Corporate sector investment into cycling is diverse and fragmented. It could be the CFO of a major financial institution purchasing his first Colnago, an IT company sponsoring a local cycling club or a law firm providing cycling facilities for its partners. Ryan O’Neill, founder of Australian Cycling Executives, is building a platform that aspires to glue it all together.
O’Neill previously balanced a corporate role in executive search with life as a professional triathlete before deciding to wind up his athletic career. Regular training with Stuart Shaw, a professional cyclist with the Drapac team, eventually led to a conversation with the team’s owner, Michael Drapac. The discussion centered around how O’Neill could use his experience to develop the team’s corporate relationships. In late 2010, he was recruited as Drapac’s strategic partnerships manager; a role he juggled part-time (two days a week) with his other position as a management consultant for Charter Mason.
It didn’t take long for O’Neill to recognize a void existed between the commercial and cycling worlds. In spite of very good levels of cycling participation by the corporate sector, there appeared to be no dedicated platform from which cycling executives, or their employers, could discover opportunities to invest further into cycling.
Cycling iQ interviewed Ryan shortly before the 2011 Christmas break to learn more.
What is Cycling Strategy and why is it needed?
Cycling Strategy was established to provide a corporate vehicle for organizations to look at the possibilities of cycling. That’s broken into three components: Australian Cycling Executives (ACE), which is essentially a membership group for the corporate community to share ideas about how to balance their cycling passion with a busy corporate and social life. ACE is it’s own entity, and essentially a club.
To get the value out of that club, we hold a series of events, which is a second entity in itself. That will be a revenue stream that will start bringing corporations closer to cycling.
The final stream, the Cycling Strategy service offering, helps corporations digest cycling: by understanding what it is today, what it can potentially be in the future and then working with our service providers and service catalogue to allow them to consume cycling in a more structured way.
ACE was formed first though. What’s the background?
Correct. ACE was initially viewed as a strategic step to start bringing our (Drapac’s) product as a cycling team towards corporations to find alignments. At the time I was still working in consulting, but I took a punt and decided if nobody else was going to organize something, then I would.
ACE has now been going for a year as a forum on LinkedIn. Initially, it was an opportunity to read and write posts. There was nothing else. Members were all saying to me “I’d love to do more in cycling, meet other cyclists in my peer group, meet athletes – I’d just like to know more about it.”
So ACE was born on LinkedIn? How successful has this been?
It was! Like lots of things, you begin to understand… you know, I’ve been in sales and around sales people for a long time and I’ve heard them say “I’ve got 1,000 contacts on LinkedIn” and I think “Do you really? For me, a contact is someone who you can call and, if you leave a voice message, they’ll call you back. That’s the basis of what a contact is to me.
However, social media platforms give us a false sense of how many contacts we really have and what sort of people we can really call on when we need to. When I think about my contacts, the people who I think I can call are people I’ve ridden a bike with, people who have a shared passion. That’s why I also take the members out of LinkedIn so they can connect on a personal level, an emotional level. The personal connection outside of LinkedIn is what success looks like, I think.
ACE currently has almost 400 members and an application list of 400 people seeking to gain access to the group.
What overarching role does Cycling Strategy provide?
Essentially, it’s activation. I typically try to break things down into key areas of sustainability. ACE provides personal sustainability – (an answer to the question) “what’s in it for me?” The second piece is social sustainability, where we do something that brings our members and guests together to create a community. Finally, there’s corporate sustainability and activating cycling within corporations. We do a little bit of work with local governments as well.
When was the Cycling Strategy seed planted for you? Can you recall a moment in time where you had a “aha!” moment?
The exact moment was probably following the first ACE event in Sydney about six months ago. We had about 50 executives turn up and I probably had 40 emails from C-level executives saying, “I get it. I want to use my cycling time more effectively and what you’re doing is exactly that”. That was the stage where I thought there was a commercial model. If we could provide benefits and value to our members, then we could potentially look at turning this into something with legs.
Can you describe that inaugural ACE event?
it was a fairly simple format. We recognized that bike riding needed to be involved. One of the founding members once told me “I give myself one or two hours a day to ride my bike, that’s what I’m passionate about. If you can help me do that in a more effective way or give me an enriched experience that’s something I’ll come to. That is valuable to me”. That resonated pretty deeply for me, so we set out to provide an event that would allow every member their riding time.
