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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the April
24, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
This Business Cycle Pays Fitness Dividends
Exercising at the office generally is a spartan affair,
maybe 30 minutes of pounding on the treadmill in the basement or
circles around the parking lot. The disciplined endure the rituals,
knowing the benefits that accrue to their hearts and muscles, and
knowing that that they will feel more calm and centered when they
return to work. Others vow to do something about fitness someday,
but recoil at the dull-looking routines.
Tom Flaherty, former accountant and lifetime bicyclist, has come up
with an alternative that appeals both to dedicated exercisers and
to their sedentary co-workers. Called Bike Time, it is a business
that brings bicycles to the office, springing desk jockeys for an
hour a week of cruising the roads and canals of central New Jersey
from the time the forsythias bloom until the last leaves jump from
While working as an accountant, Flaherty, a 1989 graduate of Montclair
State, thought about exercise and work. "I was exposed to
culture while I was out on audits," he says. "Many companies
offer no exercise options. Others have gyms or give employees
Flaherty doesn’t like gym workouts himself, but has always enjoyed
bike riding. He recalls the first bike he rode, a machine that folded.
"I don’t know where my father got it," he says with a laugh.
"It was this wacky hinged bike you could fold in half." His
father, Pat, a telecommunications technician working in New York City,
would put the bike in the trunk, and take him, and his sisters and
brother out for rides.
When he was older, Flaherty joined bike clubs, including the Touring
Club of North Jersey. He has ridden across Iowa — 550 miles in
seven days — with that group, and reports that the state is
as flat as you would think."
Casting about for an idea for a business, Flaherty looked to his
and came up with Bike Time. Using his own funds and money from his
father as start-up capital, he launched the company in late 1999.
He bought 14 hybrid bikes, which he describes as "a cross between
a mountain bike and a traditional 10 speed." On these bikes riders
sit up straight, rather than crouched over handlebars, a position
that is thought to be easy on the back. Tires are wide, but not too
nubby, making riding on asphalt or on the softer surface of a canal
equally smooth. The bikes also have shock absorbers and, says
high end brakes. They are, he says, as good as any bike his riders
are likely to own. In addition to the bikes, Flaherty purchased
and a trailer in which to transport everything.
He arrives at about 11 a.m., sets up, and is ready for employees,
who start arriving in groups of up to 12 at about noon. His ideal
client is a company that schedules many rides a day once a week. There
may be two or three rides at lunch time, and then rides after work
too. Employees are fitted with a bike, a water bottle, and a helmet.
Everybody does some stretches, and then Flaherty gives instruction
on shifting, braking, and hand signals. After 10 minutes or so, they
are off, with Flaherty in the lead. The ride itself lasts about 45
minutes. It takes a little searching, he says, but so far he has been
able to come up with lightly-trafficed, relatively scenic routes that
start from and return to each company’s parking lot. For Sarnoff,
for example, he mapped out a ride that started on that company’s
crossed Route 1 at Harrison Street, and from there continued on the
Delaware Raritan canal.
These are not rides for hard core bicyclists who think nothing of
pedaling 100 miles on a Saturday, but rather are for recreational
bicyclists, who may not have been on a bike in years. Flaherty’s pitch
to companies is that his service boosts wellness by extending an
option to employees who shun the gym, perhaps because they are so
out of shape they wouldn’t know where to begin. "Gyms intimidate
a lot of people," he says. He offers Bike Time as an alternative,
an activity everyone can do. "If you make exercise fun and easy,
everyone will do it," he says.
More women than men sign up for his rides. He thinks one reason is
that women are more likely to take to a group activity, but there
have been success stories from men as well as from women. One Sarnoff
employee had recently quit smoking and wanted to start an exercise
program. "He couldn’t jog. He had bad knees," Flaherty
The man came week after week. "He fell in love with biking,"
says Flaherty. "He bought himself and his wife a bike."
Another Bike Time rider, an employee of Burlington Coat Factory whom
he describes as "an older woman trying to get in shape," was
"a straggler, but determined." By the end of the season she
was one of the better riders.
Flaherty’s original business model, conceived at just about the height
of the economic boom that began to end about four months after he
launched his business, was to sell his service to companies that would
commit to an entire season of once-a-week rides. His first client
was Burlington Coat Factory, and he soon added Sarnoff, AAA, Bovis
Lend Lease, Bennetton Sports, and others.
