The use of sport as a medium through which business executives network and broker deals is nothing new, but the growth of road cycling in this space is a relatively recent phenomenon. International Cycling Executives has been at the leading edge of the C-suite transfer from fairway to pavé.
FIVE YEAR MILESTONE
“When we first had a conversation all those years ago, I had a vision of this hub that would continue growing and we’d keep accepting members,” says International Cycling Executives (ICE) founder Ryan O’Neill when asked to reflect on his 2011 prediction that ACE would eventually swell to 2’000 members. “In fact what we’ve done is worked with key (ICE) members to ensure that we were only capturing, for want of a better term, the top of the corporate tree. What that’s enabled us to do is hold very tightly a community of 500 members in Australia.”
The ICE “community” to use O’Neill’s characterisation, “are typically C-suiters from ASX200, or growing medium-sized organisations” that bond through shared interests in cycling and business. “Ultimately they need to be decision makers or influencers of major strategic initiatives in their organisation, because that’s what makes this work.”
After starting out as an Australian-based LinkedIn group at the beginning of 2011, International Cycling Executives (formerly Australian Cycling Executives) now has “chapters” in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Singapore and San Francisco, with London and Hong Kong launches imminent.
With membership constrained, ICE gets most of its revenue from corporate partners who pay for the opportunity to present to 50-60 ICE members at any one of the 40 breakfast meetings held across Australia in a typical year.
“Even after four years, that is still the core business event we run,” says O’Neill, who remains somewhat gobsmacked at the popularity of such meetings. “It still kind of takes my breath away a bit. The fact that we are able to bring these very senior people together and enable our corporate partners to be able to share information with them around bike riding is still fantastic. That they will get up at 6am, albeit once a month, to engage around business content and their key passion of cycling is mind-blowing to me.”
ICE claims to have created AUD5bn of “known value” amongst its member base due to the congenial saddle-based nature of the platform it has created.
Intuitively, marketers know that as a product or service becomes scarcer, underlying demand increases. With “over 8’500” applications to date, O’Neill acknowledges a modicum of discipline is required to keep the membership base capped. Pushing back the advances of corporate figureheads who are used to getting what they want must be no easy task.
“Probably the biggest challenge we’ve got is more and more senior executives are starting to enjoy riding a bike and wanting to become involved,” admits O’Neill. “How do you enable the CEO of a big bank for example to come in when we’re already full? I’m not quite sure what the answer is just yet.”
A microcosm of the business and pro cycling management sphere, ICE’s member base is male-dominated, but O’Neill’s own management team (which includes former Olympic cyclist Katherine Bates) is predominantly female. “When I was creating the business model, I needed the best skills I could within the budget I had,” he explains. “I realised there were a lot of reasonably senior females out there with fantastic skills and abilities, who may have had families but perhaps had no desire to go back to work five days a week in the city. Recognising that enabled me to bring some fantastic people into the business.”
Ryan O’Neill chats with Wiggle Honda rider Annette Edmondson at an ICE event.
SELECTING A BETTER DRIVER
For large swathes of the business community, cycling has been facilitating exchange and deal flow in a more authentic way than fairways can for a number of years now.
As businessman Peter Murray pointed out to The Economist in 2013, “when you play golf with somebody you have to decide if you’re going to beat them, or let them beat you. If they’re a client and you don’t want to beat them you have to sort of cheat in order to lose. That seems to me not a good way of doing things.”
“The golfing days I used to personally take part in, or the networking drinks, generally lack authenticity,” bemoans ICE’s founder. “We’re very selective about the organisations we work with because if we don’t think they have the vision to use the platform strategically and authentically then we’re not really interested in ticking a box for a company who wants to do ‘a cycling thing’. That’s what Australian Cycling Experiences (ACE) is about really: delivering an event for a specific customer, but only if we think there’s a vision there for them to become part of the bigger community.”
