BY NICOLE FORMOSA
MILWAUKEE, WI—Whether he was giving one of his famous, inspirational speeches at Trek World, calmly brokering a multimillion dollar acquisition deal or simply standing on the sidelines at the Tour de France, beer in hand, Richard “Dick” Burke consistently lived up to his nickname: The Big Guy.
“There is a reason that a 5-foot-8-inch man is called The Big Guy. He was a small man with a very big heart. He leaves behind a great spirit and a legacy that: To whom much is given, much is required,” Burke’s son John said in an e-mail sent shortly after his father’s death.
Dick Burke, co-founder of Trek Bicycles and the man credited with growing the company from a five-man operation headquartered in a Wisconsin barn into the country’s largest bike manufacturer, died on March 10 due to complications from heart surgery.
He was 73.
“He fought like a warrior, and he died with dignity, class and honor,” said John Burke, the current head of Trek. “It was vintage Big Guy. Calling the shots right up until the end.”
Dick Burke was born in Chicago in 1934 and graduated from Marquette University in 1956. He bounced around as a credit manager at a few companies before accepting a position with Roth Distributing in 1960 in Milwaukee, where he eventually became treasurer and a shareholder.
He was working for Roth when he met Bevil Hogg in the early 1970s. Hogg sold his four Vitesse Cycle Shops to Burke, then approached him to invest in his idea to start a specialty company to make American hand-built bicycle frames, said Hogg, now an executive in the medical device business.
Burke believed in Hogg enough to back him and Roth Distributing funded the venture to the tune of $100,000.
In the beginning, Burke’s expectations for Trek weren’t grand, Hogg said.
“He had tremendous confidence and he was an optimist. He believed that whatever we did, we could do better and we could do bigger, so over time his vision grew in scope,” Hogg said.
In 1976, they began making lugged steel touring frames in a 7,000-square-foot barn in Waterloo, Wisconsin.
“Schwinn dominated the specialty retail market at the time, which is where most bikes were sold,” Burke said in a 2002 interview posted on the Trek dealer Web site. “But the mid- to high-end business was going to Japanese-made bicycles. We saw an opportunity to sell an American-made product in that category.”
Penn Cycle in Minneapolis was the first dealer to carry Trek.
Shop owner Pat Sorensen remembers the snowy winter day Hogg schlepped a frame into the shop and asked Sorensen if he would take a look at it.
“He just had a great story. Bevil and Dick Burke had really done their research and were right on the target for what was needed at that time,” Sorensen said.
In 1982, Trek added racing bikes to its line, followed by its first mountain bike the next year, and by 1983, the company was pulling in $20 million in sales. In 1985, Trek developed the first bonded aluminum frame, but struggled to build it in a production environment, resulting in a year of bad product, Dick Burke said during an interview with Inc. magazine in July 2006.
Hogg left the company in 1986 due to a disagreement with Burke on management styles, but said any hard feelings between the two quickly faded.
It was then that Burke began to put his personal stamp on Trek, according to Hogg. Burke took a more active role in the company, the frames were fixed and between 1986 and 1996, Trek’s sales bulged from $30 million to $300 million, Burke told Inc.
Soon after, Trek found itself riding a wave of publicity as Lance Armstrong pedaled to victory seven times in the Tour de France on Trek bikes built with the carbon fiber technology the company revolutionized.
By the time Burke stepped down as chief executive officer, handing the reins to his son John in 1998, Trek was well on its way to becoming the behemoth it is today with 1,600 employees and nearly $700 million in annual sales under the Trek, Gary Fisher, LeMond and Klein brands.
Dick Burke continued to serve as chairman of Trek’s board of directors at the time of his death.
“He was quite a success story,” said industry veteran Harry Manko, who knew Burke for many years. “He built up Trek from a rather small beginning and built it into a one of the leading companies. He deserves a lot of credit. We lost a very enterprising and visionary member in our industry.”
Part of Burke’s vision included forming the now-defunct Bicycle Industry Organization about a decade after the Bicycle Institute of America floundered in the early 1980s.
Even though BIO survived just two years, Manko commended Burke for having the foresight to see the value in a unified industry group.
“He was a very strong resolute believer in his company and then he saw the wisdom of having an industry organization and he really went full speed ahead with it,” said Manko, who sat on the BIO board.
Those close to Burke described him as an honest, sincere, perseverant man with a calm demeanor who shunned the limelight, preferring to focus on what was really important: quality products and strong relationships.
“He was a powerful, determined, yet humble man—a typical Wisconsin guy of his generation. It was about the results, not about him. He instilled in Trek his virtues of hard work, loyalty to his people and determination to succeed,” said Ray Keener, who bought Vitesse Cycle Shop in Normal, Illinois, from Hogg and Burke in 1975 and was one of Trek’s first seven dealers.
As a leader in the industry, Burke served as a role model to many, including people who vied against Trek in the marketplace.
“Even though we were competitors, I trusted him 100 percent. If he said something, that was it. He was a very special person in that way,” said Mike Sinyard, president and founder of Specialized.
Penn Cycle’s Sorensen realized Burke’s character early on in their 30-year relationship.
In 1976, Sorensen was young—barely 21—and had only met Dick once or twice when he boarded a flight in Minneapolis bound for Interbike in Anaheim.
“I was getting on the airplane, Dick stands up and says, ‘You’re Pat Sorensen from Penn Cycles.’ I just thought it was so cool that he remembered me. That’s the kind of guy Dick Burke was. I didn’t think I was much to him, but in his eyes I was his first dealer.”
The same ethics that Dick Burke employed to build a bike empire are now well engrained at Trek, creating a fabulous work environment, said Gary Fisher, who sold his brand to Trek in 1993.
“We’ll miss him, but we’ll feel him in our actions continuously,” Fisher said.
Beyond his success in business, Dick Burke was devoted to his philanthropic work. He established two scholarship programs for students at his alma mater, Marquette University, and has contributed tens of millions of dollars to community organizations in the Milwaukee area through his Trinity Foundation.
Burke is survived by his wife Camille, five children, Kathleen, Mary, Sharon, John and Michele, and 11 grandchildren.