How to Break Into the Cycling Industry – Cane Creek’s Sales & Customer Service Director Chris Strout
Cane Creek is a small company with a big name. Like any other small company, their people cross over between roles to get the job done. Chris Strout is no different, juggling customer service -which means shops, distributors and consumers like us- with sales while also getting out in the field to promote the company at events like Interbike, Sea Otter Classic and smaller events throughout the U.S.
It’s a job that’s gotta get done, and like any other job in the cycling industry, it’s got some pretty sweet perks. His story also continues to illustrate the benefit of having a broad variety of life experiences and jobs outside of the industry before trying to “break in.” Here’s his story…
BIKERUMOR: Who are you and what are you doing here?
STROUT: I am Director of Domestic Sales and Customer Service at Cane Creek Cycling Components. I’m part of a a “new guard” at Cane Creek, a management team that has come on in the past couple of years and really paved the way for Cane Creek to be successful as we develop our future. Cane Creek has this amazing history and legacy that we want to preserve; our challenge is to figure out how to do that while moving forward and staying cutting-edge against the backdrop of today’s business realities.
My focus is to continue to strengthen our relationships at the distributor level while providing resources and education for dealers across the country. I’m also the “advocacy guy” here. Finally, my team and I are responsible for all customer service – and we have big shoes to fill in that regards, as Cane Creek has built an incredible reputation for service. It can be tough sometimes: Our staff isn’t very large, but we take our customer commitment very, very seriously.
BIKERUMOR: What was your first job or experience in the cycling industry? How did you “break” in?
STROUT: My brother and I started a “bike shop” in my dad’s garage when I was 7 years old, charging 25 cents for “repairs” – I think we specialized in monkey-fisting nuts and bolts with a Craftsman adjustable wrench and spraying WD-40 on anything that moved. We stripped our fair share of threads, and probably did more harm than good to the “bike industry” in our hometown.
At any rate, I was bitten by the bug in second grade after seeing Breaking Away in the theater with my grandparents and doing a school report about Eddy Merckx and the Tour de France. Eventually, I started to go on these long-distance rides on an early rail-trail near our home – it definitely wasn’t “cool,” and I got hazed constantly about whether I shaved my legs and wore tights. But I kept at it, and purchased my first “adult” bike when I was 12 – I mowed lawns for a year and half to save up. I wanted a Cannondale road racing bike, but my dad thought the oversized tubes were a fad – instead, I ended up with a Miyata TripleCross hybrid, which he thought would be more versatile. Eventually, though, cars, girls and cigarettes got in the way, and I stopped riding altogether. And I got fat – by the time I was 26, I smoked a pack a day and weighed 285 lbs. I was working for a management consulting firm at the time, creating presentations, and we had catered lunches and client dinners all the time.
But then I started to turn things around, and pulled the TripleCross out of storage. I lubed it up and went for a 35-mile ride. I got hooked again, and I lost weight, quit smoking and eventually began racing, starting on the road, then moving to ‘cross and track, and finally taking up mountain biking. From the time I was 10, all I ever wanted to be was a bike racer, and then, 16 years later, I was. I somehow managed to balance racing, marriage and a career outside the industry, and with my wife’s help pushed my way up to Cat. 1 on the road and Pro on the mountain bike.
Along the way, I developed a fantastic relationship with the guys at The Pony Shop in Evanston, Illinois. I tried not to be “that guy,” but I was in there several times a week, just soaking it all up. Eventually, I was experiencing serious burnout in my marketing career, and I turned to Lou, the owner, for some advice about how to get into the bike industry. I tried my best to get him to hire me, but I’m grateful that he turned me down – his advice was to use the skills I had in marketing and try to get on with a supplier, rather than push my way into retail. In an amazing stroke of good luck, a few months later a position opened up at SRAM Corp., handling marketing and communications for World Bicycle Relief. I raced with a couple of the guys who work at SRAM, and they recommended me – it was truly a dream come true to be helping provide transportation for some of the world’s most impoverished people.
STROUT: I’ve always been a writer, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism (BAJ) from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I minored in German, which comes in handy with some of our international exposure – Thudbusters are huge in the German market! In addition, through my non-industry marketing career – which covered agency work, dot-com, insurance, management consulting and even car fleet management – I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a bunch of management training courses. I think that kind of exposure will be key for the future – our passion is what drives us, but in today’s business climate, it’s not enough. There’s a whole big world out there with a lot of incredible ideas filtering their way into the industry. We don’t want to lose the fun factor, but we also need to adapt in order to survive.
BIKERUMOR: After that first experience/job, what was the path to your current position?
STROUT: My daughter was born in late 2008, and my wife and I made a conscious lifestyle decision that we needed to leave Chicago. Working at SRAM was amazing, and I miss the people and the culture there, but trying to raise a child when your nearest mountain bike trail is 90 minutes away was going to be tough for us. For the next year or so I kept an eye on the position openings in Bicycle Retailer, and right around Interbike that year a couple of opportunities opened up that I applied for. In another stroke of luck, a friend of mine was at Cane Creek, and I flew to Asheville to interview. I immediately fell in love, and realized that this would be an ideal place to raise a family. (And we’ve since had a son; his big sister can’t wait to take him “mountain biking” on her Strider on the trail I’ve built in our back yard forest!)
