Ever wonder what it’s like to oversee an entire portfolio of bicycles, from design and testing to picking and choosing colors, spec and pricing? What about doing it for one of the largest bicycle companies in the world?
We interviewed three of Trek’s product managers to see what it’s all about, how they ended up with such a sweet job and what project they’re most proud of. Tyler Pilger (road), Heather Henderson (women’s bikes) and Chad Price (hybrid, commuter, urban) tell us what it’s like…
BIKERUMOR: Each of you is a project manager for a different division within Trek Bicycles, can you explain what that role entails?
Tyler Pilger: I am the product manager for Trek Road, Triathlon and Cyclocross. I work with a team of Industrial Designers and Engineers to determine future projects and current specifications. We do a lot of research both inside and outside the bike industry to come up with new ideas.
Heather Henderson: Basically, a product manager determines what product will go to market for any given segment. That product then has to be conveyed to manufacturing and maintained during its life cycle. For Trek, those decisions are based on thorough use, research, and knowledge of product as well as thorough understanding of consumer segments and dealer demand. We work with internal development teams like the engineers, industrial designers, and creative as well as vendors like parts companies and other various manufacturers. We also speak extensively with consumers, dealers, other riders, or anyone we can glean valuable information from. Then don’t forget the marketing and sales facets…
I am the Women’s Specific Product Manager at Trek so in my case I am responsible for the Women’s bicycle line. Some days that means I get paid to sit at my computer and talk on the phone about production issues and model details, some days it’s sitting through extensive meetings, some days it’s meeting with dealers, other days it’s research travel to check out market segments or specific events. Fortunately for me, it’s always about riding my bike. Every time my boss sees me in the hallway suited up and headed for the trails in the middle of the day, he just smiles in approval.
Chad Price: Product Manager for Pavement bikes for GF and Trek. Pavement is kind of a catch all. Hybrid, comfort bikes, fast hybrids such as FX, Urban/commute bikes.
BIKERUMOR: How did you land that job? In otherwords, what was the path and education that led you where you are today?
Tyler: I grew up riding just about anything with wheels I could get my hands on. I attended Fort Lewis College in Durango CO. I was there in the late ’80’s with people like John Tomac, Greg Herbold, Ned Overend…the list goes on….it was really inspiring. I decided I was going into the bike business, and ended up working in southern California as a sales rep calling on bike shops. I escaped the bike biz for a few years selling custom engineered components to computer and medical companies and learned the product development side of business which I enjoyed. Then through some fortunate happenstance, I ended up putting the two together at Trek.
Heather: Although I do have a liberal arts degree, the school of hard knocks and experience are what really provided the necessary skill set. I began my cycling industry career almost fifteen years ago by begging a shop to hire me as an assembler when I couldn’t even change a flat. Since then I have followed a steady progression of cycling-industry positions in retail, distribution, and manufacturing; sales, marketing, R&D, wrenching, operations, supply chain- you name it. I have had the great fortune of working with some incredibly knowledgeable people along the way who were willing to share their passion and expertise. In the end, I’ve always just been kind of a bike geek, one of those women with a dozen bikes in her garage. When Trek called, of course I wanted to work for the best bicycle company in the world!
Chad: Bike shop…business degree Univ Wisconsin…could not deal with a real job (never really got one, just got a good racing sponsorship deal instead)..Wintered in the SF bay area, bike raced semi pro US and France for 5 years, made it back to the midwest and got involved with Trek after getting Planet Bike going (with the founder). I’ve been with Trek for 10 years.
BIKERUMOR: What design or project have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Chad: Generally our team has led Trek into the process of consumer research. We did the Lime project and really learned about the way consumers think and gained a better understanding of the process to gather and analyze the information. Standard faire if you’re part of Madison avenue, but a nice step for us.
District and Soho projects in Belt drive have been rewarding. we took a chance, encountered significantly more issues than we expected, and solved them. In the end belt drive is a feature that is timely and relevant. There is another project that will be hugely satisfying assuming it all works out as planned. Standby for that one.
Tyler: Probably the ’08 Madone. Lance had retired and our current Madone platform was very mature. The road team was basically given cart blanche and all the resources we needed to start with a blank sheet and create the best bike we could. We definitely took a lot of risks and came up with some very unconventional ideas that turned out to be game changers.
Heather: Probably the first bike I ever completely overhauled. It was a 1970’s Schwinn Suburban and I knew nothing about bicycle mechanics at the time. I did it in my living room with rubbing alcohol for degreaser in the kitchen sink and Vaseline for grease. I wish I still had that bike.
