What Gets These Workers in Gear?

Quality Bicycle in Minnesota is a great place to work if you love to bike. In fact, the company's culture -- and its business reputation -- depends on that. It's all part of Quality's inner logic, its code, its brand.

The way to keep a successful company on a roll is to keep recruiting great people -- and to hold on to the ones that you already have. The values behind your brand have to be distinctive enough, compelling enough, and authentic enough to become a magnet for the right talent -- people who believe in your products and who fit the ethos of your company like the proverbial hand in the glove.

Or the butt on the saddle, as the gearheads at Quality Bicycle Products might say. Based in Bloomington, Minnesota, 12 miles from downtown Minneapolis, the independent parts distributor is projected to hit $60 million in revenues this year, and its success has largely depended on the quality and dedication of its staff. "We've been in retail," says Quality founder and president Steve Flagg, 50, whose earlier venture, Freewheel, the Twin Cities' first bicycle co-op shop, was founded in the 1970s and is still operating today. "We know how to treat dealers."

Sure. But first, you have to know how to treat your employees -- how to pick 'em, and how to create a culture that inspires and nurtures them. Ninety percent of Quality's 195 staff members are serious cyclists, for example. "For many people here, biking is a form of expression," says Gary Sjoquist, 47, the company's on-staff bicycle-industry advocate. "It's something they're passionate about."

Still, even a bike company that is full of bikers can't take its employees for granted. Not in a metro area where the unemployment rate hovers at 2.8%. Here are a few of Quality's unwritten rules.

Don't typecast your employees.

Flagg strives to promote a culture of engagement and shared learning. Around October, when the shipping season cools, warehouse workers leave their regular jobs and shift over to a variety of other tasks, including many in the catalog division, where they help put together Quality's 480-page "bible" and plan the annual open house for vendors and retailers. At face value, it seems an odd sort of crossover. But in fact, such reassignments relieve the monotony of line work and prevent people from being pigeonholed. For example, Ben Hopland, Quality's UNIX administrator, started out in the shipping department, and former warehouse worker Mike Riemer is now the staff photographer. "People want career development," says VP and MIS manager Mary Henrickson, 50, who is married to Flagg. "And they want interesting work.''

Align your company's values with your people's values.

Protecting the environment is part of Quality Bicycle's vision statement. So employees who live within 10 miles of the company are paid $2 per day to bike, carpool, or bus to and from work; those who live farther away get twice that amount. The money is banked in the form of commuter credits, which employees can use to buy bike parts at a 10% discount. The company paid out nearly $11,300 in commuter credits last year.

Lori Richman, Quality's new HR director, knows that they're going to have to do even better than that, however. Entry-level jobs in the shipping department start at about $9 per hour, and that's not a living wage, even in the relatively inexpensive Upper Midwest. Topping her agenda is a plan to sweeten the benefits package, which now features referral bonuses and a 401(k) match but includes only one week of vacation and sick time combined after one year.

Adapt your location to your workers' needs.

Quality's suburban location, though scenic, is a hike for workers who commute from the Twin Cities. The company worked with Metro Transit to get a bus line from downtown Minneapolis to stop at Quality and at six other Bloomington companies. Access to mass transit has helped Quality recruit young workers from the urban center.

Indoor bike storage and a repair shop support those who pedal to work. So does a lunch program that brings restaurant food in-house. "It's hard to carry soup when you ride a bike," notes customer-service rep J.C. Hammond, 29, who cycles 24 miles round-trip every workday from March through November.

Contact freelance writer Amy Gage by email (agage@charter.net). Learn more about Quality Bicycle Products on the Web (www.qbp.com).

Sidebar: Squeaky Wheels

At Quality Bicycle Products, good coffee is a passion that is akin to cycling itself. Founder Steve Flagg learned that lesson last spring when he decided to boost productivity by banning bean grinding in the kitchen. Too noisy and time-consuming, he claimed. Email outrage erupted. Messages flew back and forth asking Flagg whether he still valued the people.

Customer-service representative J.C. Hammond recalls seeing 300 email messages within three days. Flagg won that round; Quality Bicycle now buys ground coffee instead of beans. But it wasn't the first time that he took flack for a top-down decision, and to his credit, Flagg has made an effort to solicit his employees' opinions more deliberately. "You have to swallow your pride and ego sometimes," he says. "It's a small price to pay for honest feedback." Even part-time employees are invited to the annual company retreat, where they get a chance to participate in "Steve's Fun Topics," designed to be a forum for controversy.

It was there that employees convinced Flagg to hire a bicycle-industry advocate in 1997. Later, of course, the email chain clattered about whether the expense would affect the thrice-yearly profit-sharing bonus. Flagg says, without apology, that it has. "It's hard to do a cost-benefit analysis for a bicycling advocate," he says. "But the bottom line is, it's a good thing to do."

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