SAN FRANCISCO, CA (BRAIN) Monday July 30 2012——In the HR world—outside of the industry—bikes are fast becoming the “cool” recruitment tool.
High-tech firms in the Bay Area, including such behemoths as Apple, Google and Facebook, have invested in bikes for workers to get to various campuses, and it’s a trend that Kurt Wallace Martin says is on the rise nationwide as employers in dense urban cities feel the squeeze of congestion and limited parking.
“Having a bike program has become the arms race of attracting good talent,” said Martin, who launched his consulting company Bikes Make Life Better two years ago aimed at facilitating these corporate bike fleets. “The timeline of our company matches the timeline of this new sophistication.”
Martin said that business began picking up last year. Two of his most recent projects include pilot bike programs at Mozilla and Williams-Sonoma—both launched in time for Bike to Work Day in May.
“In every case, they’re also trying to boost employee wellness,” Martin said.
Mozilla, developer of the widely used Firefox Internet browser, recently opened a new office in San Francisco—at the base of the Bay Bridge. And realizing the parking and commuting headaches that employees would face, executives approached Martin, who conducted a travel survey to figure out how people would get there. Most employees lived within four miles, so bikes seemed like a doable option.
“We had to look at it from the beginning as a way to mitigate the problem of having to give people places to park, which can be quite costly,” Martin said. “It’s officially a trial of 20 bikes. But we know it will be more because you provide the bikes and people ride them and you provide more.”
Martin opted for a local company, choosing Public Bikes’ seven-speed C7 Dutch-style city bike in orange for the fleet. He worked with Public to customize it with the Firefox logo, color scheme and branded panniers. He’s now working with them to expand the program with a fleet of customized Dahon folding bikes for workers to use to travel between its San Francisco and Mountain View offices using the local commuter train.
“Part of why we’re seeing this trend, at least in the Bay Area, is that more companies are being incubated, growing and staying in San Francisco, not necessarily the peninsula,” said Dan Nguyen, business manager at Public Bikes. “It’s where the young employees want to live, and many want to bike, take transit and walk to work. They don’t want to drive to work.”
Nguyen said corporate sales—or bike fleets—account for only 10 percent of Public’s overall business, with most of its sales still to individual consumers. But Public has provided fleets ranging from 20 bikes to several hundred. In addition to private and public corporations, he has fielded inquiries and set up fleets at lifestyle and boutique hotels that see bikes as an important amenity for guests.
Its client list includes the Gap, AOL, mobile phone payment solution Square and, more recently, Williams-Sonoma.
Leigh Oshirak, spokesperson for the premium cookware brand that employs 1,600 in the Bay Area, said that four weeks in, the 20-bike program had proved to be a morale builder and that it will likely grow as they are able to determine which of its office buildings have more demand.
“As we start bringing in younger and younger people, hopefully that will be appealing to them. They perceive only tech companies as being cool. But there are a lot of great programs and reasons to join us,” she said.
Oshirak said Williams-Sonoma already runs shuttle buses between its four San Francisco offices, which are two miles apart, to minimize driving. It’s not uncommon during the course of the day for employees to attend meetings at two or three of the buildings. Sometimes it could take longer to get to the meeting than the meeting itself.
“A lot of people wanted to get there faster and on their own,” she said. “But there’s also a wellness underpinning.”
Oshirak declined to comment on the cost of the program, but said it was a big push for Williams-Sonoma CEO Laura Alber.
The fleet consists of white C7 Public models; each comes with a basket, rack, helmet and a map that shows the most direct and safest route between buildings. All the buildings have indoor bike parking and lockers—and some have showers.
“Five bikes per building. You check them out with the receptionist. You have to watch a training video or attend a safety class,” she said.
Martin’s role, as he put it, is to translate the world of bikes to average people. That includes researching the distance and terrain the bikes will be used in and making recommendations, sourcing product, customizing, maintenance, training and any other organizational help. With himself and two other partners handling all of the work, Martin relies on manufacturers and retailers, who provide volume discounts and custom options for not only bikes, but apparel, helmets, lights, racks, bags and other essentials.
And as car-centric cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit take bikes into account in street planning and policy, more companies are turning the corner. Martin sees these programs taking off, much like citywide bike-sharing schemes have in recent years.
“Does it become a standard tool, in which case we’re going to be talking to a zillion companies? Or, is it just a thing cool, clever and cutting-edge companies are doing? That remains to be seen. But it’s a steady conversation as more come to us all the time asking the initial questions,” Martin said.
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