Bike exec laments impact of Armstrong debacle on cycling industry

The downfall of cycling icon Lance Armstrong for using performance enhancing drugs is already taking a toll on the sport, the head of Madison-based Pacific Cycle said Wednesday.

“But cycling is bigger than one person, so it will rebound,” Alice Tillett said. Her company sells Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, among other cycling and exercise products.

Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and been banned from competing. After years of denials, he reportedly confessed to using PEDs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that will air today and tomorrow night.

“This is not good,” Tillett said. “Any time you go on Oprah’s couch, it’s not good. But honesty is the best policy.

“Lance had such a great story and we wanted to believe. I’m personally disappointed. Bicycle racing is going to have to clean up, and it has to start with young people.

“It’s imperative that we learn from this (doping scandal) and not let it affect our young people today. Without a doubt.”

Tillett, who was featured Wednesday at an Icons in Business breakfast sponsored by In Business magazine, predicted that bicycle manufacturing may one day return from China to the United States.

“Things are changing in Asia,” she said. “Over time, we’ll get our manufacturing back.”

“But governments will have to help us train (workers) and do other things to keep businesses here,” she added.

“And if consumers really want ‘made in America,’ they’ll got to be paying a little bit more for that,” she said to a round of applause.

“If you really want Schwinns to be made here, you’ll have to reach into your wallet for a few more bucks,” she said.

Tillett, who began her career as a junior high social studies teacher before moving into the world of sales, spoke to a packed ballroom at the Madison Concourse Hotel. She told of two journeys, one personal and one professional.

But both, she said, involved risk – like learning to ride a bike – and navigating change.

“Each time, after each fall, you have to get back on until the risk becomes worth it,” she said.

Tillett said that once she got into the classroom, however, she found out that she didn’t want to pursue a career in teaching.

She said her first major risk was to tell her usually supportive parents — who had financed her undergraduate and master’s degrees — that she wanted to switch careers and sell products that people enjoyed.

Her father’s response was to show her a stack of bills that he’d paid for her education and tell her she was now on her own. She then took a job with a greeting card company, later worked for Rubbermaid and then was with Huffy Bicycles for 15 years.

Tillett, 46, joined Pacific Cycle in 2001 as vice president of sales. She became president in 2008. Though bike sales have been flat nationally for the past 15 years, she said her company has managed to grow. It now has 420 employees.

As she rose through the corporate ranks, she made sure she learned what all her employees did and how their jobs meshed with the entire company.

“So I can say I am the master of all trades and the master of none, but I know a little about everything,” she joked.

Tillett said she knew how to sell, but had a whole new set of training wheels to master when she became president of Pacific Cycle, which acquired the iconic Schwinn bike brand in 2001 out of bankruptcy.

“I learned a lot along the way,” she said. “I asked a lot of questions. And I saw that the market was changing and went with it.”

Because bicycle sales have been flat since 1998, she said her company had to look outside to grow, acquiring companies that made jogging strollers, bicycle trailers, toys and fitness equipment.

When she became president in 2008, Tillett said she inherited a well-run company.

“But I learned quickly how fast life in the retail world can change,” she said. “It was change on steroids.”

Now, she said, before many people buy products, they have read blogs, perused reviews and done other kinds of online research.

“There is a lot of ‘noise’ between a customer thinking about buying something and actually purchasing it,” she said.

Tillett said that while her company had “operational excellence, we didn’t know as much as we thought we did,” she said.

To continue to be successful, she said her company has to engage consumers to find out what they want, and employees to get them to buy in to changes.

“Just because you tell people something once doesn’t mean they got it,” she said. “You need to tell them seven or eight times.

“So when they start to mock you, you know they’ve gotten it,” she quipped.

— By Brian E. Clark