BIKERUMOR: Is there a design or patent that a competitor has that you wish you had gotten first?
Heather: Call waiting.
BIKERUMOR: Trek brand products aside, what upcoming bicycle-related technology are you most excited about?
Tyler: Shimano Dura Ace Di2. Others have tried electronic shifting in the past but the electronics side of the technology just wasn’t ready. The front shifting is magic!!!!
Heather: Magnetically suspended no-contact hubs, monorail technology in a wheel. Just imagine no resistance! Someone will figure it out one of these days.
Chad: Electric Assist.
BIKERUMOR: How much feedback does someone like Lance Armstrong or other sponsored athletes and riders give you? Do they get real “hands on” or just provide vagaries like “make it stiffer?”
Tyler: We work really hard to listen to the athletes and their needs. Some are really technical and can provide a lot of feedback. We have a team liason named Ben Coates whose full time job is to interact with the Astana team and get feedback on equipment. Lance is detail oriented in every aspect of his training and his feedback on equipment is no different. He is also willing to try new things in the off season which is refreshing as many riders are very conservative when it comes to changes.
Heather: It depends on the rider; many can really articulate specific nuances about a bike’s performance. If they spend that much time on the bike they inevitably have valuable information to share.
Chad: Used to work with him as the Bontrager wheel product manager. Lance wanted what most people want…things that work, are unbelievably light and fast and look cool. wading through the feedback was the hard part in the early days until we committed people to work more closely with the Team. Scott Daubert led this charge. It was invaluable.
As for pavement, we have identified “faces” (sometimes a person, sometime a composite) for each of our categories. We often will ask ourselves what would they think about this?? or in some cases we’ll reach out and talk to the person directly. These are average people, sometimes a fitness minded person, sometimes a hardcore commuter, sometimes an older person having trouble just reaching the ground. The deal is…figure out the person, listen, watch document….then take action.
BIKERUMOR: Obviously, Trek bent over backwards to get Lance a new TT bike for the Tour of California when the original was stolen…In general, does Lance get what Lance wants? Can he just call up and say “hey, it’s Lance, I need a bike.”?
Heather: Ask Lance.
Tyler: Let’s just say Lance gives 110% and we need to in return. That really goes for the whole team. We work really hard to give the Astana guys the best tools we can.
BIKERUMOR: When he was winning Tours, did it really help drive sales of Trek road bikes?
Tyler: It absolutely helped. Not only did Trek grow dramatically but road cycling in general.
Heather: I really think having an American hero has done a lot for cycling in the States in general. To have a such a dominant competitor in what is arguably the most domestically recognized cycling event certainly hasn’t hurt!
BIKERUMOR: Do you think his current sponsorship will drive sales overseas, too, or will the marketing focus there be on other riders?
Heather: Seeing spectacular athletes perform at peak of fitness can only inspire whoever witnesses it.
Tyler: I think Lance is a phenomenon that is unequaled anywhere. That being said, Alberto Contador gets a huge amount of support from fans, especially in Europe. He might drive higher end sales even more than Lance in some specific road markets.
BIKERUMOR: Excluding racer feedback, where do you design inspirations come from?
Tyler: We do a lot of research in Automotive, Motorcycle and consumer electronics. Lots of great integration and packaging ideas from those industries.
Heather: Everywhere… riding to work or on the trails out back, horse-powered vehicles, electronics, tools, house-wares, interior design, movies like Transformers, you name it. I take tons of pictures when I’m out and about to articulate ideas to my colleagues.
BIKERUMOR: On the mountain side, most of your XC team were let go for the 2009 season. What’s going to drive innovation and R&D for mountain bikes?
Heather: We still rely heavily on racer feedback with the new World Cup team as well as our incredible team of engineers, designers, and riders here in Waterloo. We also have one of the country’s foremost suspension experts working in our state-of-the-art California R&D center.
BIKERUMOR: With the disbanding of the Trek-VW team, rumor was the focus shifted to the European market…is there a better growth opportunity there versus the U.S.?
Heather: I know plenty of women who still don’t ride bikes. There’s opportunity almost everywhere you look.
(Editor’s Note: We invited both Trek and Fisher Mountain Bike Product Managers to participate in this interview but, alas, their schedules didn’t play nice with ours…maybe next time.)
BIKERUMOR: Do European customers look for something different in the bikes, and will you anticipate any design changes to accommodate that market? If so, will they be Euro-only designs, or global designs available in all markets?