The ACE business acts as a procurement vehicle for ICE, designing one-off events for organisations in the hope they will become longer-term corporate partnerships. Current and retired ICE ambassadors such as Scott McGrory and Mark Renshaw often make appearances.
“ACE effectively runs a corporate bike ride,” explains O’Neill. “Organisations bring their clients; we provide the pro riders, the hosting, and the ideas about how they might get value out of the experience. Ultimately, for me it’s an opportunity to showcase what cycling can be to an organisation before they become an ICE partner.”
The ability to meet and ride with pro cyclists remains a big drawcard for ICE members, though the benefits sometimes accrue in both directions. “In one or two instances it’s already happened that at the end of their career, (pro cyclists) have been able to transition into a position that the membership has been able to help them with. So rather than try to drive a dollar out of the events, they’re actually becoming members themselves and are getting as much out of their career as the members do.”
ICE’s London chapter is yet to officially launch, but the prospect of occasionally bumping into a celebrity or two whilst out on a bunch ride will either be a driver or turn-off for prospective members. The polarising ‘celebrity chef’ Gordon Ramsay caused a stir in Singapore this month when he headed out for a ride with a bunch of 20 ICE members.
THE ROLE OF CORPORATIONS IN PRO CYCLING
As the ICE model rolls out in other cities around the world, O’Neill is aware that his organisation can play a leadership role in creating better connections between the corporate realm and that of pro cycling.
“We’re suddenly looking at a very well connected, influential, senior and intelligent group of people that have a love of cycling. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the guys from Velon in the UK trying to give them my position for what the sport could look like from the team’s perspective and equally I’ve made introductions to a few large multi-nationals who are now working together to try to change the sport. Whilst I can’t say too much about that, it’s using those connections we’ve got, and the interest of those organisations, to bring them together and say there’s a way to change the business model of this sport.
Graham (Bartlett, Velon CEO) is smart enough to realise that in some ways Velon should be a partner or sponsor of ICE because it needs access to that community – both from a sponsorship dollars point of view but also from an insight/awareness point of view. We don’t have enough money to support that type of activity off our own back.”
In addition to having a shared interest in how pro cycling can better leverage the coroporate sector, and vice versa, both Bartlett and O’Neill seem to agree that connectivity between stakeholders first needs to substantially improve.
“The teams, through the creation of Velon, are interested in a more commercial proposition,” says O’Neill. “The corporate audience that we engage on a daily basis are interested in the sport, whether through sponsorship or content creation or whatever it happens to be. And then there’s the sport itself. In my mind, and I don’t know who should be going this, someone should be getting us all together to pool ideas which incorporates all three components – because that will be a far more compelling vision than exists today. We’re all sort of doing our own things in isolation.
The teams and the sport wants the relationships (ICE) has, and ICE and its partners would be interested in the question ‘how can we create really interesting content to showcase business themes using the sport of cycling?’. The sport in turn will benefit from the insights and capabilities from these organisations and expertise. Everyone is interested in their own agenda and it will take a brave person to try to bring us all together.”
Jens Voigt meets ICE members in Melbourne.
In the interim, O’Neill’s team is working on a technology platform that will enable its members from around the world to connect to each other outside of the events already provided by ICE. Further expansion is inevitable. “I’d like to think we’ll be the standard for how businesses connect,” answers O’Neill, when asked where he wants ICE to be five years from now. “Cycling is the catalyst at ICE, but it’s not a cycling club. I want ICE to be known as a credible and respected global executive forum. And to be active on all continents. From a sports point of view, I’d like to think there will be a more collaborative approach. All the ingredients are there.”
Even a most elusive executive perk may be within reach for ICE’s Australian members in future. When asked if Chairman’s Lounge access is on the cards, O’Neill laughs knowingly before saying “Let’s just say we’ve got a very tight and close relationship with Qantas. We’re talking about how we can enable both (ICE membership and Chairman’s Lounge access) at the moment.”