Trek Bicycle’s Chief, on Lessons of the Night Shift

JOHN BURKE is president and C.E.O of the Trek Bicycle Corporation in Waterloo, Wis.

WHEN I was growing up, I had a red Schwinn single-speed bike with a silver banana seat that I rode to a friend’s house and to sporting events in which I competed. At the time, Evel Knievel was popular, and I’d imitate him by placing garbage cans on their side in the driveway and jumping over them on my bike.

My father, Dick, was a runner and a biker. He started the company that I now run, the Trek Bicycle Corporation, in 1975, along with the owner of a bike shop in the area.

My high school was so small that there were only six students on the varsity basketball team. I was the sixth. I like to say I was the assistant coach because I spent so much time on the bench with our coach, Eric Walter. The passion that he had for the game and for playing one’s best was a huge influence.

I attended Boston University because it was the only school that accepted me out of the four to which I applied. The summer after my sophomore year, I worked the night shift in a plastics factory. The company made those candy cane-shaped plastic containers that are filled with candy and sold around the holidays. My job was to remove the red plastic tops from the molds. Returning home at 7 a.m. after my first night, I ran into my father drinking coffee before leaving for work. He asked me how I liked the job, and I told him it was horrible and I wasn’t going back. He turned to me and said, “You’re going back tonight, you’re going to work there for the summer, and you’ll enjoy it.”

That summer provided one of the best lessons of my life. I learned about hard work and making lemonade out of lemons. It may not have been the best job, but I made it a great one. I’d see how many tops I could remove each night, write down the number and try to beat it the next night. I brought business magazines to read during breaks.


After graduating in 1984 with a business degree, I joined Trek as a sales representative. My territory covered Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and parts of several other states. I drove my red Chevy Cavalier station wagon 60,000 miles a year. My boss once told me that the best sales reps drive on Sunday to be ready for Monday meetings, so I would do that.

Trek was not doing well at the time, and I heard complaints about quality and customer service on my stops. It was the greatest education ever; you don’t find out a lot when things are going well or if you sit in an office all day. I learned the value of happy customers.

I changed our operations so that if an order hadn’t shipped by 3 p.m. the day it arrived, the office staff would leave their desks and help the warehouse get the order out the door. I also instituted a process in which credits were issued within 24 hours.

After that, my dad put me in charge of sales and marketing. I was 24, so it was a big leap of faith on his part. In 1997, he made me president and C.E.O. of the company.

We had a run of three bad years, so we retooled the company, improved our products and focused on our international segment. We also instituted Kaizen, the continuous-improvement system, which made a big difference in our operations.

 My dad was very fit, but he died in 2008 shortly after heart surgery. He and I were best friends and had talked many times about me taking his place. Everyone at the company was prepared for it, too. But he left some big shoes to fill. His spirit lives on in everything we do.

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