Alice Tillett, President of Pacific Cycle since 2008, created a PowerPoint slide with four bullet points listed on it to describe the company’s competitive edge: (1) world class products [including iconic brands Mongoose and Schwinn]; (2) operational excellence; (3) consumer insights & marketing; and (4) employee engagement. What Tillett doesn’t enjoy sharing as much is the spill she took when marketing forgot its place in the race toward excellence, outdistancing consumer input.
“Let’s just say that lesson was a very expensive one,” she recalled with a practiced chuckle. “A lot of money….” The mistake was moving ahead with a very slick and expensive ad and packaging campaign for Schwinn products, using the then-popular star-rating system – without first checking the reaction of brand-loyal fans. “It was our version of good, better and best along selected product lines, and it worked like this,” she explained, reaching for a classic clanging bicycle bell. “This bell might be ‘good,’ and so we put three stars up in the corner of the package to show the rating. A more sophisticated bicycle horn might earn four stars for being ‘better’, and the high end model would be awarded five stars on the packaging.”
“We conducted focus groups, or consumer testing, after the fact, after all of the packaging was done across the different product lines. Of course, we expected folks to applaud us for our creativity and design, and for answering the question of which product was a little better than another, but instead, the campaign was met with disbelief and even customer push back.”
Loyal Schwinn fans let her team know loud and clear that while the classic “upsell” strategy may work well for less iconic products, it didn’t fare so well with a brand that consumers expect to only have one rating – best. “They thought the campaign flew in the face of our number one competitive edge (world class products) and they were right,” Tillett acknowledged, adding, “The consumer really is always right.” And so she now opens most PowerPoint presentations with a slide that declares, “Put consumer first!”
Still, taking risks remains a company value – though Tillett has amended that to mean “taking smart risks”, a credo she exemplifies. She began her retail career working for Gibson Greetings when, during an employee orientation meeting, the vice-president of the company invited the incoming sales staff to take him out on a sales call ‘someday’. “I was so naive, I thought he meant it, and so I called him up soon into the job and invited him to go on calls with me, which absolutely horrified my boss,” she recalled with a wide grin.
When the VP suggested lunch mid-day, after a full morning of sales calls, Tillett informed him that she liked to stop at a grocery store mid-point between appointments. “I explained that it featured plenty of tasty food samples.” It wasn’t because the food was free, she quickly assured him, but because she could then squeeze in an extra sales call every day.
“I always say I have a book in there,” she said, and likely she could devote a chapter on how the VP became her mentor, leading to work as Director of Sales for Rubbermaid, which led to an executive position with Huffy Bicycles. But the most surprising plot twist probably would be how she went from teaching seventh and eighth grade social studies – the job she sacrificed for peddling cards and sampling grocery store treats — to running a company with 420 employees.
Today, editing her life, Tillett credits teaching with giving her the skills to gracefully transition into the more public role as the “face” and leadership brains behind InSTEP, Iron Horse Bikes, and other brands. “I learned how to give presentations and communicate in writing and in person,” she explained. “I’m organized and can handle meetings, and frankly, facing a group of retailers is nothing compared with teaching middle school kids. I’m hard to knock off my feet. I always say that a retail buyer on a bad day looks good to me, compared to seventh and eighth graders on a bad day.”
She is hard to knock down… except for that one marketing misfire that drove home the lesson to make sure Pacific Cycle focused on delivering the kinds of products – and the message – that consumers want. Fast forward to the present and, still a little miffed and embarrassed by the oversight, Tillett, 46, uses company products every day. She often tests consumer preferences from the vantage point of a bicycle seat. “We all ride,” she said of Pacific Cycle employees, but Tillett rides with her sights set on the road map she’s laid out for company success. “Communicate the message again and again and again of what success looks like, which is satisfying your customers,” she advised. “And don’t forget employee engagement. It isn’t last on the list – it’s integrated into every step along the way. Having a passionate employee base is really critical to our ability to stay competitive.
“Then educate to the behaviors you want to model, and reinforce the fact that smart risks are okay,” she added. “We learn from mistakes, we dust ourselves off, and we get back on the bike. The next risk could be the next big thing. You have to be nimble today, to respond to market wishes before the competitor does. I like to ride, in part, to remember what it felt like to get on a bike for the first time. How it felt to learn how to ride. I take those feelings with me every day to this job because that’s what we really make at Pacific Cycle when we do it right. We thrill and delight and connect people to life-long memories.”
She tilts her head to the side, apparently thinking. “Close your eyes a minute,” Tillett says. “I know it sounds weird, but humor me, okay?”
Huh? Okay…. Bbbbbrrrriiiinnnngggg. She thumbs the metal bike bell tongue and whish! That sound! It’s instantly recognizable and hearing it out of the blue like that, suddenly you’re there, on a bike at the age of five or seven, wind in your face, concentrating to keep your balance, until you stop thinking and start doing, and you get better and better at it and…. Tillett smiles, her point made.