"It was a great program. Everyone loved it. It was incredibly
popular," Sue Dunning, manager of organizational learning and
benefits at Sarnoff, says of Bike Time. Sarnoff signed up for four
rides, once a week last year. "It appealed to a variety of
says Dunning. "A lot of the technical guys loved it, and there
were a lot of women out there. You could stay on the property and
ride or go on the canal." Some of the men rode out ahead, quickly
leaving the pack, but most of the riders, including Dunning, who went
along once, stuck close to Flaherty. "Tom was incredibly well
organized," she says.
Before the forsythia began its bloom this year, Dunning
began to hear from employees about the bike-at-lunch program. "I
got all kinds of E-mails," she says. The gist? "Please bring
it back." Bike Time won’t be back this year, however, not at
"You can’t do it when you’re laying people off," says Dunning.
"We really got hit. We lost a lot of contract R & D work."
The companies that hired Sarnoff to do research and development are
starved for funding, she says, as venture capitalists keep their
firmly shut. "The market crashed at just the wrong time for
she continues. "We were just getting things going."
Flaherty is hearing variations of this lament as he goes about his
sales calls. Many corporations have been affected by the economic
downturn, he says, and others are afraid they will be. Business for
his core offering is down. He had hoped that steady customers, signing
up for an entire season of rides, would make up 75 percent of his
business. This year, that business will account for only about half
of his revenue. He charges companies between $150 and $750 per day,
depending on the number of daily ride sessions for which it signs
up. A company that signs on for once-a-week visits from Bike Time
from spring through fall provides the company with a steady, reliable
source of income.
Now, with tulips up several weeks ahead of schedule and too many
in his calendar, Flaherty is extending another option to companies
in cut-back mode. When customers say they are strapped for cash he
suggests an arrangement whereby he will bring his bicycles around
once a week for a month, and employees will pay for the rides. He
says this option appeals to his corporate contacts. And while it isn’t
as good for his company as a full fee, no matter how many employees
turn out for the rides, it will have to do until economic tides turn.
Further bolstering slowing business from companies, Flaherty is
country biking tours this spring. The half-day, guided bike trips
take place on Saturdays and Sundays, and wind through western Monmouth
County, starting from Cream Ridge, where he lives.
Another source of business is one-time events. This spring, for
Flaherty took his bikes to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for
a day. The foundation was celebrating National Public Health Week
and was looking for a good activity. Flaherty puts a lot of time into
business development, networking with LeTip of Princeton, remaining
active in bike clubs, advertising, and working with event planners,
but RWJF found him in the phone book.
He is convinced that Robert Wood Johnson’s employees will enjoy his
ride so much that the foundation will become a regular client. Dunning
of Sarnoff says her corporation would be delighted to come back on
board when the economy shifts back into overdrive. "If we get
healthy again and get money back, absolutely we would do it
she says. Optimistically, she adds, "I do think we’re through
the worst of it." For Flaherty’s new company, adept though it
is becoming in shifting gears in time with the economy, that would
be very good news indeed.
president. 609-758-1400; fax, 609-324-2921. E-mail:
A serious economic climate has put a damper on some
corporate fun. Up until about one year ago, Michael Young, owner of
Activit!es, a Pennington-based events company, was getting lots of
calls for what he calls team bonding events.
"Those are the fun things," he says. For team bonding events
he brings referees — "rah rah types" — to corporate
campuses or to an off-site location. They cheer employees on as they
do everything from competing in mini-Olympics to planning, cooking,
serving, and entertaining at a group dinner. When times were good,
this sort of day was just what corporations were looking for.
"I would get calls for team building," Young says, "but
after five minutes on the phone I would know that what they were
for was team bonding."
Team building is a more serious exercise, he says. There are
and goals — perhaps improved communication and enhanced
Rather than cooking souffles or going on a scavenger hunt,
work together at achieving a common goal. A team might pull together
to bag trophy fish on a sport fishing trip to Costa Rica, pilot sled
dogs through Alaska, or try to safely navigate a short ropes course
set up in the corporate cafeteria.
Team building costs far more than its fun cousin, team bonding, says
Young. This is so because it requires a great deal of advanced
to identify goals, the services of individuals with educational and/or
psychological training during the event, and assessment after the
event. Despite the cost, however, this is what corporations now want.
The reason for the shift, says Young, is that corporations are
and in some cases downsizing. Says Young, who has been in the
events business for 14 years, "They’re making the best of who
they have left."
Road, Suite 34, Pennington 08534. Michael D. Young, president.
fax, 609-466-5414. E-mail: email@example.com
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