In 1993, Tom Albers learned about big problems with Trek Bicycle Corporation’s European division. Sales numbers were down, and employees were in a near mutiny against the young woman Trek founder Richard Burke had put in charge.
Albers, Trek’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, served as Burke’s second-in-command and suddenly had to navigate a very difficult situation.
The head of Trek’s European division was his boss’ daughter, Mary.
“She reported directly to her brother John, who served as the Vice President of Sales and Marketing,” Albers recalls. “He reported directly to me, and I reported to their father, Dick.”
According to Albers, it was John Burke who first sounded the alarm that the European division was struggling mightily.
“Her performance in Europe was not good,” he says. “We were losing a lot of money for us at the time. I don’t remember the amount, but it was considered significant based on where we were [as a company] at that particular point in time.”
“And also, we were encountering personnel/people problems over there. The people were threatening to leave the company. Many of them were.”
Primarily, Albers contends, because of the managerial style of their supervisor, Mary Burke.
“Her way of managing was kind of a ‘her way or the highway’ kind of approach to things,” Albers explains, adding that her subordinates “felt that she wouldn’t listen to them and was just imposing things on them that didn’t make sense.”
“So because of all that—which had gone on for a while, obviously—John Burke went to his father basically saying, ‘We need to make a change over here.’ Obviously, being a family situation, this was extremely sensitive and very difficult to pursue. So Dick Burke came to me and said, ‘Before anything is done here, would you go over there and give me your thoughts on what the situation is like?’”
Albers flew to Trek’s European headquarters and quickly discovered that John Burke wasn’t exaggerating.
“I pretty much came back with the same conclusions that John Burke had made; and that was that we had major people problems over there and were in a situation where we could lose a lot of people. We were losing a lot of money and I couldn’t see where Mary Burke was going to turn this thing around.”
Albers reported his findings to Richard Burke, who listened intently and then, Albers says, acted decisively.
“The family—and by that I mean Dick and John Burke—finally agreed to bring her back. And so, to say it bluntly, she was fired.”
After that, Albers recalls, Richard Burke had his daughter address Trek’s management team to answer questions about just what had gone wrong in Europe.
“I used to hold every month a management meeting which was made up of approximately 35 managers,” he says. “In there we would kind of review the status of things and review the financial results, and Dick Burke asked her to appear in this meeting. And she appeared, and basically explained why we weren’t doing better in Europe and the things that had gone wrong.”
“She also fielded questions from all of the people. Looking back, it was a pretty tough thing that she put herself through and I give her credit for doing it. It wasn’t easy to do, and I thought she handled herself very well.”
“That’s kind of the last thing I remember [about the situation], and then obviously she went on her sabbatical.”
Mary Burke took off for a snowboarding trip to Argentina, a decision that Trek said in a statement released Wednesday was hers and hers alone.
“When Mary was in charge of Europe, she grew sales from $3 million to $50 million,” the company stated. “In 1993 Mary decided that it was time for her to make a change and she left Trek. In 1995, John Burke asked Mary Burke to return to Trek to help with some key areas of the business. After she returned, Mary assumed the lead of Trek’s Global Forecasting department.”
Albers, however, believes that the wording of the statement serves only to give the company cover from the truth: That Burke’s father and brother forced her to resign from her position as Director of European Operations.
“I think it is, because earlier she was making the statement that she was burned out, and that’s why she left,” Albers theorizes. “I think there was also some truth to that. She was putting in a lot of hours and she was under a lot of pressure.”
Burke herself vehemently denies that she was fired from Trek, saying for the first time Wednesday that her position was eliminated.
“We reorganized and eliminated the position that I had, and I left that organization in charge of two other people who reported directly to the U.S.,” she told reporters during a campaign appearance in Green Bay.
This was the first time she has ever said that her position was eliminated. Up until Wednesday, she had claimed that she suffered burnout from the stress of her job and left Trek because she needed time off.
“I think she probably did suffer burnout,” Albers says, “but at the same time she was under water, too, and she couldn’t handle the position,”
But as for whether she voluntarily left her position as the head of Trek’s European operations, Albers leaves no room for equivocation.
“Ultimately, it was Dick Burke’s decision. He would have been the one who made the final decision.”
Shortly after Mary Burke left, her father named Albers Trek’s President and Chief Operating Officer with the caveat that Albers would step down after three years so that John Burke could assume the role.
“It was felt at that time that he wasn’t ready for that kind of move, so he served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing and reported to me as the President during my tenure.”
“And then after the three years, Dick Burke and I sat down and decided that there was not an appropriate position for me to move into, so it was decided that I would move on from Trek.”
Albers says he left Trek with the utmost respect for the Burke family, who gave him a huge sendoff in 1997, but that their friendly relationship turned frosty when Specialized Bicycle offered Albers a position as President and CEO, which he accepted.
In the years since Albers left Trek, he has donated $500 to Governor Walker and an additional $1,100 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green, but he denies that politics played any role in his decision to talk about the circumstances surrounding Burke’s dismissal from her family’s company.
“I had made the decision a couple of months ago that I would not come forward on my own with information about Mary Burke,” he explains. “The only thing that’s brought this to a head is the article [in The Wisconsin Reporter] in which [former Trek executive] Gary Ellerman threw my name out there as someone who had conducted a review of Mary Burke’s performance in Europe.”
“I decided that instead of saying ‘no comment,’ I wasn’t going to lie. I would tell the truth.”
Albers says that Ellerman’s account is truthful, and it has been corroborated in the Wisconsin Reporter by a number of other Trek sources.
Ellerman, though, is the Chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, and his decision to come forward with just a few days until Election Day has been met with allegations of political motivation.
As for Albers, he says that he is not motivated by politics at all.
“I have not talked to Gary Ellerman since 1997, so I had no idea that he was going to use my name in that article, but it kind of opened the flood gates here when he did.”
“I don’t know of anything in that article that was untrue.”
And if anyone would know, it would be Tom Albers.