The Chainlink

Trek Bicycle Head John Burke Says Obese, Unhealthy Workers Bad for Business

By Lizzie Schiffman on February 27, 2014 6:41am

THE LOOP — John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp., had a blunt message for Chicago business leaders Wednesday: Obese and unhealthy workers are bad for the bottom line.

Obesity "isn't just a government issue. It's a company issue and it's a personal issue," Burke said Wednesday before 400 people at an Executives' Club of Chicago meeting at the Fairmont Chicago.

From higher health insurance costs to less productivity, he said, overweight and unhealthy workers can hurt a company's bottom line. So the president and son of Trek's co-founder isn't shy about telling workers when they need to slim down, both in person and his blog, which talks about the "brutal honesty" necessary to get workers to shape up.

"If you're not going to care about your health, then Trek is not going to pay for it," said Burke, whose Waterloo, Wis.-based company is the largest bike manufacturer in the country.

Burke practices what he preaches: he rode more than 6,000 miles on his bicycle last year and was also the chairman of former President George W. Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He's also completed four marathons and two Ironman triathlons.

To help employees stay healthy and keep the weight off, Burke on Wednesday outlined the mandatory eight-step wellness program he recently introduced at the 1,000-employee company, which he said has "changed lives."

Wellness programs have become increasingly more common. Chicago Public Schools teachers and other workers in the city are now required to take part in a similar program that increases insurance premiums from those who fail to undergo health screenings, for example.

The steps at Trek include removing most unhealthy foods from cafeterias and implementing a "Twinkie tax" on less-than-healthy products like Diet Coke that remain on the shelves, a weight-loss competition "similar to the 'Biggest Loser'" that coached more than 800 employees through slim-downs and a tobacco ban on company property.

"These are eight things that you could implement at your company tomorrow," Burke said to the crowd.

The most important step, Burke said, was making participation in the health-risk assessment program a requirement to get health insurance through his global company.

"If I could, I wouldn't pay for any of it," he said, referring to health insurance costs for employees who aren't conscientious about their health.

"But there are laws so you can only bring it down, and every year those laws get a little bit better and I keep ratcheting it down. Because seriously, if people don't care about their health, why should companies be paying for it? And that's the change that we made."

"We've reduced our costs. Have we reduced them as much as we've hoped to? No, but they've trended down."

What the company has successfully reduced is many employee's waistlines. Burke recounted two instances where he personally confronted employees with concerns about their healthy. One man weighed 300 pounds and was preparing for hip replacement when Burke urged him to join the wellness program.

"Twelve months later he weighed 224 pounds, with zero hip replacements," Burke said.

After calling another employee into his office to voice concerns about his weight, the "shorter guy," who "weighed 240 pounds on that day ... weighs 190 pounds today," Burke said, and recently competed in an uphill cycling race.

"Go back to your companies and make a difference," he said. "Don't wait for the government, don't wait for your employees. Show some leadership."

Burke also touted how bicycle commuting could ease some of the city's notorious traffic jams.

"If you didn't notice, you live in a  very congested city," he said. "Biking can have a huge impact on congestion."

He pointed to countries like Holland, where 35 percent of trips are made by bicycle, and Denmark, where the number is 25 percent. Congestion is far less there, and residents healthier.

"In the United States it's 1.2 percent and 40 percent of those cars are going two miles or less. To me that's an amazing opportunity for the bike," he said.

"Instead of having 1 percent of trips on bikes in Chicago, if that number was 25 percent, what would happen? Congestion would be slashed. The health of people in Chicago would skyrocket. You would see a great environmental improvement.

"When you see thousands of bikes you see an energy, you see the vibrancy of the city. The city really comes to life."

http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20140227/loop/trek-bicycle-head-john...

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This is awesome. Good for him!

Chicago needs more of this  thinking.  

Ah, yes. Fat shaming. We know how well that works.

Wellness programs are well and good, and I think companies that come up with inventive ways to encourage employees to pursue more active/healthier lives should be applauded, but actively pulling aside workers as the CEO and "personally confronting" them regarding their perceived health (i.e., weight) problem is a good way to walk your company straight into a discrimination lawsuit.  

Thanks, John Burke, for helping to keep cycling marginalized as a form of transportation in Chicago.

Weight isn't a protected class, though.

What I see is a CEO who sees a problem (American obesity hurting the bottom line of his company) and taking pro-active steps to change it (talking to two employees makes interesting sound-bite news, but the interesting, actually helpful programs are things like improving the healthiness of cafeteria food).  As Davis said, there's more to weight loss than "eat less, fatty."  And I'm happy that a company is taking steps to make it more convenient for their employees to live a healthier lifestyle.

ad said:

Wellness programs are well and good, and I think companies that come up with inventive ways to encourage employees to pursue more active/healthier lives should be applauded, but actively pulling aside workers as the CEO and "personally confronting" them regarding their perceived health (i.e., weight) problem is a good way to walk your company straight into a discrimination lawsuit.  

I am all in favor of encouraging people to adopt healthy behaviors, but I find this article completely offensive. Makes me want to not buy a Trek.

For anybody interested, here are 7 of the 8 steps that he suggests (the 8th one is making participation mandatory)

http://agreatride.typepad.com/a-great-ride/

Sounds like he is upfront and direct regarding his concerns about the healthiness of his employees. I really didn't see any direct quotes from him in this article to suggest he is "fat shaming". And while the author of the article uses the phrase "personally confronted," please note those are the author's words, not John Burke's.

