Even with Downsizings, Team Building Survives

Corrections or additions?

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

walking

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

their branches.

While working as an accountant, Flaherty, a 1989 graduate of Montclair

State, thought about exercise and work. "I was exposed to

corporate

culture while I was out on audits," he says. "Many companies

offer no exercise options. Others have gyms or give employees

memberships

to gyms."

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

"not

as flat as you would think."

Casting about for an idea for a business, Flaherty looked to his

avocation,

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

Flaherty,

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

helmets

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

campus,

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

exercise

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

recalls.

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

people,"

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

Sarnoff.

"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

purses

firmly shut. "The market crashed at just the wrong time for

us,"

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

openings

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

launching

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

example,

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

again,"

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.

Bike-Time LLC, Box 665, Bordentown 08505. Tom

Flaherty,

president. 609-758-1400; fax, 609-324-2921. E-mail:

email@bike-time.com Www.bike-time.com

Top Of Page
Even with Downsizings, Team Building Survives

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

looking

for was team bonding."

Team building is a more serious exercise, he says. There are

expectations

and goals — perhaps improved communication and enhanced

leadership.

Rather than cooking souffles or going on a scavenger hunt,

participants

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

planning

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

restructing,

and in some cases downsizing. Says Young, who has been in the

corporate

events business for 14 years, "They’re making the best of who

they have left."

Activities Event Specialists, 53

Pennington-Hopewell

Road, Suite 34, Pennington 08534. Michael D. Young, president.

609-466-4100;

fax, 609-466-5414. E-mail: myoung@eventsbiz.com

Www.eventsbiz.com


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