Alan Murray, chief executive officer of Fortune, wrote this past week about a new book by Bill George, former Medtronic CEO, written with millennial entrepreneur Zach Clayton. It’s called: True North: Emerging Leader Edition.
Murray interviewed Bill George and asked him why this new millennial edition of True North was needed. George’s response was “We are witnessing a massive change in leadership from the Baby Boomers who have dominated for the past 30 years, to emerging leaders, which include Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. The Baby Boomers’ style of command-and-control leadership is dead. Younger employees simply will not accept it or they will quit, which has contributed to the Great Resignation.
“Emerging leaders are moral leaders who are guided by a strong sense of purpose and values. They seek alignment with organizations whose purpose and values are congruent with their own. They focus on empowering their teammates and coaching them to reach their full potential.
“They practice a fully inclusive style of leadership, appreciating others for who they are regardless of external differences such as gender, race, religion, national origin or sexual identity. They have led through the crises of the past two decades and are better prepared to lead through today’s multiple, intersecting crises. They are committed to meeting the needs of all their stakeholders, and willing to take stands on moral issues, based on their purpose and values.”
I don’t know about you, but this long response sent chills up my spine. I was born in 1943, so I am slightly older than the Baby Boom generation. I know Bill George wants to sell his book, but his observation that we are “…witnessing a massive change in leadership from the Baby Boomers who have dominated for the past 30 years, to emerging leaders, which include Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z ” is exactly where the U.S. bicycle business is as it emerges from the pandemic-driven surge that has changed the business forever.
Recent announcements of company and brand leadership changes give proof to this change in leadership including the recent announcement by Outside Interactive that 37-year-old Alan Crisp has been appointed vice president and general manager of its Cycling Group, including Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
As the Resident Futurist at Human Powered Solutions my job is to sort through emerging trends and see where they fit, like a puzzle piece, in the future. Bill George has identified an emerging leadership trend that has embraced the U.S. bicycle business as it struggles to absorb and understand unprecedented changes and shifts in consumer purchasing, design and use demographics and preferences.
“The new climate bill abandoned the type of electric vehicle that can make the biggest difference” is the headline of an August 7 article in Electrek by Micah Toll. If you have been following the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act by Congress, and its being signed into law by President Biden, you are also aware that to get the compromise required to get the bill through the Senate the majority leader had to, as Toll put it, “abandoned on the side of the road a critically important class of electric vehicle: electric bicycles.”
We submit that all types and forms of bicycles were “abandoned” and the August 7 article quotes Noa Banayan from PeopleForBikes explaining, “The climate- and energy-focused Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 misses a massive opportunity by neglecting to invest in an electric bicycle tax credit and other critical initiatives to promote biking for transportation. This omission leaves us sorely disappointed in the future of climate policy given the significant transportation investments in the bill are squarely focused on electric vehicles. While PeopleForBikes remains supportive of urgently needed climate action and broader policy solutions, we’re sorely disappointed that Democratic leadership axed most consideration of bicycles and active transportation in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.”
While the administration and the Department of Transportation are trying to figure out how they are going to get incentives in some form past the legislative branch to support sales and use of electric bicycle cities and states are stepping up with tax incentives and purchase rebates applicable to all types of bicycles, including electric bicycles.
The bicycle business has a significant opportunity in mobilizing a nationwide grass roots campaign to support all forms of tax incentives and rebates for all forms of human powered transportation as affordable, environmentally friendly transportation that will reduce traffic congestion and improve health and fitness!
Human Powered Solutions urges you to join the bicycle business and your local communities in advocating for any-and-all incentives for the purchase and use of all forms of bicycles.
Anyone in the e-bike space, be it an e-bike retailer, distributor, brand, etc., is aware that there is a major problem facing the e-bike industry. That problem is the occurrence of potentially catastrophic lithium-ion battery fires.
Lithium-ion batteries are the technological breakthrough that has enabled the development and proliferation of clean electric vehicles into our worldwide transportation infrastructure. Lithium-ion battery chemistry enables the storage of sufficient quantities of electrical energy, and the ability to deliver that energy with sufficient power to provide the range and torque necessary to propel vehicles from commercial trucks to electric bicycles in all sorts of practical transport modalities.
However, such high energy storage density presents a risk if the stored energy in a battery pack is released in an uncontrolled fashion. Unfortunately, there are several battery failure modes that do result in the uncontrolled release of energy in the form of a very hot fire that generates copious quantities of poisonous gas and is almost impossible to extinguish.
Fortunately, the frequency of these failures as a percentage of batteries in use is very low. However, with the rapid proliferation of e-bikes, due in part to their utility as a personal transportation, the occurrence of these fires is on the rise. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that there are many unscrupulous importers importing cheap, sub-quality e-bikes to take advantage of the surge in demand for these remarkable products.