I’m fortunate that my job takes me all over the country, as I’ve gotten to meet some fantastic people and ride in some amazing places. I’m also thankful that my wife continues to support my passion – I still race quite a bit, so I am really “living the dream!”
BIKERUMOR: What’s a normal day for you?
STROUT: This area is fairly rural, so my day starts with a drive to the office with my wife and daughter – her day care is right next door, and her first word was “bike!” I do miss the city commuting in Chicago, but around here in the mornings, it’s not that safe to ride – too many winding roads, blind curves and distracted drivers. When I do ride to work, I head way out in the country; it ends up being about an hour of riding that includes a nice hill climb in the middle.
Once at the office, I go into service mode – we merged the Sales and Customer Service functions a year and a half ago, recognizing the interconnection of the two for what we do. At various times, we are a manufacturer, a distributor and even a retailer, and each one of those roles has its own set of challenges and opportunities. One minute, I’m on the phone with a consumer in Wyoming who needs their shock rebuilt; the next I’m talking to a shop that needs a headset; five minutes later I’ll be in a hallway “meeting” about an upcoming product launch. We’re like a big family here; we share a lot of knowledge and resources, and that leads to a lot of crossover in responsibilities.
Compounding all this is the growth we’ve experienced in the last couple of years. We’ve focused a lot of our energy on headsets and suspension products, both categories of which can be very complex for a dealer or consumer. We provide a wealth of solutions for each area, and so spend quite a bit of time on the phones, walking folks through the dizzying array of choices. We make and assemble a lot of parts right here in Fletcher, and so there are times when I’m talking to our machinist or our builders about whether we can make something happen for someone.
As focused as we are professionally, though, we also try to take time for a lunch ride each day, which in some cases will take us up some nasty little climbs in the area. In the evenings, I’ll either ride home, catch a road group ride nearby or drive 30 minutes to the Pisgah National Forest for a group mountain bike ride – our Cane Creek ride on Thursdays is fairly tame, but some of the shop rides are full-on race pace!
BIKERUMOR: What are the highlights of your job?
STROUT: Besides the fact that we’re located in one of the most amazing places to live and ride on the planet? I’d have to say my daily interactions with fellow bike enthusiasts. Whether it’s talking to a buyer at a distributor and helping them choose what products to stock, or helping a dealer figure out a pesky bike problem, or taking a call from a racer who needs help as quickly as possible, most of the folks we deal with are pretty cool. It’s my pleasure to solve their problems. We speak a common language, and it’s not unusual to be on a call that starts out talking about some obscure headset and ends up discussing trail conditions in metro Phoenix.
I’m also proud of our commitment to advocacy, and really look forward to that. As a manufacturer, Cane Creek’s voice is powerful with decision-makers. I’m happy to lend that voice to organizations like IMBA, the League of American Bicyclists, Bikes Belong and others. Let me tell you: When you explain to a U.S. Senator that you are making parts right here at home, and even exporting them to Taiwan, they sit up and take notice. I currently sit on the regional advisory committee for IMBA-SORBA, and work closely with fellow advocates here in North Carolina to affect change from Raleigh to Washington, D.C.
BIKERUMOR: What could you do without?
STROUT: Some of the attitudes we see. It seems like technology has set everyone on this lightening pace, and people’s expectations have become “do this for me, and do it now!” I really want to help solve your problem, but sometimes the solution isn’t just a “click” away.
BIKERUMOR: What advice would you give to someone looking to follow your path today?
STROUT: I believe we are in a period of tremendous change and opportunity in the bike industry today. Here in the U.S., our current distribution model is in a state of flux. Dealers are under pressure from the Internet and savvy big-box retailers (and the attendant consumer expectations), and we’re all muddling through the soup of an economy that limits the spending of our consumers. The bike industry continues to be relatively healthy, but we need to continue to nurture it if we want to survive.
I think all of this adds up to a time when opportunities are there for someone wanting to break in. Hold on to the passion you have for the bicycle, and start to look for ways you can leverage whatever talents you have. When I was looking to get in, Bicycle Retailer & Industry News ran an article about folks starting second careers in bike shops – whether it’s in retail, wholesale or on the supply side, study the industry and look for an “in” that plays to your strengths. One of my favorite examples happens to be my best friend – when he got laid off from his job, he took his passion for children and bikes and started a Trips For Kids chapter here in Western North Carolina. I mean, how awesome is it that he is responsible for getting so many children on bikes?
Get to know the industry and get to know the people. Be creative and open. It’s great that so many folks have come up through shops, and they retain their enthusiasm for the bicycle, but I also think it’s fantastic that we have a bunch of people who have done other things, in other industries, who bring their expertise and knowledge to bear. That’s how we will move the industry forward.