How to Break Into the Cycling Industry – Pivot’s Chris Cocalis’ Story

Chris Cocalis shows off 2012 Pivot Mach 57 mountain bike and shares his story of how he broke into the cycling industry

Welcome to the first of a new series on how to break into the cycling industry. Bikerumor was started because, well, I wanted to get into the industry. It’s a common dream amongst cyclists, and I won’t lie – It’s awesome. The people are fantastic, and everyone just loves bikes.

What I’ve found over the past 3-1/2 years of running this site is that there are a million different ways to work in the cycling industry. We’ll highlight stories that showcase the odd jobs people have found as well as the more common ones and some of the interesting ways folks have found to break in. As with most success stories, the road is often longer and more mutated than anyone imagines. Like they say, truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve found it also makes for a darn good story.

The series will, hopefully, have no end. But it’s beginning with the story of Chris Cocalis, founder of Pivot Cycles and the U.S. importer for BH Bikes. Before that he started Titus. How do you start multiple bike companies from scratch, build them into highly regarded brands and capture distribution rights for one of Europe’s most historic badges? Let’s find out…

BIKERUMOR: Who are you and what are you doing here?

COCALIS: I am the President and founder of Pivot Cycles and also BH Bikes USA. Pivot Cycles is a high end mountain bike company focusing on the very top end of high performance mountain bikes (primarily full suspension). BH Bikes is a 102 year old Spanish bicycle company with a strong history in European cycling and racing. I founded Pivot Cycles 5 years ago to introduce a new line of cutting edge mountain bikes and at the same time formed a partnership with BH bikes to help design and bring their cutting edge road bikes to North America.

We are a relatively small company (although growing fast) so I wear a lot of hats. As President, of course I handle all the general planning and overseeing the business but am really driven by the design and product development side of the business. I am a rider and love the technical side of the sport. I wake up in the morning wanting to always build a better bike.

Pivot Cycles founder Chris Cocalis tells how to break into the cycling industry

Pivot founder Chris Cocalis has his hands in virtually every aspect of the company, including running sales meetings.

BIKERUMOR: What was your first job or experience in the cycling industry? How did you “break” in?

My first job was at a bike shop. Actually, it wasn’t even a job at first. I was 9 years old and wanted to sign up for a bicycle maintenance and repair class through our local park district. I was too young so my mom had to get permission from the bike shop that ran the class to let me in (Mike’s Bikes in Palatine, Illinois). I must have re-enrolled in that class 3 or 4 times to the point where Wayne Mikes would start the class teaching families how to fix flat tires while I was overhauling coaster brake hubs in back. I became the shop rat, began racing BMX shortly thereafter and got my first “real” bike shop job at 15.

As far as “breaking” in, I kind of made my own path. I worked at and managed bike shops all through college, attended the USCF academy in Colorado Springs and got my USCF mechanics certification, learned how to braze from the original founder of NORBA and welded my first mountain bike frame in 1987. Even before that, I designed my own BMX frame and had someone build it for me. I was just always pushing to gain more knowledge and was never happy with my equipment. I always wanted something better. In 1988 I met a titanium welder from Allied Signal Aerospace and we built our first titanium bikes together. The two of us and another aerospace engineer founded Titus Cycles in 1991. I was the president of Titus Cycles for 17 years before selling it about 7 years ago.

BIKERUMOR: What’s your educational background?

I attended Arizona State University for the first several years in engineering and then graduated with a Bachelor of Science in accounting. (yes, accounting….that wasn’t a typo)

BIKERUMOR: After that first experience/job, what was the path to your current position?

I was a senior at ASU, managing a bike store, and building frames. At the very beginning of Titus we built some suspension proto-types for John Radar (the guy who invented the Aheadset) after meeting him at a bike race (Cactus Cup, I believe). The design worked well and he sold the concept to Univega. Univega asked that we build them 175 Titanium frames for production. At that time we were very much hand building the bikes out of the garage and were not equipped to handle that kind of production.

Plus, I was interviewing with several accounting firms to head into the real world. One of my accounting professors was an avid cyclist and was urging me to do this, not go into accounting. His name was Hal Reneau (Godspeed Hal) and he was my thesis director. My thesis was a business plan for a custom bicycle manufacturing business that could build fully custom bikes in a production like manner. Hal backed my idea and became my first investor. I graduated, rented a building, hired our first employees, and got married all in the same year, while assembling bikes at night and weekends for two different bike shops to pay the bills.