Sadly, significant property damage and loss of life have occurred due to e-bike battery packs failing in the field.
Industry is doing much to address this issue. A safer lithium-ion battery chemistry that will all but eliminate catastrophic battery failure is in the works. However, batteries featuring this new chemistry will not be commercially viable for at least three to five years.
It is expected that federal, state, and municipal governments will promulgate regulations requiring that e-bike electrical systems, including their lithium-ion batteries, comply with existing, voluntary safety standards that have been published by credible agencies with significant insight and understanding of the conditions that initiate catastrophic battery failures. It is commonly known that low-cost, poor-quality battery packs are most likely to fail. These safety standards, once mandated, will go a long way to keeping substandard packs from the marketplace.
Given that regulations of this nature take a long time to develop and implement, the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) is recommending that its member dealers, as well as ALL e-bike retail dealers, source electric bikes only from suppliers that can and do provide documentation of compliance with the now voluntary e-bike safety standard, UL2849. E-bikes that comply with UL2849 are significantly less likely to experience a lithium-ion battery failure, as the standard assures that the battery pack has been designed, manufactured, tested, and certified to the highest product standards currently available.
However, compliance with the standard does not absolutely guarantee that a battery failure will not occur. Conditions that may lead to a battery failure can be introduced through misuse in service. Improper charging, physical damage to the pack, and allowing a pack to sit in a fully discharged condition for an excessive period, are all service life experiences that can compromise the safety and stability of even the best lithium-ion battery packs.
In cooperation with Human Powered Solutions, NBDA has developed and promulgated best practices for e-bike retail establishments and e-bike consumers that provide guidelines that, when followed, help avoid the introduction of these potentially dangerous conditions.
Nevertheless, even under the best conditions, a lithium-ion battery fire can happen. The potential damage, injuries and, in the worst case, loss of life, will inevitably result in liability claims made by those impacted by a battery failure. Therefore, it is incumbent on every e-bike retailer to protect their business and livelihood with a comprehensive product liability insurance policy written by a top-tier insurance company.
It is also incumbent on every e-bike retailer to require that their e-bike product suppliers show proof that they also have quality liability insurance in effect. Just as every dealer must require that each of their vendors are delivering products in compliance with UL2849, dealers should insist on seeing copies of the liability policies held by those same suppliers.
In cooperation with NBDA, HPS will be offering more specific guidelines to dealers in this regard. We are consulting with quality insurance brokers and insurance companies to better understand how retailers can effectively protect their business in the event an unfortunate incident impacts one or more of their customers.
I have been reading a new book by Ari Wallach, a futurist and the founder and executive director of Longpath Labs titled Longpath that is all about “Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs.”
While I really want to become the ancestor my daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren need, I have come to the conclusion they can’t wait hundreds of years as Wallach talks about because they need whatever guidance and advice I can offer today. I have reached the same conclusion concerning our clients and readers of this of newsletter.
The reason is both simple and complex. The growing climate crisis has hit hard this summer at a time the world is still struggling with COVID. Supply chain and economic ramifications have been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, as well as increasing tension between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. The latter just happen to be the largest source countries to the North American bicycle business.
In addition, the U.S. bicycle business has experienced unprecedented changes and shifts in consumer purchasing, design and use demographics and preferences. It is also experiencing a slowdown in consumer demand that has created an inventory overhang and a wave of order cancellations upstream in the supply chain, as well as discounting downstream, as the country heads into the Labor Day weekend and back to school.
Lastly, the bicycle business is experiencing more product safety and liability allegations, coupled with standards and regulatory issues, than it has faced in over three decades.
Let’s explore these in more detail.
Climate change is real. Climate is a supply chain and marketing impediment here and now. The recent factory closings in China due to power grid problems caused by the recent heat wave are an immediate example.
After weeks of scorching heat in France, it is possible to take a stroll on the parched bed of the Loire River. Low water levels in the Danube have forced countries in Eastern Europe to start dredging to keep barges moving along the critical waterway. The Rhine has fallen so low that is has become uneconomical for many vessels to operate.
Companies’ first concern might be which of their plants, or their suppliers’, are exposed to the rising risks. Governments are focused on the threats to food supply. But this year’s drought highlights the danger that the waterborne infrastructure of global trade itself will dry out or shut down as climate change intensifies.
About 80 percent of global trade is carried at some point by ships, with seaborne trade up nearly threefold in the 30 years to 2020. Global changes, including consolidation and larger ships have made the system more susceptible to disruption. Climate change, including storms, has added to this vulnerability.
Think it’s hot now? The map below is from the First Street Foundation, and was published by Bloomberg August 15. It shows a projection of 30 years from now, when more than 100 million Americans will live in an “extreme heat belt” stretching from Texas to Wisconsin. Temperatures in this belt will tip 125 degrees F at least one day a year.
