Building a global brand with John Burke

March 29, 2023

Building a global brand with John Burke

John Burke

CEO of Trek Bikes

A recent episode of the Walker Webcast features John Burke, President of Trek Bicycle, who shares the story of his success.

John Burke has held several roles during his tenure at Trek Bicycle. He took on his first job ever at Trek, packing bicycle parts for shipment. He worked his way up to President of the company, a role he took on in 1997 and has held ever since. In addition to his success at Trek, John has authored three books.

This week, I had the privilege of chatting with him about everything from e-bikes to what it takes to build a global bike business.

How to build a customer-focused company

Believe it or not, Trek wasn’t always the customer-focused company it is today. There was a point in time when, in John’s words, “the people running the company didn’t like the customers, and the customers didn’t like them.” This led the business to deteriorate significantly, which caught John’s attention and made him realize the importance of building a customer-centric business.

John was then given the opportunity to put this customer-centric model to the test when his father fired the top managers at the company, and he was made the head of customer service. John made the decision that Trek was going to be the home of the happy customer. One of the first projects that he oversaw as head of customer service was the revamping of Trek’s owner's manual. When he saw that it was largely comprised of legalese, he decided to do something incredibly unorthodox; he offered up his own email address on the manual's first page.

He did this so that no issue with a Trek bike would go unsolved. If a customer exhausted all other avenues to have their bike issue fixed, they could turn to John, who would personally ensure that their issue was solved. To this day, John’s email is in the owner’s manual for every Trek bike, and he still receives a slew of emails when bike season starts up.

What it takes to stand out in the bike industry

There are many companies that build great road bikes and mountain bikes, so it’s tough to stand out in the bike industry. However, there aren’t very many companies that are truly customer-centric in the space. Trek has become uniquely hyperfocused on building a customer-centric business to differentiate itself from the competition.

Although John putting his email in the manual may not seem like a big deal to some, it’s played a huge role in creating a customer-centric business. Any Trek bike owner can rest assured knowing that they can contact the company's president if they’re having difficulty solving their problem. Doing this, thinking of customer service as a form of genuine hospitality, and only building products that Trek genuinely loves has led to the company receiving a Net Promoter score of 93, which is almost unheard of in the bike industry.

John explained: “If you buy a Trek bike, you’re part of the Trek family, and we’re going to take care of you.”

Cultivating a great company culture

John believes that a healthy company culture starts with healthy employees. Several years ago, many of Trek’s employees were physically unfit or otherwise unhealthy, despite working for one of the largest bike companies. This, in combination with a couple of his employees fighting serious health issues, led John to make some significant changes to the company’s health benefits.

First, he made health risk assessments mandatory for all employees; employees in good health would have more of their insurance premiums paid by the company, and vice versa for employees in poorer health. To ensure that everyone was on a level playing field, John made health coaches available to everyone and introduced healthy food options into the Trek cafe. These actions have made Trek employees considerably healthier over time.

One of John’s guiding principles is that people either bring energy or they suck energy out of a room. So, when the Trek team gets together, the requirement is to bring energy to the meeting, the work, and the culture.

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