BY JASON NORMAN
CHICAGO, IL—Doing more with less. That was the strategy of several bike companies, many of which trimmed workers the past two years as they cut costs to align with a decline in sales.
But with sales rebounding in the first quarter, suppliers are loosening their purse strings and slowly beginning to fill strategic positions.
Chicago-based sports and recreation recruiter Frank Whiting said companies focused on being lean as the economy slowed, leading to a smattering of layoffs.
But in talking with CEOs he’s found that they’re ready to fill positions that have been vacant for six to nine months. “In the fall companies certainly addressed their pain points,” Whiting said. “I saw that first. Now I’m seeing more strategic hires, with more forward thinking.”
Whiting said his recruiting firm is starting to see business rebound, but it’s not quite at 2008 levels.
Marin Bikes, which instituted a pay freeze last year, recently gave raises for the first time since January 2009. The Northern California company has also added two people in product development and two people in sales.
“That’s about a 10 percent increase in staff,” said Matt Dowling, chief executive officer of Marin Bikes.
Dowling said Marin’s bigger customers are replenishing low inventory levels and already placing 2011 orders for fall and spring. “That’s translated into hiring more people,” Dowling said.
American Bicycle Group, which froze pay and hiring last year, is looking to add to its payroll and recently moved to a larger office space in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, to accommodate a larger staff (see story page 6).
Last year ABG reduced its manufacturing workforce by 25 percent and let go of its independent sales reps.
“We’ve relaxed the hiring and pay freezes,” said Peter Hurley, chief executive officer of ABG and its stable of brands including Litespeed, Merlin and Quintana Roo.
Confidence that the economy is turning around is evident nationwide. According to the U.S. Labor Department, employers added 290,000 jobs in April, representing the strongest hiring surge in four years. It’s also the fourth straight month of employment gains.
Still, unemployment rose from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent in the first three months of the year.
Eric Raynard, a recruiter for sports and recreation industries who’s helping two high-profile bike companies fill key positions, said he’s feeling robust about future business.
“I’m definitely seeing more activity, more movement out there,” said Raynard, who’s based in San Francisco.
But companies are still playing close attention to cost. Raynard said more companies are bringing the recruitment process in-house, posting job ads and searching for candidates on the Internet rather than working with a headhunter.
Osprey Packs, an outdoor company, is bolstering its personnel as it makes an aggressive push into the bike market with the launch of new hydration packs (see story page 8).
“We’re looking to hire 10 or 11 new people,” said John Pieper, sales director for Osprey Packs. “A lot of that is growth into the bike market.”
The company recently hired a bike sales manager and is in the process of hiring a bike marketing manager. “We’re committing pretty heavily to this,” Pieper added.
Though many bike companies leaned their staffs, some continued to hire the past two years. Specialized Bicycles, for example, employed 125 at its Morgan Hill office five years ago. Today that number has doubled.
“You have to continue to invest there if you want your business to grow,” said Shannon Sakamoto, director of human resources for Specialized Bicycles. “Most of our investments have been strategic.”
Sakamoto said Specialized bolstered its product development, engineering and advanced R&D personnel.
Advanced Sports, Inc. based in Philadelphia has also doubled the number of employees in the last five years to 52, a result of recent brand acquisitions.