Making It Hot For People

Thirty years ago, my friend Jeff Tremaine gave me a copy of Terry Southern’s “The Magic Christian,” saying at the time “it will change my life.” Southern’s satirical romp is an allegory about the evils of wealth, the ignorance of crowds, and the corrosive nature of power. Guy Grand, the book’s protagonist, is a billionaire with a mean streak who plays pranks on individuals and society; sometimes to make a point, but mostly just for laughs. In three years of high-school German I never learned about schadenfreude, but this book drove the concept home like a sledge on a tack. Leave it to the Germans to coin a word for finding joy in the discomfort of others. Now whenever my caustic wit gets the best of me, I can blame my insensitivity on the guys who invented the Holocaust. Mr. Southern’s masterpiece changed my life like Jeff said it would, but not in a way I could have imagined. Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Fifteen years earlier, a California entrepreneur built the world’s first complete BMX bike in his fab shop in LA’s San Fernando Valley. Skip Hess’s Mongoose was the stuff nocturnal emissions were made of. Boys gobbled them up like dots on a Pac-Man screen. Call me aloof, but Skip’s collab with his friend and drag-racing legend Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen left me cold. Its cast-alloy Moto Mags were clearly too heavy for teen-aged pedal power, and Tom’s cartoon avatar seemed downright silly.

My first California BMX frame from that era was a Littlejohn Murphy monoshock, one I prepped for competition by replacing its coil spring with a strut I fashioned from an old seatpost. This crudely cobbled lockout device, I theorized, made my bike more reactive to pedaling inputs and less inclined to bounce up and down when I chopped wood on its 7-1/2-inch Ashtabula cranks. Twelve years old and already I was dabbling in frame design and suspension dynamics.

Of course, Mongoose didn’t need engineering tips from a kid who lived on a dirt road in Florida. Skip sold a quarter-million American-made Mongoose bikes in 1975 alone. After running out of ways to sell The Original, Skip slapped different stickers on his heavyweight champs and sold them as Jags to black kids or Blue Maxes to Army brats. Innovative frame shops like Race Inc., Torker, and JMC made race machines—Skip Hess made money.

Business at Mongoose was booming in the mid-’80s, but it wouldn’t last. Two Bobs, Haro and Osborn—the former a maker of BMX accessories, the latter a publishing mogul—had been planting seeds for an offshoot of bicycle motocross in BMX Action magazine for years. They called their less structured, more accessible form of 20-inch fun “freestyle.” Seemingly overnight, mid-pack goons tired of getting fifth in the semi dropped their helmets and rushed to local bike shops to buy The Next Big Thing: a Haro Freestyler, a GT Performer, a Hutch Wind Styler. Anything, it seemed, but a Mongoose.

Skip Hess couldn’t have cared less. Months before racing pooped in its leathers, the old Skipper sold his dirt-bike leviathan to American Recreation Group, a multi-national conglomerate headquartered in Trump Tower whose portfolio included Princess Cruise Lines and the pop discography of a chanteuse named Pia Zadora, the wife of Meshulam Riklis, ARG’s owner.

It didn’t take long for ARG accountants to realize they’d been sold a pig in a poke, so they did what every business behemoth would do in a similar situation: cut the fat. One of the first heads on the chopping block was the founder’s son, Skip Hess Jr. Skip II as friends and co-workers knew him was a silver-spooned devil who liked spending time on fishing boats nearly more than he enjoyed spending dad’s money. Skip II’s riverboat gambler style of squandering every nickel until the company made a profit was 180-out from the way ARG shekel counters did business, so he got the axe.

In his time at the helm of Mongoose’s sinking ship, one thing Skip II did get right was mountain bikes. Mongoose was among the first BMX brands to dip its toe into the burgeoning MTB scene, and Skip II sponsored the rider who would become the sport’s first megastar. John Tomac was a teen-aged BMXer related by marriage to Eric Rupe, a legendary Mongoose BMXer and 1983 NBL number-one pro. Another retired Mongoose rider named Charlie Litsky—a USC grad, son of a New York Times editor, and savvy player in the sports-marketing game—took young Tomac under his wing, and a star was born. It was Litsky’s vision and shrewd negotiating that made “Farmer John”—not Cancer Jesus Lance Armstrong—the first pro cyclist on Nike’s payroll, proving beyond doubt that Skip II’s instincts regarding Johnny T’s speed, charisma, and marketability were solid.

