What I Learned at the Bike Shop

Apr 26, 1999

When I was a kid I worked at the local bike shop. It was underneath an optician’s shop accessible only from an alley. The place was a dump, as some readers of The Zweig Letter who have been in St. Louis for years can tell you. The rent was only $100 a month. But it was awful cool being in seventh grade and working there (at least I thought so)! Plus, I learned a lot, management lessons that also apply to the A/E/P and environmental business. Here are a few of them: Treat the employees well (better than they expect, if you can). When I started out, I volunteered to work for free for a month, and if they liked me, they could pay me $1 an hour. I worked a week or less and they put me on the payroll. By month’s end, I was already up to $1.25. We also got free lunch every Saturday, ribs from Tennessee Jed’s. The bottom line is the owners could have gotten away cheap but instead did the right thing and paid me what I was really worth. I just wish every A/E/P and environmental firm did the same! Get organized and keep your work area clean. When I started, the shop was a mess. The owner had his pet projects tying up space, everything from a four-door Corvair he made into a two-door, to junky French mopeds, to a homemade three-wheeler with a Cushman motor. I got that place cleaned up. Not only was our repair area clean and organized, I found all kinds of neat old stuff we could sell. We put everything in a display case with a price tag on it and moved it on out! Nothing reduces confidence like a messy, disorganized work area. Clients hate it and so do good employees. Yet how many environmental firms have you been in that look like pigpens, from the reception area all the way through to the place the field equipment is stored? Too many. Answer the phone with enthusiasm. My friend and co-worker Tim Dunn put a sign up that said: “Kirkwood Cycle, The Home of Happie (sic) Cycling.”(we ran out of “y”s). So we decided to start answering the phone that way, joking around with customers and listing off our latest “specials.” It made us enthusiastic, and the customers reacted the same way. How many A/E/P firms do you call where the person answering the phone sounds depressed? It happens all too often. Don’t make it look too easy or the customer won’t want to pay you. My old boss taught me that even though I could often fix a flat in a minute or two, we’d have a hard time charging $1.00 for a patch unless they left the bike or its wheel there and came back an hour or two later. That’s the problem with “value pricing” in our business. Clients still want you to jump through enough hoops so they feel like it wasn’t too easy for you to run to the bank with their money! Make friends with your customers so they keep coming back for more than just the lowest prices. Most of the time, you are not the only supplier in town. And there’s always someone out there who doesn’t value his or her time and will work cheaper than you will. That’s O.K. if you really have a personal relationship with your clients. It takes building trust and a belief that you are looking out for their best interests. We used to do that in the bike business by not replacing parts that didn’t need to be replaced, even if the customer thought they did. They were always tickled and would tell their friends to come to our shop. Again, the lessons apply to this business. Build credibility, deliver what you say you will, and make friends! Share information with your employees so they can help make things better. That back alley bike shop was a hand-to-mouth operation. The owners struggled daily to make ends meet. But they always paid me. And they never hid the tough financial situation from anyone who worked there. We were just kids, but we didn’t want to see the place go belly up. And the owners, Donna and Larry Riegel, were our friends. We worked hard, and we billed every nut, bolt, and screw to every job so the place could make a profit. On new bikes we tried to get every follow-up sale we could, even if it was only a spare masterlink for the chain! The same approach works in A/E/P and environmental firms. How can your employees do what’s right if they are kept in the dark? One last tidbit. When the Riegels sold that shop in my senior year of high school they thanked me for all the help I gave them in turning the place into a profitable business that they could get away from. Doesn’t sound all that different from our business, does it? Not only is it more fun along the way if you run your business well, but there can be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! Originally published 4/26/1999

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