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

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

Source: DNAInfo

John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp.  © Trek Bicycle Corp.

John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp.
© Trek Bicycle Corp.

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 for 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 health. 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.”


Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

As usual the ChainLink crowd can never make up its mind as to what it really believes. It seems to mete out retribution on a selective basis. If you are an African-American woman from the South Side and you mention your preference in clothing styles you can get some very oddly negative feedback from a Lesbian woman who knowing how it feels to be dissed on a regular basis nevertheless decides to engage in the practice by “calling you out” for suggesting a more modest form of dress.

But that does not surprise me, since I did a ride with Julie Hochstadter in which one of the participants decided that despite the fact that the ride was supposed to be a joint Jewish-Muslim Ride (a great idea) he would blurt out that an alehouse we passed was indeed a “house of worship“. That was an embarrassing moment and told me everything I needed to know about Liberals Elites in the City of Chicago.

They live their lives with a chip on their shoulders the size of Manhattan Island and have manifestos that would make Hitler himself proud in its severity and ugliness. This is a group that would not mind pushing all cars into a sink hole and then covering it over, no doubt with the drivers inside.

Just last week I suppose that ViLDa thought trying to “fat shame” me was a clever ploy. The group was silent while this was unfolding. But suddenly they have gotten up the nerve to rebuke John Burke of Trek.

Let’s listen in on their conversation:

Reply by jolondon30 13 hours ago
This is awesome. Good for him!
Chicago needs more of this thinking.

Reply by Duppie 12 hours ago
Ah, yes. Fat shaming. We know how well that works.

Reply by Davis Moore 11 hours ago
What a fat shaming prick. Workplace wellness programs are a fucking joke, and berating your employees about their size because you think it costs you money is even worse.

The amount of physical activity individuals engage in on a daily basis is a better indication of overall health outcomes than BMI. And many people’s issues surround weight, diet and lifestyle are rooted in deeper psychological issues than “common sense” advice like “eat less, Fatty” is really equipped to handle.

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.

Reply by Davis Moore 11 hours ago
Trek bikes are shit anyway.

Reply by ad 11 hours ago
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.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 11 hours ago
Setting an example for colleagues, by eating well and being active, is fine (and has changed some behaviors in my company). But employers have no business interfering in the personal choices of their employees, even when those choices are ‘bad’. Confronting someone about any issue not directly related to their job performance is certainly offensive, and possibly illegal.

I wonder if that means that airline pilots should not be “personally confronted” about their drinking habits should they show up for duty “drunk as skunks“? After all what the guy does in his off hours is his “personal choice” right? I suppose to that “bus drivers” for tour groups can arrive to drive “high on amphetamines” because they hope to make it a “straight through run to the West Coast“? Somehow I get the feeling that Socialists are not always ready to undertake leadership positions in the Real World.

Reply by David Altenburg 10 hours ago
Thanks, John Burke, for helping to keep cycling marginalized as a form of transportation in Chicago.

Reply by Christine (5.0) 10 hours ago
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.

Reply by Chris C 10 hours ago
I think I’ll put on 100 pounds and get a job at Trek because stomping an asshole boss never gets old.

Reply by Nançois 8.5 10 hours ago
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.

Reply by Christine (5.0) 10 hours ago
For anybody interested, here are 7 of the 8 steps that he suggests (the 8th one is making participation mandatory)

Reply by Liz W. Durham 10 hours ago
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.

Reply by Nançois 8.5 10 hours ago
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.”

Is this the only one thus far who actually read through the actual blog post? As usual this group is the epitome of “ready, shot, aim“.

Reply by Christine (5.0) 10 hours ago
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)

Reply by Liz W. Durham 9 hours ago
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.

Reply by Dirke 9 hours ago
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.

Well, the Urban Cycling Community as a whole knows well what “political stunts” are all about. That is their “stock and trade“.

Reply by Davis Moore 9 hours ago
I repeat, workplace wellness programs are bullshit.

The real improvements come from systemic change. I don’t see anything in his “8 Steps” about providing healthier transportation options for employees like coordinated transit. A quick google search shows their factory to be in a rural, non walkable area, with big parking lots full of cars, rather than in an Urban walkable area with good transit. There’s also nothing in his 8 Steps about psychological counseling either.

He’s just schilling that same old line about “personal responsibility” and “Bootstraps” and blah-blah-blah. When more and more the evidence is showing that telling people to “just make better choices” is a losing strategy.

And the first word of his program that he’s so smugly proud of is “Brutal”. He may be a misguided prick, but he’s still just being a fat shaming prick.

And they claim that I “never let go“. One of the most disappointing things about Urban Cyclists is that they are really averse to the notion of personal responsibility. That lies at the core of their not wanting to be registered in the manner of every other vehicle operator on the roadways. But they want all the perks of Protected Bike Lanes (expensive and clumsy) without having to ante up a single dime.

