Business leaders hear from cycling industry

Yesterday at the Multnomah Athletic Club, about fifty members of the Portland Ambassadors (a business development organization partnered closely with the Portland Development Commission) attended a forum to learn more about our local bicycle industry. They heard from a broad range of perspectives about how bicycles play an increasingly significant role in our region’s economy.

Bike industry forum at the MAC
From L to R: Greg Cowan (Castelli), Jay Graves
(The Bike Gallery), Sacha White (Vanilla Bicycles).

Oregonian Columnist and Cycle Oregon founder Jonathan Nicholas was perfect as the moderator and his introductions of each panelist were one of the highlights of the event (unfortunately I had a technical glitch and cannot share any audio clips).

The speakers included:

Nicholas introduced them as the people who, “use pedals to drive the economic engine of the region.”

Moderator Jonathan Nicholas
The esteemed panelists.

First to the microphone was Sam Adams’ Chief of Staff Tom Miller. Miller spoke highly of the need for more investment in bicycles. He said it’s, “not just the right thing to do, it’s the thing to do.”

The first presenter was Mia Birk, who knows a thing or two about investing in bicycles. Birk was hired to lead Portland’s bike program in the late 1990s’ by then-Commissioner Earl Blumenauer.

With Birk at the helm, Portland invested heavily to lay the groundwork for the facilities we all enjoy today. She told the assembled crowd about findings from her report on the economic impact of bicycles in Portland which she completed last June.

Next came Greg Cowan. When Cowan took over Castelli they were floundering financially, now they’re flying high and back at the front of the pro peleton. Cowan — who served a stint as Global Sales Director for Nike — walked the crowd through a crash course in jersey and bib short design.

Greg Cowan of Castelli shows
off his fine products.

He said that bike clothing is the “most technically demanding of any sport,” and showed off his company’s latest, high-end jacket; a “Rosso Corsa” model that retails for around $375. Cowan said he’s,

“Happy to be in Portland, happy to be back in the black, and happy to have one less competitor (referring to the recent news of Nike bowing out of the cycling clothing market).”

No discussion of Portland’s bicycle business would be complete without ubiquitous advocate and industry statesmen Jay Graves. Graves shared his enthusiasm for Shimano’s Coasting initiative and his rosy visions of bike use in Portland. Citing a 33% rise in bike commuters in the past two years , he said Portland has reached the “tipping point,” in bicycle ridership.

Besides being a bike-friendly city, Portland also has a stellar reputation for small, custom framebuilders. To present that perspective was Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles. In his introduction, Nicholas said, “What Tiffany is to pearls, Sacha White is to bicycle frames.”

Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles.

White shared his humble beginnings, from starting in his garage with “some hand tools and files” to the challenges and opportunities presented by his current four-year waiting list.

White, who filled in at the last minute, told the crowd that one of his models and inspirations is Stumptown Coffee. He believes in their business practices and the way they treat their employees. White said he does not want to simply grow “as quickly as possible at any cost,” but that he strives to retain integrity and create something “special and valuable”.

He also shared the big news that he is working on a new paint facility. White is mum on the details at this point, but he told me that having access to reliable, high-quality paint jobs is “the Holy Grail” for builders and he is very excited about this project (stay tuned).

From L to R:
Tom Miller, Jonathan Nicholas, Jerry Norquist.

The final presenter was bicycle industry veteran (he has worked with Trek and Specialized) and one of Oregon’s most powerful bike advocates, Jerry Norquist. Norquist took time out of his presentation to tell the crowd to “keep an eye on Sacha White.” He compared White’s potential to another bicycle manufacturer that started small and has reached great heights, Trek Bicycle Corporation.

Norquist told us about a study from the Outdoor Industry Association that says bicycles contribute $15 billion to the economy of the Pacific region. The vast majority of that contribution is in what he referred to as “selling the experience,” in the form of tourism and supported rides. As a savvy lobbyist, he understands the importance and political leverage these statistics provide.

A brief Q&A session followed the presentations. Highlights of that included Mia Birk sharing news that Seattle is putting a $5 million bond to voters to pay for better bike infrastructure. That amount, she said, is twice what Portland spends on bikes annually. Birk also said she would like to bring more, complementary bike component and parts manufacturers to Portland. Jerry Norquist mentioned how important it is for everyone to get involved and get in touch with our elected officials both at the state and national level.

This was an important event because it educated non-bicycling business leaders about the vitality, diversity, and reach of our segment of the economy. In Portland, bicycles are quickly moving far beyond bike lanes and Critical Mass.

All signs point to the fact that the Next Big Thing for bicycles (in Portland and beyond) is to effectively communicate the vast economic development potential that awaits community leaders if they take investment in bicycles seriously.

On that note, don’t miss your chance to be a part of this at the Oregon Bicycle Summit, happening April 13-14 in Sisters, Oregon.

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