At 125 degrees F humans, representing just under one third of the population, won’t be able to be outside to work, much less go cycling. The bicycle business, including bike shops, are going to develop the systems, products and outreach to advise the public when and where they can cycle for transportation and recreation.
On August 27 Bloomberg Green published an article titled Keep Cool that provides good advice from Japan about what to do when temperatures climb. “It’s natural to turn on a fan and enjoy its cooling breeze. But what if you could wear one? Dozens of companies are starting to embrace that idea, putting fans in clothing to help laborers, athletes and everyone else stay comfortable as climate change sends the mercury soaring.”
In Japan, jackets and vests with cooling technology have been used for years by construction workers. This isn’t air conditioned clothing. There’s only a fan, with nothing to actually cool the air, but the country’s infrastructure ministry recommends it for operating in extreme heat.
With heat wave intensity growing, so too is the need for a solution. In Japan the market for clothing that addresses hot days has grown to US $120 million over the past five years. That potential is pushing clothiers to retool utilitarian garments for casual and athletic outdoor wear.
Hundreds of fan-powered garments are already available online. Osaka-based Teijin Ltd. is working with an electric power tools maker and a textile firm to develop double-layer cooling jackets. Japanese clothier Aoki Holdings Inc. is offering fan-cooled vests tailored for outdoor activities and sporting events. Tokyo-based Kuchofuku Co. has partnerships with dozens of apparel brands such as Asics, Mackintosh Philosophy and Manatash.
COVID continues to be a factor. In addition to the heat, COVID and its variants are a continuing threat to the down-stream supply chain. Like it or not, the U.S. bicycle business is going to have to get its arms around the fact that the pandemic has not yet transitioned to an endemic, and that rolling lockdowns of millions of Chinese workers, factories and supply chains are going to continue into 2023.
In addition, the variants of COVID-19 are still the source of work force shortages and delays in business and commerce in the U.S., and will continue to do so through the winter into 2023. Bike shops are on the front line and will have to adjust as needed to provide the best possible customer service over the next six to 12 months.
We can also expect ongoing supply chain disruptions. Ocean and domestic freight rates are coming down, and brokers in Hong Kong report receiving notifications of reductions in rates from Asia to North America multiple times per day (none that will affect the cost of the goods already in inventory).
The number of container ships waiting to enter the twin ports of Los Angeles / Long Beach is down to eight as of this writing, and freight is moving more expeditiously.
With this said, inventory within the bicycle business has been building since the second quarter of this year. Many importers are holding on to full containers and are even using them for storage, a practice employed throughout U.S. channels of trade. This has created a shortage of containers going back to Asia.
All this will continue to create disruptions, at a declining pace, to the supply chain from Asia going into next year.
We’re continuing to see price increases and rising costs. Price increases and rising costs of doing business have also been cascading through the bicycle business since late 2020, throughout 2021, and into this year.
Without going into the detail, suffice it to say the bicycle business has been buffeted by supply chain and logistics price increases, including punitive tariffs, inflicted on many other consumer goods categories during the pandemic-induced surge in demand.
On August 19 Bloomberg published an opinion piece by Jared Dillian titled “This Economy Is Proving Too Hard for Economists.”
The premise is that the data isn’t fitting Wall Street’s longstanding models very well, but that’s no reason to dismiss the data as outliers.
This article points out that “The latest buzzword among many economists and investors is ‘noise.’ It’s being used to refer to any piece of economic data that doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative, which is happening a lot these days.”
Dillian goes on to say, “Don’t get me wrong — this economy is proving hard to understand. It is very strong in some respects and very weak in others.” The official government data shows gross domestic product just shrank for two consecutive quarters, meeting the technical definition of a recession, but it doesn’t feel like a true recession.
Our takeaway is that everything happening in the economy right now is happening for a reason, but that it’s a reason many economists and investors are struggling to understand.
We agree that it will take quite a few years before all of this is sorted out and we return to something resembling a normal business cycle, if in fact we ever do. However, what we are going though may not fit the previously accepted “model” of a conventional business cycle. Once you accept that this is not a normal business cycle and view the data for what it is, then the unexpected begins to make sense, and not something to be dismissed as “noise.”
This also means those in the bicycle business will need to change the way they approach business planning, and account for the unexpected.
Geopolitical events have also risen to the level of black-swan events. The invasion of Ukraine has had an economic ripple effect on the European bicycle business and the global supply chain.
We reference it here primarily as it has impacted the U.S./China/Taiwan situation. It is also having a growing impact on European bicycle markets, as well as creating potential shifts in investment in North America and the U.S. supply chain going forward.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a high risk factor associated with maintaining China and Taiwan as major supply sources in the U.S. bicycle business.