We went on to build mountain and road frames, components, and suspension systems for Diamond Back, DEAN, SyCip, Kestral, Conejo, High-Zoot, Terry, Speedgoat, Edge, LeMond and many others before really focusing on our own Titus designs. During the early years, I cut and fit all the tubes, worked on the drawings and basically did everything but the welding. I had my hands in everything from the earliest suspension innovations, to developing custom road frames for the LeMond Mercury team, and then developing metal matrix materials with a couple different manufacturers. In the last few years before leaving Titus, we developed Exogrid and Isogrid carbon technologies as well as the MaxM brand of components. Most of the high end composite work was done in house so I had a large amount of hands on experience with that as well. It all adds up to where I am today.

2012 Pivot Cycles Mach 575 carbon fiber mountain bike

The 2012 Pivot Mach 5.7 Carbon marks the brand's first foray into carbon fiber

BIKERUMOR: What’s a normal day for you?

I travel about 5 months out of the year between spending a lot of time at the factories, trade shows, events, visiting with our customers, etc. This keeps my job pretty action packed. When I am in the office, I have meetings several days a week with all the key people, but I try and spend the most of my time on product development and production. We have a full CNC machining and production capabilities in house so we always have projects in development. We also have 3 engineer/designers and I spend a greater percentage of my time with them working on new projects.

BIKERUMOR: What are the highlights of your job?

Creating new bikes. It is what drives me. I can’t sleep when we are getting something new close to the stage where I can ride it. Whether that be an aluminum prototype, or the first new carbon frames out of the mold. I love to assemble the prototypes myself in order to check every detail. For me, the only thing more therapeutic than building a bike is riding one.

Also, I get to work with an awesome group of people. Everyone works so hard for the same goal and it’s always awesome to see how dedicated everyone is and see our team pulling together. We are only a five year old company and I would not be in the position I am in today without the other like minded cycling nuts that I work with.

BIKERUMOR: What could you do without?

Jetlag! I just got back from a trip and have been up all night (although I did sleep until 3 in the afternoon today) Incidentally, this interview is taking place in the middle of the night (although it is morning in Spain and afternoon in Asia).

BIKERUMOR: What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your path today?

You need to live it and you need to start out in a bike shop and learn from the ground up. I get a lot of resume’s from people who are going to school for design, engineering, or business and somewhere along the line they became cycling enthusiasts so they think working for a bike company would be a cool job. Well, it is a really cool job, but it is a job that requires a lot of knowledge and there are a lot of people that want to do it. If you love cycling and want to do this as a living then live it like it’s the only thing you want to do. People appreciate passion and drive, but it’s hard to resist when it comes with a healthy dose of knowledge and experience.

Comments

Andy - 12/14/11 - 2:01pm

Good article! Looking forward to seeing more of these!

Kristen - 12/14/11 - 2:42pm

Love the fresh content on your site. I think the founder of Wheelbuilder.com, Richard Sawiris, would be a great subject for your series.

Jacques - 12/14/11 - 2:47pm

I agree.

Danno - 12/14/11 - 4:20pm

Awesomeness. Replacing my Chris-era Titus Racer-X for a Mach 4 this winter.

Speedy - 12/14/11 - 5:53pm

This is fantastic. I can’t wait to read more like this! Thanks for the original content.

monkey - 12/14/11 - 6:43pm

how about some career related weblinks.
or developing a job board for positions within the industry?

I am a Human Resources professional and am currently seeking a new position.

I think something like this would be a great addition to bike rumor….

thanks

Gillis - 12/14/11 - 8:37pm

@monkey:

http://www.bicycleindustryjobs.com/bicycle-index.asp

Gillis - 12/14/11 - 8:40pm

malakye.com is another source for jobs in the outdoor sports (not football, baseball, etc) industry

Sevo - 12/15/11 - 12:55am

Couldn’t agree more on the starting in a shop bit…..unless you have a few years actually working on bikes, and hard old bikes to work on (Not just slapping together new bikes) you will have lost out on a huge base of knowledge that no degree can teach. Next is actually time in the shop dealing with customers hands on, if you don’t know how the average Joe ticks you loose.

The one thing I have seen over the last 20 years ruin a great product or create a horrible product is this lack of understanding that starts at the shop level. Though I’ll also say in today’s evolving world of cycling, a few years of leaving the industry is vital as well. Because the next big thing will come from an understanding of how the non-bike world views/uses bikes from a bike world guy’s immersion in such.

ShopMechanic - 12/15/11 - 3:04pm

Ditto Sevo.

Katherine - 12/16/11 - 11:42am

Great subject idea and very interesting story. I look forward to the continuation of the series!

But remember – just as Tyler said in the intro – there are many ways to join the brotherhood. You don’t have to start your own company to get into the business. I also respectfully disagree with Chris’s suggestion that you have to start in a shop. You can “live” cycling in other ways.

