BLG Leadership Insights Features

Local Icon, Proactive Small Business

Entrepreneurship requires a certain degree of fortitude, focus, tenacity, and risk-taking. It requires, in our terms, pragmatic and proactive leadership. It’s not restricted to the stage of multi-national corporations or the platforms of politics. More often than not it takes it truest expression in the world of small business.

In the winter of 1978 Bicycle Habitat opened for business in Manhattan’s SoHo district with less than $5,000 in merchandise. At the time, the neighborhood was rough, local residents were leaving the city, and the NYC administration didn’t like the idea of bicycles on busy roads and bridges.

To say that Charlie McCorkell took a risk with his then business partner, Hal Ruzal, is a bit of an understatement. Charlie called it a “craps shoot.” Between the two of them they shared a passion for bikes, but were lost when it came to the mechanics of running a successful small business.

They were dedicated to preserving New York’s bike culture and organizing grassroots campaigns to protect the rights of bicyclists, but when it came to the basics of business administration, Charlie and his partner had to learn through trial and error and the occasional class.

Today Charlie is the sole owner and manager of Bicycle Habitat’s expanded incarnation. I sat down with him to talk about how he has successfully managed to keep his business together for over 30 years in NYC’s roller-coaster economy.

“Success,” Charlie says, “in a small retail environment is luck meeting preparedness.”

I ask him if “preparedness” could also mean “proactive.”

He thinks so.

While Charlie argues that luck has something to do with success, I have a feeling he’s being slightly modest. Charlie may be occasionally lucky, but he clearly works hard at being prepared and keeping proactive. So how does he do it?

“I read a lot…and I talk to a lot of other dealers and pick their brains. You look for what fits and what fits with you.”

It also has a lot to do with finding opportunities where you might not expect. Like finding the bright side of the recession.

“We were behind the whole ‘spend to save’ movement. If you buy a bike you can save money on transportation and help the economy.” Initiatives such as this one helped keep Charlie and his sales afloat during the rocky part of the economic downturn.

Keeping and staying prepared is also about keying into trends and technology.

“We were one of the first bike stores in the country to computerize.” Charlie says “[I try] to get the best tools in the hands of my people so they don’t have to stand around and wait for information.” It keeps Charlie’s business lean, agile, and ahead of his competitors.

This year Charlie opened up a second storefront a few meters from his current location that sells specialty and high-end bikes. It was a big undertaking, like many of Charlie’s ideas. He tells me, “I’m blessed with the ability to have great big visions.”

The only problem is, he can’t seem to get into the details.

“I try to find and work with people who have that attention to detail that I lack. People I can communicate my vision to who can make it so.”

Charlie supplies the vision, but knows that he has to use others. “I’m not unwilling to listen to people who tell me what to do.” He says, “It’s a lot about trust.”

Charlie knows that he doesn’t have the ability to carry out the nuts-and-bolts of a plan so he defers to people he can trust and adds that he has to be “willing to admit I’ve made a mistake.”

In 1979 Charlie opened up a second bike shop in Chelsea and, as his website reports, it was “Camelot” but by 1992 Charlie had to shut it down. It was the store’s first crisis and the moment Charlie realized that he might be sinking rather than swimming.

With bankruptcy looming, Charlie knew he had to “take control of the situation.”

He started to take another look at how he controlled and communicated with his employees. He knew that he “had to talk and lead them better.”

His first change was to spend more time in middle of the store, right next to his employees. He didn’t want to miss anything and let chances to help his employees slip by. “I try not to be too overbearing,” Charlie says. “If you have good people you let them do the right thing and I encourage people to make mistakes.”

I wondered if he could explain what he means.

“I try never to say, ‘I did that 10 years ago and it didn’t work.’ People who do things and have ownership of processes tend to take care of them and tend to make them work to spite you.”

In order to strengthen his business Charlie became more directive but still allowed for an important degree of autonomy. He wanted his employees to take pride in what they did and wanted them to learn from real-world experience rather than sit-down lessons.

This ethos fits in with the stores bare-bones aesthetic where repairs are done in front of the customers. Charlie doesn’t want to build walls between his trade and the customer nor does he seem keen to build walls between his employees and himself.

It’s a system that works. It keeps employees motivated and minimizes retention woes for Charlie.

That said, Charlie admits that the biggest challenge, the store’s recurring challenge, is finding a strong model to train employees.

Charlie currently relies on a “peer-to-peer” training program for new employees. It has worked in the past, but it’s not a solid system. Charlie has a vision of creating a better training platform for new staff, but again, he’s stuck getting the micro-details lined up.

“I have to turn to someone else to help me set it up,” Charlie concedes. “Hopefully we can get it down by this winter.”

Truly, Charlie is working hard to stay prepared and remain proactive. He has identified a new challenge and a new gap in his business plan and he he is already trying to design a system to work it out.

While Charlie believes that success is part luck and part preparedness, it becomes increasingly clear that luck has less and less to do with Bicycle Habitat’s success. It has had its ups and downs, but it remains a strong local icon due to Charlie’s preparedness. Or should I say, his ability to be proactive.

Picture Credit: J Ferguson