Q&A: New USA Cycling CEO Rob DeMartini
USA Cycling has hired Rob DeMartini as its new president and CEO following the departure of Derek Bouchard-Hall at the end of 2018. DeMartini comes to USA Cycling with a vastly different professional background than his various predecessors. He has a long management career in mainstream consumer goods, including Proctor & Gamble and Tyson Foods. Most recently, Martini was CEO of New Balance running shoes from 2007 until last year.
VeloNews caught up with DeMartini to discuss his leadership position and the challenges facing cycling’s national governing body.
VeloNews: Why did you take this position?
Rob DeMartini: I stepped down [as CEO] from New Balance after 12 years, which was a hell of a good job, and I thought it would be a while before I could find something that was capable of getting my blood flowing. Maybe running some big retailer or a big supplier. Those jobs were open, but it wasn’t going to be the right thing to follow up a job like New Balance. I got a call from the search firm that was heading up the search and they asked me if I knew anyone who would be interested in [USA Cycling CEO]. I said, by the way, I do: me. I’m an enthusiast. I’m an active rider. I see a huge opportunity for this national governing body to play a stronger leadership [role] in the bike industry. I think USA Cycling can provide some advantages for the industry, which I think are exciting.
Then, you look at the various Olympic sports, and cycling has perhaps the longest lifespan for enthusiasts to participate. Every kid remembers his first bike. There are plenty of 70-year-olds who are actively involved in the sport.
VN: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges currently facing USA Cycling?
RD: Here’s my current understanding of it: before we can grow, we need to serve our existing members better, the license holders, race directors, officials, and others. Yes, they need to have access to the events and to the licenses we offer. I understand the power of that, but I don’t know if I want USA Cycling to stand on the license as the only benefit these people get for being members. We need to come up with more.
We need to become much more relevant to enthusiast cyclists. In my interview with [USA Cycling Chairman] Bob [Stapleton], I said I’ve been a 11-year rider of the Pan-Mass Challenge [ride] that raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. You have 6,000 riders and they raise $54 million in a weekend. Every one of those riders should be a USA Cycling member, but today I can’t articulate to them what the benefits of that membership are. We need to change that.
We need to demonstrate a stronger value to our foundation supporters. We need to show return on investment and return on enthusiasm for their support. It’s their money putting riders on the podium, and that matters to them.
VN: There’s been a lot written about USA Cycling’s membership decline since 2012, and many reasons were given for this downward shift. How do you hope to address and change this?
RD: Derek [Bouchard-Hall] and I had a really good discussion about this a few weeks ago and he gave me his premises about what the drivers were. The first thing is I want to have a better understanding of our current members because the 70,000 people who pay our bills are the people who allow us to be who we are. We need to understand what we’re not doing for them and how we better serve them. The second is we need to really look at the numbers around the decline. Right now the decline has been, from what I understand, largely in road. I don’t know if the gran fondo world is offsetting that, or whether these people are just choosing to do different things. We need to understand what the value equation is for having a membership. To me, it’s not clear, so for some people there’s no reason to be part of USA Cycling. The final part is how do we make cycling more inviting. The people who bought a $500 bike — how do we get them involved in the sport, watching the races, reading the magazines, and letting them know about our amazing athletes? I think we can fly the badge of participation better. Triathletes tattoo it on their ankles. There are badges of participation that exist in cycling, but I don’t think USA Cycling has ever tapped into that.
VN: Where do you think your professional experience will make the most immediate impact on USA Cycling?
RD: I think there is massive amounts of opportunity for sponsorship growth. Having spent my time on the brand-building side, I can help sponsors and potential supporters connect with fans and enthusiasts. I think there could be significant upside here. I look at the current [sponsorship revenue] number and think it might need to be 10 or 20 times what it is today. Sponsorship revenue is about getting those resources that will allow us to do what we want to do, and to make that value equation stronger to better support our elite athletes. We’re extremely optimistic about Tokyo and I’m equally optimistic about the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. These things take time and you need resources to take on the best in the world.
VN: Your most recent professional experience at New Balance focused on retail sales of shoes. How can USA Cycling benefit from your experiences here?
RD: Right now I don’t think there’s any USA Cycling connection in a bike shop. Not that I’ve seen. What is the value package when a new bike is sold that will encourage somebody to put a USA Cycling sticker on their car or create an entry point to earn us a new member? I want to get to know the endemic trade magazines and bike shop community. I know that the independent bike shop community faces significant challenges right now, and as an outsider, it doesn’t look like the brands are yet working to solve some of these challenges, and that is a problem. High-end road and mountain bikes are so technical that the idea that the sale will be done on the internet without independent representation to me is a mistake.
At New Balance, we took the 860 and 880 [running shoes] and declared that we would not sell them on the internet. It was just two of hundreds of models, but they were our most complex and important running models. For seven or eight years now, the only place you could buy them online was Newbalance.com and at independent running stores. You can’t buy it on Amazon or Zappos. That cost us some business, but it built an amazingly strong loyalty from those 450 independent running shops. And whether this is applicable to the bike manufacturers, I don’t know. I do know that you can’t ignore the dichotomy where the cheaper way to buy something is over the internet, but in many categories, you’re selling a technical product and the consumer is going to want to have a better experience and some matter of knowledge during the sale.
As we built our retail empire it used to be about access, and today it is about engagement and education. If you need education and training in order to belong, that is going to come through some type of retail experience and from what I can see, the IBD community needs help in that area.
VN: What is your own experience as a cyclist?
RD: I lived in the suburbs of Boston and I got to the point where running 45 minutes wasn’t enough. I wanted to be out there longer. I started mountain biking for two- to four-hour sessions, then I started road biking. I’m a classic weekend warrior who rides between 40-100 miles on Saturday and Sunday and then doesn’t ride much during the week.