After four years in the post, USA Cycling chief executive officer, GerardBisceglia, was fired last week by board president Jim Ochowicz. Bisceglia was replaced by the organization’s chief operating officer, Steve Johnson, who is also the executive director of the USA Cycling Development Foundation.
Bisceglia agreed to sit down with former VeloNews news editor,Charles Pelkey, and discuss his time at the head of the national governingbody, the reasons behind his sudden departure and what he sees as the challenges and opportunities facing the sport of cycling in the United States.
In this, the first of a two-part interview, Bisceglia outlines how heviews his performance and the reasons behind his termination. Obviously,this interview offers Bisceglia’s take on events. Efforts to arrange an interview with Ochowicz have, thus far, been unsuccessful. We will publish a comprehensive look at the case in the next issue of VeloNews.
VeloNews: You said the other day that you were terminated. Jim Ochowicz has been quoted as saying you resigned. What precisely happened?
Gerard Bisceglia: It was supposed to be my performance reviewand I received no performance review. I just received an ultimatum, toeither resign or be terminated. Because of the conditions of it, I choseto resign, but I wasn’t given any choice. It was clear that no matter what, I was gone.
VN: Was there a reason given?
GB: I requested a reason, but I wasn’t given one.
VN: Would you characterize past reviews as positive?
GB: Yes. We’ve had record performances at USA Cycling for thelast four years. We’ve seen major improvements in membership, in finances,in funding athletic programs, in developing new services for members. Youwould have to work hard to put a negative spin on my performance if youlook at the facts of what has happened at USA Cycling since I got there.
VN: Feel free. Why don’t you paint the picture of how things have changed?
GB: A couple of years before my arrival, USA Cycling had gonethrough some exceptional financial difficulties. They had taken about $2.8million in losses, had to take extraordinary write-downs, our membershipwas slipping dramatically – NORBA had dropped by more than 50 percent andthe USCF was continuing to experience a long-term decline in membership.So membership was dissolving, finances were very short and – again thishappened prior to my arrival – most of the athletic programs had been shutdown.
Upon my arrival, we had a skeleton crew in the coaching department,with Jeff Pierce running the T-Mobile program and Des Dickie was runningthe sprint track program and Danny Van Haute was running a junior programout in California… I think that was about it.
Today, we have a full compliment of people working on the track side,we have Jim Miller working on a women’s endurance program, Matt Cramerhas his mountain-bike program. Steve Johnson has been overseeing all ofthat….I believe from the time I got there, expenses on the athletic programsalone went from $1.4 million and this year we were budgeting close to $3.3million.
And the same time we were increasing support to athletics, we were replenishingthe reserves of the organization. Our reserves had dropped to under $1million and now, on a net-asset basis, we are well over $4 million andon a total asset basis, well above $5 million. The organization is againin the position that it can withstand a catastrophic event.
Membership, when I arrived, was at 41,000 and this year, we’re lookingat around 57,000. We successfully reversed what was a chronic decline.
So look at the summary. Finances are back in order, membership is backup and we’re improving services to members and elite athletes alike. We’refinancially secure and we’re pursuing, with great vigor, athletic excellence.I thought that was the objective of the organization. Those were the objectivesI spoke of countless times and that’s what we all focused upon on a dailybasis.
VN: So, if it’s that good, why were you let go?
GB: While I wasn’t directly told why, I have heard that the justification Jim Ochowicz used with the members of the board he contacted – and it wasn’t all of them – that I supposedly had a problem with my staff and that my staff were very concerned about the security of their positions… basically that I could be a very tough boss. They were also told that I did not have the sort of relationship with the UCI that they desired. They were insisting that our relationship with the UCI needed to be positive and we were having our difficulties with the UCI. Those are the two reasons that I heard,albeit indirectly.
VN: Trouble with the UCI? What is the source of that?
GB: Much of it is rooted in BMX (which is slated to becomean Olympic sport in 2008). The USOC was demanding that we open ourmembership to other organizations and the UCI was demanding that we don’topen up our membership to other organizations and USA Cycling was caughtin the middle.
VN: Open it up beyond the affiliate? The NBL?
