Dick Burke, 73, founder of Trek Bicycle Corporation, passed away March 10 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Burke and his business partners saw an opportunity to sell American-made custom touring bikes, and did so from a red barn in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Little did they know that 30-plus years later, the tiny company would blossom into a US$700 million company that included brands Gary Fisher, LeMond, Klein, and Bontrager, and would claim eight Tours de France by 2007. Trek veteran Joe Vadeboncoeur shares some insight on the man he worked with for nearly 20 years.
Dick Burke was a great person. He not only started the greatest bicycle company in the world, he also was a good father and a great philanthropist.
Dick had his passions as we all do, but his passions were about the city of Milwaukee, the people who live there and are less fortunate than him, and Marquette University. He truly was a great friend to all of those issues and institutions.
I’ve been working for Trek 20 years now, and have seen both the good days and the difficult days at Trek. I remember when I was a sales rep in 1988, and just getting to know Dick Burke. He was not my direct boss at that time, so my interaction was just if he was traveling in my part of the world or at annual sales meetings. He always impressed me that he was in touch with the day-to-day operations of the company yet had a grasp well beyond mine of the global bicycle industry and where it was headed.
As I moved up within the company, I would have more opportunities to work directly with Dick. In the past 10 years, I’ve been on several business trips with him, both around the USA and in Europe and Asia. He enjoyed being involved with our efforts at the company in Asia and in Europe. Even after he became Chairman of the company and was not involved on a daily basis with the company, he could still impress you with his knowledge of what was happening at Trek. And, he never failed to impress anyone with his overall vision of the bicycle business.
For a guy that started his business career in the appliance business, he became quite the advocate for the bicycle and the business around it.
Dick and I shared the same penchant for very casual attire. He made it okay for me to not put any weight in how people dress for work in the bicycle business. I always knew that if I was traveling with Dick, that he would be in a baseball cap and jeans or shorts. He always used to say that he liked traveling with me, because he knew that I was not going to make him feel underdressed.
Dick Burke, in my mind, was the absolute epitome of honesty and integrity. I learned that those are not just buzzwords from Dick, and I learned that if nothing else, you always take responsibility for your actions and that you never do anything in your life or in business that could be construed as less than honest. I know that sounds pretty basic, but it is usually the basic things in life that will take you the farthest.
These days, Trek is a big entity. I like to think that we still act as a small bicycle company though, taking responsibility for our actions, for advocacy and for building the best products possible. Our product development efforts are on a huge upswing; Trek is investing so much in product development, that I feel over time it will be commonly held that there is no company in all the bicycle world that is more innovative than Trek. Truthfully, I feel that Trek will be seen soon to be on par with Apple or any other company on that front.
We’ll be here, following the things that Dick taught us over the years. Taking care to be completely honest in our efforts every day, working hard to make a difference in everything that we do. And, doing our best to be leading the charge for the bicycle in all areas into the future, whether that be in advocacy or product development.
Dick, we will miss you!
Director of Product Development