Burke’s next priority was to turn around the customer service. He had learned the importance of the happy customer during his days in the appliance business. Burke became a pioneer of dealer advisory meetings in which he listened to his customers to give them the product they wanted. “What happens on the sales floor is as important as anything in this business,” said Burke.
The first step taken to improve customer relations was the empowerment of a team of twenty- somethings that had doubled the newly created accessories business the previous year. The group, which included Burke’s son John, would come to be known as the “Cub Scouts.” “It was blind enthusiasm with adult supervision,” said the elder Burke. Richard Burke came from the traditional school of thought, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it;” the Cub Scouts chose to break it and make it better.
John Burke had followed the business intently at a young age. Over summer breaks during his college years, he would finagle his way into the sales department after his warehouse shift to cold call customers and sell product. When his father assumed a more active role with the company, the 24-year-old John was called in from his sales post in Colorado to head up the customer service department in Waterloo. “This was the Cub Scouts chance to get out of the cheap seats, and onto the playing field,” said John. “The first role of leadership is to grab the reigns when somebody hands them to you.”
Pat Sullivan was given the mission to expand the dealer base. “I told Dick I was going to add 200 dealers a year,” said Sullivan. Richard Burke’s response was, “If you reach 1000 dealers, I will put a statue of you in front of the building.” The group aggressively pursued dealers and let it be known to all retailers, including their existing customers, that they were looking for business. “We were told we were going to piss off our current dealers, but the truth is, people wanted to do business with us,” said John. In a few short years, Sullivan had reached his goal and a plaque that still resides in front of the facility in Waterloo was erected.
“Looking back on it, my father took a big gamble on us,” said John. “But he looked at who we had, assessed our strengths, and placed us accordingly.” Few personal accounts exemplify the success of the hire-from-within formula than that of Joyce Keehn. Keehn, originally hired on as a receptionist before the new regime, quickly worked her way up through customer service and currently holds the position of director of worldwide sales.
In the fall of 1988, John Burke made his first trip overseas to research the European bicycle business. “I remember thinking to myself that we could do very well here,” said John. Keehn championed the effort to give Trek a global presence. “I was telemarketing to Canada, I guess I was the only one with any international experience,” said Keehn. “We were flying by the seat of our pants, but our lack of experience gave us courage.” Wholly-owned subsidiaries were subsequently assembled and the Trek international program was underway.
By the late eighties, Trek’s aluminum bonded bikes had become a commercial hit. The technology was applied to a rapidly growing mountain bike market and the company took off. While the people remained the same, the face of Trek’s product began to evolve. The company was making more mountain bikes than road by 1990, and engineers dabbled with the use of carbon composite tubes bonded to aluminum lugs.
At this time, the US government was cutting back on defense industry funding, forcing its hand to look elsewhere for business. Having perfected its bonding technology, Trek looked into other materials to lighten up their frames. The company sent Bob Read to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1990 to attend an aerospace industry show. It was here, where he came in contact with a carbon fiber molding company, Radius, forever changing Trek technology.
Read first met Richard Burke in the warehouse of his longtime employer, Roth Corporation. Soon after, Burke hired him on in a manufacturing capacity, and he quickly became the company’s first quality control manager. He remained a calming influence in the engineering department before