Unfortunately, little of what the superstar accomplished on dusty ski slopes worldwide moved the metal on dealer floors. While Tomac dutifully hammered his Mongoose into the record books, other mega deals followed, until one day 7-Eleven, America’s premier road-cycling team, knocked on Johnny’s door. In less than a decade, Skip II’s BMXer from Michigan was heading to Europe to train for the Tour de France.

Mission accomplished, or opportunity squandered? Nobody at ARG cared. Harry Manko, the septuagenarian scarecrow at the helm of Mongoose’s parent company Service Cycle—another New York-based subsidiary of ARG—needed Mongoose to sell bicycles, and fast. Manko’s roots in the American bicycle business were deep—his father was a regional distributor of various French and Japanese imports after WWII—but Service Cycle sold bike parts and Christmas trash to Kmart. Fast-growing, forward-thinking companies like Specialized, GT, Trek and others were eating Mongoose’s lunch where it mattered most: Independent Bicycle Dealers. Although their numbers had begun to dwindle from their peak in the early ’80s, US IBDs still represented The Holy Land where high-end brands waged war for bike-cult supremacy. Jeff Bezos wouldn’t perfect online shopping for another 25 years, so brick-and-mortars still called all the shots. Manko knew if Mongoose hoped to grow floor space it needed dynamic leadership, new product, and Big Ideas. The days of juicing rusty clunkers with root beer brown paint and Jag BMX stickers were over.

One Service Cycle competitor based on America’s progressive left coast understood how the bike game of the day was played. IBD wholesaler West Coast Cycles’ portfolio included super-hot Haro BMX and freestyle bikes, Nishiki road and mountain bikes, and Cycle Pro parts and accessories. Dealer sales at WCC were led by Nick Andrade, a hustler whose shop knowledge and sales savvy were surpassed only by his photographic memory and genuine kindness. After remembering their birthdays and working the names of their wives and children into his pitch, shop owners lined up to give Nick their money. On the product side, WCC had a 30-something bike nerd named Bob Margevicius. Bob’s original position at West Coast Cycles was in-house legal counsel. One of his earliest contracts was between his employer and that freestyle pioneer Bob Haro, who sold WCC his rapidly-growing empire in 1985. When there were no legal proceedings to oversee, Margevicius designed Nishiki road bikes. Lawyer and road geek might seem like strange bedfellows, but Margevicius was custom-built and fine-tuned for the grind. Before he earned his JD at NYU, in 1972 Bob won the USCF National TT Championship. From Harry Manko’s perspective, Bob’s alphabet soup of overachievements made him the perfect candidate for Mongoose president. That the slim, prematurely grey East Coast native wore ties to design bikes when everyone else preferred t-shirts was icing on the cake. Bob took the reigns in ’87, evaluating Mongoose’s assets and restructuring his creative team immediately.

It took two years for the decisive but methodical C-suite neophyte to dump the flotsam and jetsam from Skip II’s bloated vessel. Not everyone proved as easy to cut loose as Bob might have hoped. Still, it was a lean crew that fit nicely into a smaller office in Torrance, CA, one Margevicius owned personally (taking the helm of a moribund bike brand was already paying dividends). After rebuilding as much as he could from within, Bob reached outside his circle of comfort to find a product manager for Mongoose Bicycle Company’s youth division. Being clever and practical, Bob didn’t look far. GT Bicycles in Huntington Beach, CA, was the 800-pound gorilla in the BMX circus, and employed dozens of clowns whose veins coarsed with 20-inch blood. If he could convince the right one to jump ship, Mongoose BMX might be back in business.

GT’s story is nearly more improbable than Mongoose’s. In 1979, a track operator and a one-time trumpet repairman with metal fab skills combined forces to build a BMX behemoth whose sales, marketing muscle and rider-endorsement horsepower were magnitudes above the competition. At the peak of his draconian powers, GT co-founder and president Rich Long used in-house marketing, global sales networks, aggressive M&A strategies, and sheer will to pummel suppliers, distributors, media, race organizations, athletes, and employees into submission. GT went public in 1995, generating $40 million on its IPO, $37 million of which the company used to pay down debt. Rich Long died one year later in a motorcycle accident.