We started from Centennial Park in Sydney. I think we had 55 attendees, whom we split into two groups, coupled with some professionals. We brought in Drapac as our partner team, some professional mountain bikers and a couple of world-class triathletes. What we wanted to do was create a nice social group where everyone got to meet one another, including the professional athletes. The format was similar to speed-dating; we rolled the bunch over about every five minutes and the pace allowed conversation. We had support vehicles and ride leaders for safety and to ensure the insurance boxes were ticked.
At the end of the ride, which lasted about 80 minutes, we came to Centennial Parklands Dining where we had coffee and an opportunity for the participants to talk about the ride and also bring the two groups together. We had some vendors (Giant Bicycles being one) there as well, so they got the opportunity to show some of their cool stuff. We also had prizes.
Following coffee and drinks we had a sit-down breakfast. There was no pre-allocation of seating, so people could continue their conversations. We had a breakfast presentation, where I talked about the rise of corporations in cycling, professional cycling sponsorship, and a backgrounder on my role with Drapac our vision. I wanted to make sure – especially for people who perhaps don’t ride bikes – the value was understood.
The event ran from 05:45 to 08:45 so people could get to work. I had the room booked to 11:00 and the last people left at 10:45. Guests weren’t just talking to me, they were talking to the athletes and one another. I think everyone left the room feeling like they were a part of something.
We’ve since run an event each in Melbourne and Queensland.
Many of your members come from competing organizations. Did individuals interact easily?
I stood back for five minutes and watched the dynamics. I’ve been to a lot of trade shows and networking functions and they typically tend to be forced affairs – people feel like they have to start conversation and sometimes don’t know how to. At the ACE event, members would just walk up to one another and start talking. Typically, they were wearing their workplace cycling kit so people could see if they worked for Commonwealth Bank or Westpac or whoever it might be. Initially, the conversations were very cycling-oriented – where do you live, what do you ride, where do you ride, how often, etc. Eventually, they would move to business-related conversation. I noticed a far deeper level of connection than any networking drinks function I’ve ever been to. These guys are connecting on a basic understanding; “you get up at 5am, I get up at 5am, we both know why we do it”. In that sense, they have shared values. A deep connection is almost immediate in shared cycling culture.
What type of people attended?
The types of people involved were typically C-level executives and/or their management teams. They typically were technology people, marketing people, generally CIO’s, CMO’s and CFO’s. Having finance and marketing guys there is really interesting. The marketing appeal is an easy story to tell, but ultimately the CFO’s sign the budget. If you engage the CFO’s and they understand there is a return, you’ve got a better audience to have the conversation with.
How much did this cost each member?
Everything’s been free so far. There were gifts for attending, breakfast was provided and they got to speak with professional cyclists. It’s always great to get something for nothing! We’re looking at the long-term; it’s about providing leaders in industry, the people that ultimately can put corporate dollars into cycling via sport or community, the opportunity to carry out their vision for what cycling can be.
When do you begin to monetize ACE?
We’ve been working on what the membership offer is, and what members get for the money. Fundamentally, it’s about event access. We may have 100-150 paid members who will get priority to events but we have to make sure all members get access. People who see the value and ultimately become paid members will likely be conscious of developing the corporate relationships, access to professional cyclists and also what they get from brand partners, like bikes, coaching services. We’re about 12 months away from offering a corporate package which companies can get value out of. We’ll always have a free platform on LinkedIn.
After attending an ACE event, a member corporation put funding into another team. Are you seeking to channel commercial backing into cycling in general, not just into Drapac? Is it that broad?
Yes it is. That investment (that you refer to) may or may not have come from (the member corporation’s) attendance at ACE. A very senior executive who attended the ACE event was one who came to me and said “I get it. This is something we as a group and organization need to get behind”. Very shortly after they signed a deal with the team.
Yes, I have a Drapac focus. I guess I want us to become the corporate’s team; for those guys to own a little bit, financially or emotionally, of an Australian team is important. I hope that team can be Drapac. However, if one of our members wants to sign with a competing team because of better alignment, then that’s a win for the sport. That to me is ultimately what I’m trying to do – help them understand the possibilities of cycling. Cycling wins, right?