Most of us here at the International Mountain Bicycling Association don’t have shop rat or wrenching backgrounds. Shoot – I can’t bleed breaks or tune shocks or any of that. Fixing a broken chain is about as good as it gets for me. You can break in through the back door via whatever your speciality is, be it communications, computer science, law, etc.

But the one thing we all at IMBA have in common is that we were heavily and meaningfully involved with cycling as volunteers before coming to IMBA. We showed a commitment to our passion beyond the work environment. So what if you can’t get a job in a shop (or just aren’t mechanically inclined)?

What you CAN do is volunteer regularly at trail work days, help organize a race, go to public meetings as an advocate, work with Trips for Kids, join your local cycling club, write freelance articles for regional bike publications, etc. Just do something beyond “riding all the time” to show that you care enough about our sport to give back to it.

One of Chris’s last statements is absolutely true: “I get a lot of resume’s from people who are going to school for design, engineering, or business and somewhere along the line they became cycling enthusiasts so they think working for a bike company would be a cool job.”

If the bike industry is going to be “just another job” for you, don’t bother applying. We can tell.

Erich - 12/16/11 - 12:16pm

I understand I’m setting myself up for some serious debate here, but I think the importance of starting in a bike shop as a prerequisite to a bike career is overstated, perhaps grossly so. I’d go so far as to say that it can even be a negative force in our sport and industry. I think Sevo covers it well in his or her second paragraph above. However, I’d like to elaborate a bit, but aim to stop before it reaches manifesto length.

I have worked in shops for a decade, which is fewer than some here. One thing I have observed, mostly in my experience in the New England area, is that there are a limited number of shops that function in any way resembling a traditional (or sane) business with regard to business plan, buying decisions, employee relations and compensation, and, sometimes, customer service. This may be the result of cycling retail’s terrible economic position of low margins and relatively low volume, or it may be the result of bad management. Regardless, it is not an environment that yields abundant positive examples of how to run a successful business. Yes, there are notable exceptions to this but I think it is worse in cycling than many other industries. As such, it is sometimes those outside the industry who can provide the contrast needed to turn things around in a new direction. Some of the best advice in my last shop job came from a co-worker who is an MBA candidate and is only interested in cycling because it’s a) a business and b) an activity he enjoys. Likewise, my best ever inside rep at Trek was a former golf executive who totally understood customer service and sales, despite having zero bike industry experience.

What I most, perhaps cyncially, take umbrage with is Chris’ line, “If you love cycling and want to do this as a living then live it like it’s the only thing you want to do.” On the surface, one can sub in any other word in place of “cycling” and it sounds like what one expects to hear from a parent or guidance counselor. However referring to it as “the only thing” showcases the myopia inherent in the bicycle industry, both in manufacturing and retail. There is a big world outside the insular community of cycling and we do ourselves a disservice by not actively recruiting those individuals from other flavors of customer service, engineering, and business management.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a detail-light argument here, but I’d be happy to further substantiate any claims if anyone is really interested. Also, philosophical disagreements aside, I do admire Chris’ work in the industry and consider him one of the “good eggs” out there.

Lowell Smoger - 12/21/11 - 3:18pm

On my 6,200 mile tour around the United States I stopped into several bike companies. As an engineer, I was told it’s a smart idea to work in another industry before entering the cycling industry for two reasons. I will be better able to think outside of the cycling industry box having worked outside of it and more importantly I will better understand why the cycling industry is the best industry in which to work.

That being said, I’m still trying to make it in the industry right out of college (and post bike journey).

“I’m just trying to be the change…”

Frank Angiulo - 01/13/12 - 3:53pm

@ Erich, your second paragragh contradicts your overall thought towards Chris’s advice. The fact that profit margins are tight in the cycling industry is all the reason why. He has a proven track record and that is all that matters. You can doll up your post with the fanciest terminology but the fact still stands via his proven success. I own a Titus and riden Pivots both of which are some of the best bikes ever made, another reason why his statements take merrit over yours.

Now on to Chris, I grew up with him and cannot describe how awesome it was and is to make that statement. He still takes my emails and gets me hooked up with rides whenever I get out to summit county no matter where he is in the world so thanks Chris. To say that he lives and breaths bikes is a total and complete understatment. Its more like he is a bike and taking a ride on any of his models will soldify that statement. As a child we all looked up to him, he always took the time out to fix or repair our bikes and if you were lucky you could get dibs on his old stuff, he was also the best rider in town hands down. I remember his first build and the day he rode past my house with it, it was back in 87 and I was like 12 at the time, he let me ride it. It was florecent orange with a quad angle frame design. That bike was cutting edge and rode perfectly. People still complement my titus and the thing is like 15 years old lol.

Thanks for the artical and thanks for putting Chris first on your list of those who are wothy of this interview, he deserves it!

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