Without Richard’s iron fist to guide it, GT floundered for a time, went bankrupt, then returned to private ownership, rescinding nearly all of its considerable R&D and marketing mojo to Specialized, Trek, and others along the way. In an interesting side note with a bizarre twist, a 13-year-old neighbor kid Rich Long once hired to package small parts in his garage now owns S&M and Fit Bike Co., two of the most respected and influential BMX brands in the world. I worked for GT when that kid and my friend Chris Moeller printed S&M flyers on GT’s photocopier. I found the disdain some employees held for Mad Dog’s brand of two-wheeled tomfoolery puzzling—weren’t the bikes we were building supposed to be fun? While he was alive, one of S&M’s most vocal skeptics was Rich Long himself. Karma, or bad luck in a blind curve? I’ll cede that debate to clerics and car-crash investigators. While serving GT’s poisoned punch to athletes, media, and customers was my job for three years, I never personally loved the taste. When Bob Margevicius asked me to jump ship, I sprinted, then leaped… but not before having one last tête-à-tête with Gary Turner’s surly partner.

I called in sick on a Thursday to make time for my interview with Bob at Mongoose HQ. I’d met hundreds of skinny road geeks in my day, but none more kind and charismatic than this lean—almost gaunt—straw-haired fellow. It came to light during two hours of conversation that I was only nine years Bob’s junior. How had I accomplished so little during the same number of years in the bike business? Judging by the dearth of trophies or mementos in his corner glass office, road bikes seemed little more than a passing fad to this polished, confident businessman. If I was intimidated or insecure I didn’t let it show, however, and when Bob asked me where I saw myself in five years I told him, “Sitting where you are, interviewing the next kid who wants to make a difference.” Boom. All that remained was the talk about money. By his own admission, Bob didn’t know much about the business of BMX. For this reason, I anticipated a fight when it came to dollars and sense. I was GT’s copywriter, team manager and part-time product designer, after all—a triple threat. The 37k I earned at GT in ’88 was going to be pretty tough for this guy and his now charitably second-tier BMX brand to beat.

“We have a budget for your position, and it’s 60,000 dollars—45 base salary, and a 15-thousand dollar bonus if your product category shows a net profit. Sixty percent of kids bikes are sold between Halloween and Christmas, so it will be clear by the end of the year whether your bikes are popular, or missed the mark.”

“What are you telling me?” I responded, still gobsmacked by my future boss and mentor’s cash and candor.

“Mongoose kids bikes lost 4% last year. My boss Harry expects the new product manager for this category to design bikes that make the company money. “You show a nickel’s profit from BMX by December 31 and there will be an extra 15 grand on your next paycheck.”

“When can I start?”

“Tender your resignation at GT first, then we can set a date. I assume you’ll give Rich at least two weeks notice. “If you’re as valuable as I think you are, he’ll probably counter my offer. “You owe it to yourself and to him to listen.”

On that I shook hands, thanked Bob for the opportunity, then departed.

Friday morning I returned to GT an hour earlier than normal so I could bang out my letter of resignation without drawing co-workers’ attention. Of course, Rich Long and his assistant Debbie were already there, and were sifting through their inboxes at the receptionist’s kiosk when I walked through he door.

“You’re here early, McGoo—how you feeling?”

“OK… why?”

“You were sick yesterday…”

“Oh yeah—I was. “I’m better now. How you guys doin’?”

“Fine. “What do you have going on today?”

“We’re looking at comps for bike graphics, and I have to write some copy for the mountain bike catalog…”

“Why are you writing mountain bike copy…?”

“I write the copy for everything around here, Rich—you didn’t know that?”

“I just assumed mountain bike product managers did it.”

“Bill doesn’t even have a typewriter. Anyway, can I talk to you later today?”

“What’s’ up?”

“It’s the Dyno shoes. The freestyle guys hate them—too thin, and no padding.”

“They get paid to wear whatever we tell them, but sure—come to my office around four and we’ll talk.”

Banal morning banter out of the way, I headed to my office—a renovated storage closet—to write the letter that would make it official. Nine hours latter I’d hand that letter to the man who just admitted he didn’t know one of my key responsibilities at his company. The words came in a torrent.

I quit.

Knowing my days were numbered, I didn’t kill myself to look busy that Friday. Instead, I made small talk with friends in every department of the company. Hanging out with Rich’s affable partner Gary Turner—the G and T in GT—was especially melancholy. Nine months earlier, Gary and I spent six weeks designing and building a mobile halfpipe that I towed across Canada with a hand-picked team of GT and Dyno freestyle pros. We’d grown close during that project. After the riders it had been my job to manage for three years, Gary and his right-hand man Sam Shockley were the guys at GT I would miss the most.

“Hey Rich, can we do this?

