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Bicycle Leadership Conference is not all suppliers

Published March 28, 2024
Two IBDs join the event in Tucson.

TUCSON, Ariz. (BRAIN) — As the supplier community gathers in Tucson this week for the Bicycle Leadership Conference, two independent retailers are adding to the attendance of about 275. These two are Ken “Woody” Smith, who has seven stores in the Dallas/Fort Worth market, and Erik Saltvold, who has 34 stores in nine predominantly Midwestern states.

When the Bicycle Retail Education Conference, the precursor to the BLC, was launched in Orlando in 1995, the attendees were predominantly retailers. By 2007, the conference (by then rebranded as the BLC) had grown and evolved to a gathering of about half retailers and half suppliers. Conference organizers were struggling with the challenge of creating content that was relevant to both audiences.

So conference owners the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, which merged with PeopleForBikes in 2019, decided to make the content completely supplier-focused starting in 2008. Retailers were still welcome, although subsequent BLCs never drew double-digit numbers of retailer attendees. Retailer-specific conferences have been held occasionally since 2008, including the upcoming NBDA Retailer Summit May 22 in Arkansas, in conjunction with the Bentonville Bike Fest.

And now in 2024, there are two powerhouse IBDs at BLC. Smith, who is still in the process of buying out previous owner Jim Hoyt, has grown the operation (formerly Richardson Bike Mart) from three stores to seven. He started at Hoyt’s RIchardson store in 1989, making $7.25 an hour as a mechanic and service writer. The buyout started January 1, 2012.

Smith currently sells Trek, Specialized, Giant, Santa Cruz, Gazelle and Cervelo in all seven locations. At the time of Smith’s purchase, the business was turning about $18 million in sales. That number peaked in the mid-$30-millions during COVID and came back into the mid-$20-millions in 2023.

This is Smith’s fourth BLC. “Jim (Hoyt) and I went when it was in San Diego in 2008, then I went to the one in Phoenix in 2018, then I came for the third time last year,” Smith said. “To me, this is the most important industry gathering of the year and I’m shocked that more retailers aren’t here.”

“For sure what I’ve learned here has helped me so much in determining my direction and vision,” said Smith. “I may be in business for myself, but I don’t want to figure it all out by myself. Last year I left here with the Circana sales data and projections in hand. I learned that sales would be down by 23-26%, so I adjusted my projections accordingly and we were down 24%. How can I put a value on that?”

Why does Smith think that other retailers stay home? “I don’t know,” Smith said. “I’m stunned that Erik and I are the only ones here. I promoted it within my NBDA P2 group but I guess I wasn’t very convincing. I suppose it could be the cost, it’s a $3500 trip for me between the conference fee, host hotel and airfare.”

“Besides the sessions, I see a huge benefit to rubbing elbows with my suppliers,” Smith concluded. “We network, we talk, we help each other, learn from each other and especially in these challenging times, lean on each other. If you're having a hard time, come here and ask for help.”

Saltvold, who started his first shop in the family garage in 1977, is primarily a Specialized retailer. “We rode the pandemic wave like everyone else,” Saltvold said. “Sales soared in 2020, ‘21 and ‘22, which were all record years for us. In 2023, we had good sales but reduced profits. We all knew there would be a hangover after the boom years, it was just a question of how much did you drink?”

Saltvold echoed many of Smith’s thoughts about the value of the BLC. “I’ve been coming here for a number of years,” said Saltvold. “It’s the only industry meeting where I can talk to top management and get a pulse for where things are going.”

“Last year's BLC in Dana Point was the best industry conference I’ve ever been to,” he said.  “I took a lot of notes on inventory management and best business practices that related directly to my business. There’s no other gathering that has this much variety of people and ideas.”

“The BLC is understandably not marketed to retailers, it’s not a trade show, so building relationships is the main draw,” Saltvold said. “Events for retailers are always about timing and cost. The dates here overlap spring break. It’s a difficult time to get away and it’s not clear to retailers how they fit into the mix.”

Smith (left) and Saltvold at BLC this week. Ray Keener photo.

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