After the invasion this high risk went through the roof. It may ease in coming months, but at the present time there appears to be more enthusiasm for the U.S. supporting and defending Taiwan against China in the U.S. Congress than there is in Taiwan itself.
This does help explain the executive branch initial response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan, and the subsequent difficulty the State Department has had with the follow-up visits by members of the House and Senate, and various state governors.
This is a disconnect that will hopefully abate in the short term (12 to 18 months). Until it does there is very high risk associated with continuing to rely on China and Taiwan as the primary source of complete bicycles for the U.S. market. It also subjects the U.S. supply chain to the added disruptions that are caused by such things as China “practicing” the blockading of Taiwanese ocean trade routes.
There also has been only limited progress made in shifting U.S. bicycle sourcing to elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and virtually none in near-shoring or reshoring to the U.S. This may change in the mid-term (12 to 18 months).
We are also seeing unprecedented changes in consumer purchasing, design and use demographics. The NBDA Bicycle Buying Consumer Research, conducted during the last quarter of 2021 and published in early 2022, has uncovered the shift in demographics of bicycle and their preferences in use, product configuration and future buying.
Well over a quarter of adult bicycle riders during the pandemic were new to cycling and had never ridden a bicycle before. This and other changes are also shown by the consumer research. This can serve as the foundation for bicycle business planning and merchandising going forward.
The pandemic sales and service surge abated during the fourth quarter of 2021, and this has continued into 2022.
As consumer demand as ebbed, the Bullwhip Effect has resulted in an unprecedented inventory overhang throughout the U.S. bicycle business. All channels of trade are holding more inventory than they have in the history of most of their businesses.
The cost of holding that inventory has also gone up in the form of interest rates, as the Federal Reserve has increased the prime rate. So, not only did the channels of trade pay more than they ever have for the inventory they now have, they are paying and will pay more than they ever have to continue to own that inventory.
Brands have been delaying and cancelling orders upstream to their OEMs. They have also been offering what incentives they can for their dealers to keep accepting orders placed during the surge when consumers were demanding all the product bike shops could get from their suppliers.
Consumer-direct retailers offered discounts and cut prices during most of the month of August. The lead story in the September issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News is “Time to discount? After years of inventory shortages, many shops are having to run promotions to get their stock back under control.”
And the August lead times from the leading component brands is into 2023! QBP just announced the laying off of about 6% of its global work force. The trade is beginning to see sales reductions and declines reported.
The situation is not good, but it also requires new thinking and actions instead of expecting that it will be jerking back to the way it was pre-pandemic.
In addition, the American bicycle business has gone over 30 years comfortably cruising along with its common line of defense and the relative disinterest of the regulatory agencies that have been drained of manpower and enforcement resources by successive administrations. The bicycle business in turn has relied heavily on the good quality and consistency of manufacturing practices of their Asian sources.
For those U.S. brands doing business in Europe, they have relied on their manufacturing sources and network of independent testing laboratories to provide the certification for Europe and the U.S. compliance and importation.
Insurance coverage also settled into a decades-long cycle of testing certification, paying premiums, and for the most part settling claims before they became litigations.
The bicycle business had also developed a common line of defense for bicycles through copyrighted owner’s manual content that was and continues to be available at very reasonable license fees to both industry association members and non-members.
E-bikes were a small, almost insignificant product category prior to 2019 and the pandemic of 2020. Since that time, e-bikes have changed everything. The 30-plus year period of complacency ended as the sales surge picked up and drove e-bikes to become one of the most important product categories in the U.S. market, which the U.S. bicycle business was totally unprepared to deal with.
E-bikes are a “system” that includes a sophisticated electrical propulsion system that requires a whole different testing protocol and system certification process that is in addition to the mechanical bicycle safety standards of the federal government and the chemical content regulations of the state of California.
There is currently no common line of defense in the form of a uniform owner’s manual for e-bikes, nor a set of business practices that apply to bicycles as defined by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) has taken a leadership position relative to this situation and has issued protocols for the safe handling and storage of lithium-ion batteries for bike shops and consumers. It also has published the first set of uniform business practices relative to certification of testing to all applicable standards and regulations for bicycles (including e-bikes), and certificates of product liability insurance from suppliers.
With all these factors impacting the market, business planning is more important than ever. Human Powered Solutions (HPS) has developed a new form of business planning that is inclusive of the unprecedented changes, challenges and opportunities facing the bicycle business.
We are recommending and assisting in the writing and creation of a three-part planning process:
1. Shortplan – next 2 quarters (6 months). This focuses on realistic assessment for survival of the business and its profitability, productivity and financial management.
2. Midplan – next 4 to 6 quarters (12 to 18 months). This would examine realistic sourcing and merchandising, profitability, productivity and financial management.
3.Longplan – next 8 to 10 quarters (24 to 30 months). This would include realistic sourcing/merchandising, profitability, productivity and financial management.