I think it is fantastic that his company has implemented a serious wellness program with what sounds like many positive components. I have to say, I can also understand an employer who pays a significant amount towards employee health insurance might feel justified in implementing wellness programs at the workplace.

Now that is interesting. The blog post seems somewhat less offensive than the article above, although I didn't listen to the entire video speech. But I still have a problem with the dual messages of "we care about your health" and "if you don't care about your health, we're not going to pay for it." First because it's a pretty big assumption that employees "don't care" about their health, and second because it smacks of having greater concern about the company's financial bottom line than its employees. However, I would love it if my employer had an on-site fitness center and on-site cafe, even if I had to pay the ridiculous-sounding "Twinkie Tax."

Christine (5.0) said:

For anybody interested, here are 7 of the 8 steps that he suggests (the 8th one is making participation mandatory)

http://agreatride.typepad.com/a-great-ride/

I think some of the wording of the article is to get a response out of readers.  Typical journalism.

At my company, there is a wellness screening.  If you do the screening, and get good metrics, you get a 10% "discount" on your health insurance.  If you get poor marks, and participate in 3... health management things?  I don't know the details.  Basically, if you get poor marks for BMI/blood whatever, you can still get the discount (or rather, not pay an extra 10%).  Perhaps it is the same thing at Trek (rather than dropping health insurance entirely)

Nançois 8.5 said:

Now that is interesting. The blog post seems somewhat less offensive than the article above, although I didn't listen to the entire video speech. But I still have a problem with the dual messages of "we care about your health" and "if you don't care about your health, we're not going to pay for it." First because it's a pretty big assumption that employees "don't care" about their health, and second because it smacks of having greater concern about the company's financial bottom line than its employees. However, I would love it if my employer had an on-site fitness center and on-site cafe, even if I had to pay the ridiculous-sounding "Twinkie Tax."

Christine (5.0) said:

For anybody interested, here are 7 of the 8 steps that he suggests (the 8th one is making participation mandatory)

http://agreatride.typepad.com/a-great-ride/

Let's see...he has taken away less healthy foods from the cafeteria at Trek, there is a "twinkie tax" for the less healthy items that are still there. Also, his company offers coaching on weight loss for interested employees. He actively speaks to the need for improved cycling infrastructure in cities and towns.

Not to mention that Trek is involved in a significant amount of bicycling advocacy throughout the country. A portion of all helmet sales goes to support advocacy organizations. A portion of all full suspension mountain bike sales supports trail maintenance and development. The League of American Bicyclists has an initiative called Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC). Trek is a strong active partner with BFC nationwide. They work with cities and towns to identify, increase, and educate regarding infrastructure and bikes as viable, safe, healthy transportation. You ever here of International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)? A portion of what they do is expand and repair trails. Trek is also a strong active partner in this endeavor. I could go on. Seems clear though that this "asshole" and so-called "bully" is doing a significant amount of work in regards to issues that many cyclists hold dear. Trek does more than make bikes.

Davis Moore said:

Addressing the root causes of obesity and obesity related diseases like environment, infrastructure, transportation options, the reimbursement plans for preventative vs. reactionary medical care and the federal subsidization of unhealthy foods is a better, more effective and certainly less cruel way of dealing with the issue than being a bully.

I don't care if he makes bikes, fuck that asshole.

Valid talking points but without expressly disagreeing, I would encourage one to treat his speech like the political stunt it was and read between the lines. 

Trek rode the Lance Armstrong gravy train for a good long while.  They built up their design studio and shipped all production overseas.  The Trek bicycle co. that I have been proud to own many bikes from over the years isn't really Santa anymore.  On the one hand, they can be given some credit for their advocacy efforts and partnerships with Land management agencies.  On the other hand, without places to ride their product, they have no business. 

With Lance's downfall, Trek has had a massive fall off in road bike sales and now has to appeal to other market segments to regain their margin of profitability. Utility/urban/transportation/commuting cycling is now en vogue and Chicago is a major player, just down the street from Trek HQ.  Why not come to Chicago and make a speech glorifying the bicycle as the antidote to unhealthy living, especially when you have a lot of them to sell?  Remember this thread when the next round of Divy bikes is provided by Trek, which shouldn't be too long after this winter.

Liz W. Durham said:

Let's see...he has taken away less healthy foods from the cafeteria at Trek, there is a "twinkie tax" for the less healthy items that are still there. Also, his company offers coaching on weight loss for interested employees. He actively speaks to the need for improved cycling infrastructure in cities and towns.

Not to mention that Trek is involved in a significant amount of bicycling advocacy throughout the country. A portion of all helmet sales goes to support advocacy organizations. A portion of all full suspension mountain bike sales supports trail maintenance and development. The League of American Bicyclists has an initiative called Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC). Trek is a strong active partner with BFC nationwide. They work with cities and towns to identify, increase, and educate regarding infrastructure and bikes as viable, safe, healthy transportation. You ever here of International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)? A portion of what they do is expand and repair trails. Trek is also a strong active partner in this endeavor. I could go on. Seems clear though that this "asshole" and so-called "bully" is doing a significant amount of work in regards to issues that many cyclists hold dear. Trek does more than make bikes.

Davis Moore said:

Addressing the root causes of obesity and obesity related diseases like environment, infrastructure, transportation options, the reimbursement plans for preventative vs. reactionary medical care and the federal subsidization of unhealthy foods is a better, more effective and certainly less cruel way of dealing with the issue than being a bully.

I don't care if he makes bikes, fuck that asshole.

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