After more fits and starts, Trek in 2010 eventually came out with a line of e-bikes that are both affordable and efficient. They are priced from $2,500 to more than $12,000.
Trek has also been aggressive in building its brand via sponsorships of professional racing teams, including a longtime relationship with Lance Armstrong that ended in 2012 following revelations about his doping practices. You won’t find posters of Armstrong adorning the walls inside Trek HQ anymore, but he is mentioned in the company’s red hardcover employee handbook.
“Lance got a lot of people interested in bikes,” says Burke. “He’s part of our history.”
Trek is looking to invest in the next generation of riders as well. To get more kids on bikes, the company is the lead sponsor of a middle school and high school mountain bike league involving 20,000 kids across 20 states.
Trek has also been a leader in the commitment to gender equality in sports. Last year, Burke was recognized by the U.S. Women’s Sports Foundation as its “Champion of Equality,” marking the first time a male has been so honored. Trek has pushed for equal pay in World Cup racing events, and cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, has now mandated that all World Cups have equal pay beginning in 2021.
Trek plans to roll out a #GoByBike campaign designed to position the bicycle as a sustainable transportation solution that can reduce urban congestion, improve air quality and boost public health. The company postponed the start of the campaign from April 22 — originally to correspond with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — to a date yet to be determined.
For his part, Burke isn’t offering any hints of an early retirement or succession plan. Why would you leave a company whose flagship product is about wind on the face, the freedom of movement and having fun outdoors?
“Cycling can change your world,” Burke says. “I want to help more people fall in love with it.”
Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer and cyclist.