Heather: Most markets have specific needs. Topography often dictates as much as geography. We already have region-specific models.
Tyler: I do think the Euros’ are just a little more hardcore than the US customers. They very much want to ride what the Pro’s ride. This is good and bad. We used to do a lot of specific product but the technology in our newer products seem to work very well for both markets..great product is great product.
BIKERUMOR: Do Europeans refer to headsets as 1-1/8″, or do they call them something else since they seem hellbent on using the metric system?
Tyler: Still call them 1 1/8″
Heather: (and) we call them 1 1/8″ on our global websites….
BIKERUMOR: In the U.S., it’s Trek, Specialized and Giant as the “big three.” Are there a different set of major competitors in the European market?
Tyler: There are an incredible number of brands in Europe…way too many to count and change within each country. It is really crazy how many new brands you see every year.
Heather: Europe is a very interesting market for women’s product. The biggest hurdle is probably just getting more women to ride in general.
BIKERUMOR: Bicycle culture and commuting is more ingrained over there. Can we expect some European inspired designs for your urban/commuter bikes, or is the FX and Lime what you’re bringing to the table for that market, too?
Chad: There are as many designs from here going there as coming here. We feel that FX has been a strong driver. In general, we are driving faster bikes over there and they are driving accessories and more fully equipped bikes over here. Eurobike is the show to be at. This will be a big year for electric assist and this is being driven out of Europe. U.S. is the untapped market.
Heather: Check the TrekBikes website as the summer progresses…
BIKERUMOR: Design wise, what’s the biggest challenge or compromise that has to be made when creating a new bicycle design?
Tyler: Humans are weak engines with big ego’s by nature…that means weight is always going to be a huge factor in road bikes. I think the biggest balancing act is creating a light bike that can take the daily abuse. We spend significant time and effort to have the best testing programs in the industry.
Heather: Determining which idea is most viable and not being able to make every single idea. There are just too many!
BIKERUMOR: Is it really tricky developing a Women’s bicycle, or are there some basic changes that accommodate the female anatomy? Do women gravitate toward WSD designs?
Heather: It’s tricky developing any bicycle if it’s done with great care and attention to detail. We carefully consider every target customer for every model and make decisions based on what we think will provide the best cycling experience because in the end, we’re selling cycling as much as we’re selling bikes. Some women want and request WSD models, some women can be accommodated by models from the regular line as-is or with a few modifications. Trek Women is about offering choices that make women just want to ride.
BIKERUMOR: Is carbon fiber the end-all-be-all of frame materials?
Tyler: I think carbon is the best material in the near term. I think consumers will start to understand the importance and differences in resin systems in the next few years. That can have a significant effect on how the actual carbon material performs.
Heather: Carbon fiber is a fantastic material for certain applications. For someone who can only spend $300 on a bike, it can’t possibly be the best frame material because then they couldn’t have a bike. For that person, I think a frame material that will allow them to purchase a bike is the end-all-be-all frame material.
Chad: Not for my customer groups.
BIKERUMOR: There’s talk out there that carbon fiber manufacturing is pretty hard on the environment, and I think a lot of that has to do with the process more than the material itself, can you speak to that, and what is Trek doing to “green” it’s manufacturing processes?
Chad: Keep in mind that the vast number of units we sell are not carbon fiber bikes and we have been taking action.
Tyler: Trek is working hard to be as green as possible. We are doing our best to look at everything we produce from a cradle to grave product cycle perspective. Carbon bikes are definitely a challenge as there are not any reasonable recycling avenues yet…but we are working on it. One of our advantages from an environmental perspective is that our OCLV Carbon frames are manufactured in Waterloo, WI. US pollution control requirements are much more strict than in other countries. We use a veryÃ‚Â sophisticated air filtering system to capture particulate matter created during the finishing process and low VOC paint, both of which are the best in class practices for carbon manufacturing. In addition, all power used in our Wisconsin facilities come from renewable wind and solar
Heather: Trek has undertaken some pretty serious initiatives that are a true commitment to more environmentally sound manufacturing processes both domestically and overseas. The Waterloo facility is powered 100% by renewable energy resources. We’ve been looking at the footprint our production processes have in all aspects and are making strides to lessen it in tangible ways. We recently changed tire vendors at one of our manufacturing facilities so that tires didn’t have to be shipped as far. Things like that can really add up and make a difference.
BIKERUMOR: What are you working on right now that’s cool and new?
Tyler: Unfortunately that is a secret…
Chad: Will launch product soon.