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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

I was once so poor, I didn’t have a coffee cup.

It didn’t matter much since I had neither coffee or a coffee maker. I had boxes of things I owned when I was rich, before I lost everything. But I wasn’t going to stay in one place long enough to unpack them, so what was left stayed in the boxes. I never unpacked. Nothing was permanent.

No coffee cup though.

My parents told stories of the depression when they were kids. The stories didn’t seem possible to me. When I didn’t have a coffee cup it occurred to me, “Well damn. Here is our depression. Exactly like my mom described.” Now you’re reading my story of not having a coffee cup.

Eventually things began to improve. I was good at what I did, a writer. Got a good job writing at a company in California. Money came in. California is expensive so you need to earn a lot of money to be even reasonably comfortable. You still won’t have any money left over, so you better keep your job or find a new one outside California. If you want to make any money, don’t move to California.

Moved from California to Michigan. Brought my two cats in a cat carrier on the plane. I had written a letter to the airline well in advance telling them my cats were the most valuable thing in the world to me. They met me at the airport and took extra care of me and my two cats on the flight from California back to Michigan. I was thankful for that. Nothing was more important. I figured if I couldn’t even care for two cats, I was pretty worthless. But in this case, with the help of the airlines, I managed fairly well. Thank God, and I’m not even religious. The airline was Southwest airlines. If you can, when you fly, fly on Southwest Airlines. They actually care about people. And cats. That’s rare these days.

Still no coffee cup though.

When I got back to Michigan I took back an old job that I liked but didn’t earn much money. I was going to help open a new business soon. There was, at least, the promise of improvement if not tangible improvement itself. Sometimes you can do pretty good on just the promise of things getting better. It’s better than knowing things are going to get worse. I’ve gotten good at sensing when that is going to happen. It’s a bad feeling and you better trust it.

My friends Paul and Sue, whom I’ve known forever, visited me right away when I moved back. They knew me before the recession, before I lost everything. I was actually well-off then. Owned a house, car, business. Those things can disappear in an instant, so fast you can’t believe it. You think you are secure. Trust me, you aren’t. A million dollars means nothing.

I know that when Paul and Sue and their sons saw how things were for me then they were… well, I don’t know what they were. They never said. Sue drove me to the store. When it became apparent I had no money for food, her and her two sons brought food to my house. I always made sure my cats had food. They came first.

Things kept getting better. Made a little money. Lived in a house with a big yard, grass (we didn’t have that in California) and plenty of windows. The first warm day I went outside and just laid down in the grass. It was the first time I felt safe in a long time. My cats watched me through the window. That was a good feeling. I still remember that moment, lying there in the grass.

Eventually things got much better. That’s America. You can have everything, lose everything, and get everything back again.

On one trip to the store I bought a coffee maker, $22, a huge can of coffee (don’t remember how much) and a coffee cup. It’s still my favorite cup. I worry about breaking it. It would be a bad omen.

So with this new coffee cup, I am pretty careful.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Two bicycle specialty stores closed in Metro Detroit this year. Three more suddenly changed “ownership” in November on their way to eventual closure.

On the national scale, Advanced Sport Enterprises, parent company to Performance Bicycle and Bike Nashbar, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

After decades of failure to adapt, Southeastern Michigan bicycle retail is in a brutal phase of enforced transition. Despite an overall economic boom many bike shops are a bust. Southeastern Michigan bike store closures and hasty ownership spin-offs that precede further closings confirm that.

The questions are; how did this happen; how can it be avoided and what will the industry look like once the rules of business exact their toll?

Like most significant shifts in business there is no singular cause.  A conspiracy of factors combines to weigh heavily on traditional bicycle retail. The reality that the industry has ignored these factors for so long manifests itself in this crisis.

Not every bicycle retailer is in crisis though, and some old-skool bike shops not only survive but are capitalizing on the increasing failures of retailers who thought they knew it all but had neither solid financials or enough vision to adapt in the changing retail landscape.

Southeastern Michigan bike shops like Jack’s Bicycle and Fitness, Roll Models in Allen Park, Michigan, Brick Wheels in Traverse City and Wheels in Motion in Ann Arbor are still there, still doing business and quietly surviving and growing as the others collapse around them.

In the renaissance of downtown Detroit, a new generation of bike family businesses has emerged on the shoulders of men like Jon Hughes of Downtown Ferndale and Downtown Detroit bike shops. Hughes also leads the family effort to grow the Lexus Velodrome and launch a new demi-empire in media and cycling in post-recession Detroit. He comes from a dynasty of bicycle business that stretches back three generations to Mike Walden and the formation of the country’s second oldest cycling club, the Wolverines. Even Bob Akers, who runs the decades-old, dingy, crumbling International Bike Shop in Garden City has survived as the shiny newcomers who thought they knew it all have tumbled.

Why do some shops survive while others fail? One factor common in the surviving Michigan bike retailers is they own their own real estate. But the ingredients for success, not just survival, are more complex than just owning your building.