Do you see ACE as a facilitator or a project manager of corporate investment?
A relationship is ongoing. Cycling Strategy’s catch-cry is “the possibilities of cycling” so it’s about being a trusted advisor; it doesn’t have a finish. It doesn’t have to be with me, a team that I’m associated with. So long as the decision is right, we’ll support it.
Are you agnostic where investment goes?
I’m fairly agnostic. If an organization says to me they want to invest into cycling, let’s remove the emotion for a moment, and look at the business case. How does it look? If they want to invest AUD10m, is it in sponsorship? Is it 5m for charity, and 5m for your organization to have a healthy and engaged workforce? At the back of their mind, a company has an idea of the return they want. If they don’t get what they want, they’re going to tell the market cycling isn’t worth it.
Australia’s biggest financial firms are represented in ACE’s membership. Have you been surprised with the level of cycling culture within organizations themselves?
I have yet to see an organization that has a centralized or enterprise-wide perspective on what cycling is to them. The CFO may have no idea what the CMO is doing in cycling, but both of them are doing something. That’s very, very, common. However, cycling cultures still exist. One major bank, for example, has cycling clothing for its employees. It has just done a deal with a clothing company, so any employee can get a great deal through the company intranet. They also sponsor rides and cycling-based motivational activities.
Generally, what is the level of cycling-specific knowledge within these corporations?
It varies significantly across members. They may not know the names of the professional cyclists, the way the sport operates, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to. Generally speaking, they get a lot of information in their day jobs. Cycling knowledge has to be easily digestible. We’re looking at bringing people in to talk to them in a way they understand. Typically, they just want to know a bit more than their mates!
ACE is currently focused on Australia, but what’s the long-term plan?
ACE will very quickly become Asian Cycling Executives. That provides us a pretty broad platform to roll ACE out. First we need to finalize the product, service and facilities to make sure the value is there for existing members. There’s already a good (regional) network in Asia and I’m surprised by how many corporate executives ride in China. Some of our existing members who’ve moved to China for work went there thinking they wouldn’t be able to ride but, quite quickly, they’ve found a bike store, some beautiful roads to ride, and people to ride with. So, cycling as a whole is growing across the region in that executive space.
What are the next events?
We’ll have two events in February 2012. We’ll put together a proposed calendar first. I’m just transitioning into full-time (away from consultancy) into Cycling Strategy now. In the first instance, we’ll have Sydney and Melbourne running.
How do people find out about ACE or Cycling Strategy if they’re not on LinkedIn?
The website is underway, the plan is to have that up in January 2012. In terms of application process, that will be left on LinkedIn. It’s a great format, and has done a great job so far. Most, if not all, executives are on LinkedIn.
How big do you see the ACE community becoming?
Probably between 1000-2000 in Australia, but always keeping in mind the events are the key opportunity for these guys to get together on a regular basis – we don’t want to be running them every week. There will be two tiers. Once we move into Asia, we’ll have to do some work behind the scenes to ensure peer groups start to drive the activity.
Naturally, you need bikes to facilitate this whole sport. How is the level of interaction with the bicycle industry?
We’re changing the game fairly significantly. The activation stream is about working with corporates and asking how they want to consume cycling. HR directors tell me they want to provide their staff with a facility to get bikes at great prices. They recognize that cycling is growing, but primarily they’re being asked for lockers and showers. For organizations that have 35,000 employees, that’s potentially a lot of bikes so perhaps we can give a brand some exclusivity within an organization. There are some proactive bicycle companies that see the opportunity to involve their dealers. Others say they can’t spare the time, money or effort. Someone, somewhere will recognize that channel. It’s in everyone’s interest to get more people riding bikes.
What can bicycle brands expect to sell to ACE members?
Everyone goes on a journey. If anything they want the best prices on everything. I’ve had conversations with guys – CFO’s of banks – where they’ll say “you know $1,500 seems a lot of money”. They get to these positions because they continually analyse the dollar! They all enter at a ridiculously cheap price then, in a short period of time, they have a $12,000 Pinarello. But the reality is they always want a good deal.