GB: Yes, we have an affiliation with the UCI-recognized NationalBicycle League. The other BMX organization, the ABA, had petitioned theUSOC to gain access to USA Cycling. The USOC concurred and asked us tocreate a structure that made it possible for the ABA to become a memberorganization. We were in the process of doing that, but the problem wekept running into was that whatever idea we came up with to make that work,the UCI would reject it, insisting that we deal only with the NBL. We werecaught in the middle.
As a result, my relationship specifically with the UCI was very difficult.I consider it to be understandable. We were in a logjam.
VN: In a situation like that, when you’re at an impasse, maybe it’s actually healthy to make a change in leadership. Maybe it would break the logjam.
GB: I have no idea. It might, but then it’s a chicken andegg question.
VN: Since your termination, have you had any communication withstaff, board members or general membership?
GB: It’s been overwhelming. I’ve gotten tremendous expressionsof support. I think a lot of the members are very concerned about whatthis signifies. Like I said in an interview the other day, I think theone mistake I made was that I paid too much attention to the needs of themembership and not enough to the politics of the board.
VN: How do you see the two being in conflict? In a perfect world,the board is supposed be representative of the membership anyway.
GB: And therein lays the rub. This board does not. Think aboutit. We have a 14-member board. Three of them come from the Foundation,which has no membership at least as pertains to USA Cycling. You have threemembers of the board who are from USPRO and one of those members (Jim Ochowicz)happens to work for the president of the Foundation (Thomas Weisel), sothey’re already joined at the hip. USPRO represents a grand total of 175licensed riders, each of whom is also a member of the USCF.
So you have these two groups who already make up six of the 14 membersof the board of directors and you have one USCF board member (Wayne Stetina)who happens to be a friend and teammate of the guy who was executive directorof the Foundation and is now CEO of USA Cycling (Steve Johnson). So, youdon’t have to do too much to cobble together a majority of “insiders,”– for lack of a better word – on that board.
VN: When USA Cycling was established, that concern was raised by board members at the time. Les Earnest, in particular, was critical of the structure and even sued.
GB: Les Earnest was right!
VN: In what sense?
GB: That a small group of individuals can come in and take overUSA Cycling… and they have.
VN: Why did that happen?
GB: I think Jim Ochowicz and I had a falling out a couple ofyears ago around my raising a concern about a potential conflict of interestregarding his outside business relationships (see “USACycling retroactively absolves Ochowicz in conflict-of-interest case“- Nov. 9, 2004) and ever since that day, he has not worked with me.He has worked against me and, as far as I see it, has been looking forrevenge for what he saw as a slight against him by me. In that situation,by pointing out what I saw was a problem, I was fulfilling my legal, ethicaland fiduciary responsibilities to the organization. He saw it as an attack.
VN: You talk about insiders, but the initial assumption was thatyou were something of an inside hire (see “Bisceglianamed as USA Cycling CEO” – June 25, 2002), given that your relationship with Ochowicz and others extends back to the 7-Eleven days and your time with the Southland corporation.
GB: That’s how I knew the people involved, yes. But, as I said to Mr. Ochowicz, at the time our dispute occurred, “what did you think you were hiring? I came in here to do a job. I didn’t come in here to be anybody’s lapdog. You want a toad, hire a toad.”
VN: Are you saying they have that now?
GB: I think they have what they want now. It’s not hard to makethe connections.
I think they got what they wanted with me, too. I came in, I cleanedup the organization and now that they don’t need me anymore, they say “here’syour hat and what’s your hurry?”
They didn’t even have the grace to say “thank you” for the effort overthe last four years. I think we could have worked something out, but inthe end, it was clear that they wanted to terminate me and Jim, in particular,wanted to disgrace me. I won’t put up with that.
VN: Your relationship with Jim Ochowicz is clearly strained…
GB: That’s an understatement.
VN: …but you appeared to have a good working relationship with Steve Johnson seemed pretty solid, at least from a distance. How would you characterize it?
GB: Steve Johnson worked for me and he did a fine job (as USA Cycling’s Chief Operating Officer). I won’t ever say otherwise. The fact of the matter is, though, that he as a very tight relationship with Thom Weisel, the president of the Foundation. He is the executive director of the Foundation and Mr. Ochowicz, who terminated me, also happens to work for the president of the Foundation. After that, make your own assumptions, but I think they got what they want.
The remainder of our exit interview with Gerard Bisceglia will be posted next week. Look for a complete story on Bisceglia’s departure from USA Cycling in the next issue of VeloNews.