Harvard MBAs don’t start bike shops. Bike shop owners don’t have business degrees. They start bike shops because they love bikes or have no other opportunity. They’re hobbyists. Not businessmen. The barriers to entry are low. Got $100K? You can open a bike shop. You’ll never tell a bike shop owner he doesn’t know business. As far as bicycle retail store owners are concerned, they are experts at retail. The crash of Michigan high-end specialty retailers proves otherwise.

I was this guy.  I lost my own store after 17 successful years during the recession. Then, like a scene from a movie where the plot repeats again and again, I went to work for two other retailers around the U.S. who, like me, thought they knew everything and couldn’t be told anything. They’re gone now too. More will follow.

Failure is only failure if you fail to learn. But in bicycle retail, no one listens. The first bike shop I worked for when I was 15 years old went out of business because the owners failed to adapt. The last bike shop I worked for four decades later did exactly the same thing. The owners refused to adapt. In a repetitive pantomime, I tried to convince the owners of the last shop I worked at to move the cash register to facilitate better customer traffic flow. It was a minor change that may have resulted in a minor improvement. I tried for a year. They never moved it. They went out of business months after I finally quit in frustration and left to work in another industry.

I take some small satisfaction in knowing the store that lasted the longest was mine. But business is pass/fail. You can run a successful business for 6,205 days like I did, but if you fail on the 6,206th day, you are a failure.

The first lesson I learned in losing my own store is you have to own your failure. Mine was my fault. While there were factors including a global recession that contributed to my 17-year-old store failing, I could have moderated them. Others did. I wasn’t smart enough or humble enough at the time. Some people pay college tuition for an education. I paid in bankruptcies and a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” by losing everything. While the second way may be a more durable education, it’s also more painful.

I went on to work for two more bike retail owners who made exactly the same mistakes I did while ignoring the changes that could have saved them. But bike shop owners don’t listen.

The specifics on what is killing some of Michigan’s bicycle retailers is a fascinating case study in the evolution of business that could fill a book. Bike shop owners and bike shops are, in many ways, indicative of the American economic condition. They are the epitome of small business America. As the small, independent bike goes, so goes all of small retail- good and bad. Small restaurants, pet stores, book retail, independent jewelers and all small retail can learn something from the enforced evolution and bizarre non-evolution of bicycle retail.

Small bicycle retail has been quick to scapegoat the big, ugly mega-retailer and the .com as the reason for their bust. That is a lie. In the broad sense, bicycle retailers are killing themselves by failing to adapt and innovate. They do it in hundreds of small ways every day they continue to do the same tired things over and over and over. Even the bicycle retailers who have survived could do better. For most of the survivors a major reason they still exist is they own their own real estate and remain impervious to swings in the volatile southeastern Michigan economy. But even their future is increasingly in doubt as forward-thinking innovators understand new opportunities in the age of Amazon One-Click.

What will happen to Michigan small bicycle retail? One thing is certain: it will continue to change at a rate that outpaces the ability of most shop owners to adapt. That means we’ll see more southeastern Michigan bike shops closing. Unless they learn from someone’s mistakes the cycle of failure in Michigan cycling retail will continue.

 


 

Tom Demerly is a 42-year bicycle industry veteran who owned his own business for 17 years. Today he is a defense and aviation analyst for several international publications including TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

 

  1. Civilians Don’t Know How to Answer a Question.

It’s one of the most conspicuous differences between civilians and military; civilians cannot answer a simple question. Try it. Ask a question that requires a simple, expedient, one-word “yes” or “no” answer. Usually civilians answer a question with a question. One of the first things you learn in the military is how to effectively answer a question to communicate necessary information concisely and quickly. For every veteran and military person who has to wade through the mire of civilian semantics trying to get an answer to a simple question, this phenomenon is boggling.

 

  1. Veterans Will Never Let You Forget They’re Veterans.

Guilty as charged. The military experience changes you. It instills deep-seated fears, some reasonable, some not. It teaches skills and competencies that can’t be learned anywhere else. It also provides a sense of belonging and self-esteem that membership in any revered group does. It may be subtle, many people may not notice it, but whether it is how he stands, how tight her hair bun is, the way he looks around a room when he enters it, the hat, the belt or the boots, it is usually easy to spot a veteran. That’s not an accident.

 

  1. Civilians Cannot Make Decisions. 

The military teaches how to make decisions, the importance of having a method of decision making and how to make decisions quickly and efficiently. It also teaches what to do when you make bad decisions, which you inevitably will. Civilians cannot make decisions efficiently. Too many variables, too much second guessing, too much time wasted. One of the most maddening things about being military or veteran in a civilian world is the bizarre theatre that is watching a civilian trying to make a decision as they are influenced by factors they themselves don’t even realize. For veterans, this is agonizing to see.

 

  1. Veterans Treasure Quiet Space, Hot Water and Good Food.

Hurry-up and wait, long days that start before sun-up and end way after dark. Cold, wet clothing and numb feet. Dirty hair and cramped spaces with smelly bodies. Welcome to the military. Once you are out of the military you usually just want to sit down for a moment and quietly stare at the horizon. Quiet, open spaces, warm meals and a hot shower are opulent luxuries to a veteran. These things are wealth. Never take them for granted.

