Life through cycling: Chattanooga CEO creates, competes high-end bikes

Life through cycling: Chattanooga CEO creates, competes high-end bikes

July 6th, 2012 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

Brad DeVaney, Chris Brown, Tres Courdin and Peter Hurley, from left, talk in the parking lot of American Bicycle Group before some employees go for a ride.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Peter Hurley had two options; make some serious lifestyle changes or die.

About 10 years ago the then-investment banker had a quadruple bypass surgery, a brush too close with death for Hurley not to make a change.

"I started riding my bike and I really loved it," he said. "Ever since then I have swum, biked or run six days a week."

Soon enough, Hurley started competing in triathlons. Today, the 55-year-old continues to compete multiple times a year not just for his own health, but for the health of his company.

Hurley is passionate about biking, so much so that when the opportunity arose for him to invest and ultimately become majority owner of internationally-renowned Chattanooga bike manufacturer American Bicycle Group, he took the chance.

The group, which manufactures titanium and carbon fiber Quintana Roo and Litespeed bikes, was losing money when Hurley took over about five years ago. Since then, he's led the company to profitability. Last year sales were up 13 percent and have continued to increase this year.

Andy Sweet sells some of American Bicycle Group's bikes at his local sports shop, Hub Endurance. The bikes typically retail for between $1,500 and $10,000.

Sweet said a lot of the company's success likely can be attributed to how close Hurley and his 38 local employees are to the sports they're making bikes for.

Most all of the American Bicycle Group employees are triathletes, bikers or use the company's products in some other way. Every day, the staff takes time to exercise around lunch, often together on the bikes they produce. That keeps the whole staff knowledgeable about their industry.

"He and his designers are pushing that edge because they're seeing it first hand, real time and going, 'OK, how do we stay ahead of the curve and keep this going?'" Sweet said. "It's relatively unheard of to see the CEO get out there and do the same thing that he's essentially selling."

Sweet regularly goes on group rides with Hurley and other American Bicycle Group employees. He said their closeness to their products allow them to realize possible improvements to their products faster than companies who have to rely on retailers who hear complaints from customers. It also helps them quickly implement changes.

"It's a quality control program," Hurley said. "We're on the bikes, we're riding the bikes, we're working hard on the weekends."

Creating a culture of enthusiasts within American Bicycle Group has been one of Hurley's top priorities. His own commitment to biking has helped foster that enthusiasm.

"Every organization becomes a mirror to its leadership," he said. "I noticed that when I started putting energy into the sport, other people in the company followed."

That's helped everyone focus even more on design. Creating cutting-edge bike models has been a key factor in bringing the company to profitability. When the recession hit in 2008, Hurley invested in three new bike models, each of which required a $200,000 mold.

That investment paid off, and Hurley believes his bikes are well-tailored to his audience. Now, he plans to ramp up efforts to get those bikes in front of more audiences.

"We believe our engineering is ahead of our marketing," he said.

The company has started sponsoring every Iron Man triathlon and several smaller races for a total of about 100 races worldwide.

And Sweet said Hurley doesn't forget about the local races.

"In terms of the business, they absolutely are always stepping up to support triathlon events in town," he said. "I give Peter a lot of respect."