“Come in and sit down—Galloway was just leaving. “What’s the beef with our sneakers? “These prima donnas drive me nuts with their bitching. “Lemme guess—Voelker got an offer from Vision…”

“Yeah, Voelker got an offer from Vision, and Vans wants to sign Josh White. “Before we get into that, there’s something else I want to talk about. “It’s about my job… there’s an opening for a product manager at Mongoose, and I want to take it. “This letter of resignation makes everything clear. “I’d like to stay two weeks to finish writing the mountain bike catalog, and to wrap stuff up with the team…”

“Wow—you’re putting me—us, everyone—in quite a bind, McGoo. What’s the problem?”

“There isn’t a problem, Rich…”

“Nobody leaves a job because there isn’t a problem. “Say it…”

“There’s no room to grow at GT, Rich. “Six weeks ago I answered to Shawn Buckley, but after he quit I started answering to you. “I’m as far up the ladder as I’m ever gonna get…”

“I don’t agree with you, McGoo—there’s plenty of opportunity for growth at this company—you just need to be patient and fair. You’re important to this company…”

“Come on, Rich—this morning you didn’t know I write the catalogs…”

“I can’t know everything people do around here—we got 150 employees…

Yeah—and half of them answer directly to you, me included. “Where does a corporate structure like that leave room to move up for a guy like me…”

“This is about money, isn’t it? “How much did they offer you?”

It’s not about money, Rich—it’s about working for a place that knows what I do, and values my contributions to the company. “It’s about getting a chance to do something bigger and better—I don’t want to fight with BMXers about Tuff Wheels and tennis shoes the rest of my life.”

“Look, if it’s about money, just tell me what you want.”

In a dramatic flourish, Rich slid a Post-It pad and pen toward me across his desk. “Write down the number.”

No, Rich…” I said as I slid the pen and paper back toward his side of the desk, “YOU write down a number. “I know what Mongoose thinks I’m worth—I want to hear what you think.”

That’s not fair, McGoo—you’re putting me in a corner.”

“If I write a number and you agree to it, I’ll never know if it’s what you think I’m worth, or just what it took to keep me around. “I want you to believe in me, and I want to feel like what I do matters around here. “Write a number and I’ll give you an answer immediately.”

“That’s not how this works, McGoo. “If you won’t tell me what you want, how can I know what I’m supposed to pay you?”

“You can know what you’re supposed to pay me by considering everything I do around here, then deciding for yourself what that’s worth. “Show me THAT number and I’ll tear up this letter.”

Rich’s melodrama backfired. Quite by accident, and using only the silly props he provided, I painted the legendarily tight-lipped leader into a corner. To his credit, what Rich said next was both the only card left in his hand, and the right one to play.

“Keep your letter, McGoo. “We’ll sit down Monday morning after taking the weekend to figure this out, then decide how to move forward.”

“Fair enough, Rich—see you Monday.”

When I returned to work Monday, GT sales manager Bill Galloway greeted me outside the front door.

“Rich is ready to see you—I’ll take you to his office.”

I know the way—let me put my stuff in my office…”

I can’t let you do that.”

“OK, let’s go.”

Confused for a moment by Galloway’s involvement, everything became clear when Rich spoke after telling my to take a seat.

I’ve decided to accept your resignation, McGoo. We don’t want people at GT who don’t want to be here. Bill’s going to give you a check for the current pay period plus two weeks, and I’ve instructed him to walk you to the parking lot after he’s watched you clean out your desk.”

“Wow. OK. Can I say bye to a couple guys?”

“You can say anything you want to GT employees after 5 p.m. “Right now all you can do is get your things and go.

We shook hands, after which my now ex-boss’s sycophantic sergeant-at-arms escorted me to my office.

“That was weird.”

“Well, given where you’re headed, I agree with Rich—it‘s in everyone’s best interest to move on. Galloway had never contested a word that came out of Richard Long’s mouth—why would he start now?

Feeling froggy in the afterglow of my unceremonious termination, I joked to the lackey looking over my shoulder that the desk and word processor in my office weren’t going to fit in the cardboard box he gave me.

“What do you mean?” Galloway inquired.

“This desk and word processor are mineI brought them from home when you clowns forgot to build me an office. “Why do you think I work in this fucking closet?”

“I can’t let you take them, McGoo—there’s obviously privileged information on that typewriter…”

“Tons. Catalog copy, bike specs, dealer lists for freestyle shows, you name it. “Tell you what—add another thousand dollars to my severance pay and you can have ‘em.

Rich’s ass-sucking sidekick stomped out in a huff, then returned three minutes later with another check. Satisfied, I picked up my cardboard box and followed Galloway to the door.

Arbeit macht frei.

Work makes you free.