 

  1. Veterans Know How to Work as a Team.

In the first two weeks of being in the military you begin to coalesce into a collective organism known as a team. The mental barrier between self and team disappears, and you discover the strength and synergy of teamwork. It’s a humbling and empowering experience at the same time, and once you’ve experienced it you never forget it. Civilians have a rough time with working as a team because they are forever trying to preserve some semblance of “self”. Self must evaporate in a team environment for the greater good, and that is frightening to many people until they learn how to be an effective part of a team and the remarkable benefits.

 

  1. Civilians Are Delightfully Naive. 

Few things are more entertaining to a veteran than talking to civilians, especially most young civilians, about world politics, U.S. military involvement around the world and human nature. Civilians live in a beautiful bubble of tranquility and peace that makes their everyday foibles feel massive and their choices seem difficult. Frankly, it is at once cute and annoying. Americans, especially, live a frail bubble of security that facilitates a bizarrely privileged life usually free from difficult decisions involving life and death. Unfortunately, this has begun to change as increasing polarity between economic privilege inflict difficult choices on more and more poor people ill-equipped and untrained to make good decisions. That is tragic to watch in our country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

He earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, did triathlons in his spare time and flew the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter along with nearly every other fighter aircraft in U.S. inventory. And he died in an accident in September 2017 so secret its circumstances remain classified to this day. His name is Lt. Col. Eric “Doc” Schultz.

Capt Eric “DOC” Schultz, F-35 ITF Edwards AFB; Ca.; 15 September 2011

She leads an entire Air Force Wing of advanced F-35A Lightning II squadrons. She holds a Master’s degree and has flown the most secretive special operations combat aircraft in U.S. inventory. Her name is Col. Regina Sabric.

He got so bored on shipboard deployment he first started playing PlayStation, then lifting weights, then training for a triathlon onboard a Navy assault ship and finally earning a college degree online during his off time. He is a young Marine Corporal I met in San Diego, California.

She was terrifying. Ultimate lord of everything within her domain, she was a Sergeant who oversaw supply at a U.S. Army basic training facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I don’t remember her name, but I was terrified of her when I went through basic training and advanced individual training.

He shared a foxhole with me in the rain at Ft. Benning Georgia while we tried to figure out how to tune a tactical radio into a news station during the middle of the night at Advanced Individual Training (AIT). He went on to participate in the invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause, and many other active duty operations with the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division. His name is Mo Fregia.

Mo Fregia and I practice clearing landmines at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

She does yoga in her off hours, has traveled the world in the U.S. Air Force and on the day I met her she was in charge of getting me and my equipment on board an Air Force tanker so we could rendezvous with F-15C Eagles and F-35A Lightning IIs over the Atlantic for midair refueling. Her name is Lt. Col. Kim Lalley.

He is a member of an elite Naval Special Warfare team who took time out from his day to sit on a log in the obstacle course in Coronado, California for an interview about how to overcome any obstacle and never give up. He should know. After three tries he graduated top of his class, “Honor Man”, of his Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS). His name is SEAL Operator First Class David Goggins.

He is a retired Commanding Officer who took the time out to meet with me in person years after he was my commander in an Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Unit. When he was my C.O. he was a Captain. He later retired as Colonel. I may have learned more from his leadership than almost any other man in my life. His name is Robert “Bob” Wangen.

Standing on the right, with the bona-fide special-operations mustache, is one of the finest soldiers I have ever known, SSgt. Chris Surmacz. He was my team leader.

He is a combat veteran F-16 pilot, instructor and now commander of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft unit. In his spare time, whatever that is when you are an Air Force Colonel, he coaches triathlons and runs a triathlon retail store in Tucson, Arizona. His name is Col. Brian Grasky.

Every year the list of remarkable people I meet working with the U.S. military grows longer. Every year I am more impressed with their competence, devotion, tireless work ethic and patriotism. In the civilian sector people go weeks and months without ever thinking about the small percentage of our population who serves in the U.S. military. Only about 1.3% of our country’s population is serving or has served in the military. Current active duty military accounts for only 0.4% of the U.S. population. Think about that. Less than half a percent of our population shoulders the burden for the safety and security of the remaining 99.5%. That is a lot of weight to rest on very few shoulders. But I can assure you those are strong and capable shoulders. We remain free and secure in the precious bubble of liberty maintained by that 0.4%. Today we celebrate their selfless devotion and the often-grinding drudgery of their difficult jobs done 365 days a year, around the clock all over the globe almost entirely without thanks.

We don’t need you to thank us for our service, although that’s nice of you, or buy a special T-shirt or put a bumper sticker on your car saying you support the troops. That’s kind of you, but we don’t need all that. We do like it when you fly our flag, bright and backlit by a brilliant sun shining down on the land we love. We want you to take that flag down at night when it gets dark or shine a light on it around the clock. And we’d prefer if you never let it touch the ground because one day, the day after our last day, we’ll lie under the flag when you commit us to memory and hopefully another veteran takes our place.