Reply by Liz 9 hours ago
“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.”
This statement really hits me as being fat shaming.
Someone can be obese but have otherwise healthy lifestyle (not smoking, drinking in moderation, exercising, eating nutritionally balanced meals) and be just as “healthy” as anyone else. I’m hoping this metric of their takes that into account when deciding how much more someone has to pay for insurance.
“A One Wellness program. We created a targeted program for high risk employees that includes fitness, nutrition, wellness classes, lab checks, and regular meetings with physicians.”
This program also worries me. Its really not my employers business to tell me that because I’m at “risk” I have to submit to constant screening or face an increase in premiums.
What other “self inflicted” illnesses are next?
I’m all for the fitness center, healthy food options, and smoke free campus, but targeting specific people and placing the emphasis on weight seems very discriminatory to me.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 8 hours ago
The problem is that in the US, we have created a system under which most people get their health insurance as a job benefit. Almost every year insurance premiums go up – substantially. This gives employers a powerful motivation to reduce health care costs, and they think that wellness programs will help them to do this. The other way to reduce premiums is to fire people who are old or ill (not legal, of course, but I’m betting it happens often enough). I know that there are different philosophies about the effectiveness of different wellness approaches, e.g., mandatory screenings vs. encouraging active lifestyles by subsidizing health club memberships, etc. Personally, I really don’t like employers getting mixed up in the private lives of employees in any way, but I don’t see it stopping anytime soon when so much money is at stake.

Well, actually that situation has changed with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act. You no longer have to rely on your employer to provide a cost effective segue into the health care system. Were these folks asleep this past few months?

Reply by Davis Moore 8 hours ago

That’s not the problem. That’s just the problematic way we attempt to “deal” with the problem in a profit driven health care model. The real problem is more environmental than anything else. Like I 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.”
Ask yourself how people are supposed to make healthy choices when the unhealthy choice is often the most convenient and cheapest (because of federal subsidies) and most heavily marketed at them (because of federal subsidies).

Ask yourself how it is that it makes financial sense for the medical community to promote preventative medicine when their reimbursement for a counseling session with a nutritionist is $100.00 and their reimbursement for amputating a leg that has gone gangrenous due to Diabetes related complications is $50,000.00?

Read this series, Bad Blood, from 2006 NYTimes to get a better picture of what is systemically undergirding the obesity related disease crisis and you see that successful preventative care is a loser in our current system.

The highlighted line above tells you everything you need to know about the Neo-Socialists who are active in the Urban Cycling Community. Why would a healthcare system not be “profit-driven“? On what planet is there any possibility of a program being successful if it is not “sustainable“? This is one of the more frustrating things I keep hearing from these folks. They want everything for “free“.

I suppose they might argue soon that Divvy bikes should be free for everyone to use without having to pay. This model did not work in France and it surely would not work here. Money is not an evil thing, nor is your employer wanting you to remain healthy. How that desire can be seen as evidence of his not caring for his workers is baffling? If your spouse told you that you needed to lose weight and to get healthy or to stop smoking or drinking too much is that evidence that they do not love you?

The only folks I have ever heard who truly believe this sort of thing are addicts. They would prefer to have you be a co-dependent than to display any “tough love“.

Reply by Andrew N 8 hours ago
Good point. (And it definitely is in poor taste, at best).
I’ve only owned a single Trek over the years; reading this has pretty much guaranteed that I won’t be buying one new any time soon.

Reply by Jeff Schneider 1 hour ago
These wellness programs give me conflicting feelings. In my personal life, I like to be active. I like to eat wholesome foods in reasonable quantities. I want to live and work in places that make these choices convenient.
OTOH, I really, really do not like having my employer involved in my life beyond my job duties and how well I perform them. But, as I said, given that companies are mostly stuck being health insurance providers, I don’t see this changing. *Sigh*
Many people get very worked up about government interference in their personal lives. Are they as concerned about corporate interference?

I suppose that it never dawned on any of the Urban Cyclists that the very notion of them suggesting that the general population needs to get off its collective rump to ride bikes is view in much the same fashion as they do the words of Mr. John Burke? I keep feeling is if this is all Kabuki Theatre and that none of it is really intended for public consumption. It’s just an inside joke. But sadly it is not.

Reply by ilter 1 hour ago
Isn’t this the guy who screwed Greg LeMond so as to make more money? I have no reason to listen to what he says or expect good intentions.

What! Geez, where do these folks get their medications? Somebody call the Inspector General because a bad batch has reached Chicago.

Reply by Davis Moore 2 hours ago
Good for you and your weight loss. Truly. But a couple of anecdotal examples do not make for good policy. Putting aside the fact that this approach to addressing obesity related disease is insensitive and victim blaming, putting that aside, it doesn’t work, it’s bad policy.

Long form study after long form study have shown that workplace wellness programs etc. that focus on getting individuals to change their behavior, be it exercise more, eat less, smoke less, or all of the above, show no discernible results. They don’t result in lasting overall weight loss, reductions in obesity related diseases or in savings to employers.

Telling people to just go to the gym more and cook only fresh ingredients doesn’t work in an environment in which everything is designed for you to be sedentary and eat like shit. If you want to make an effective change you have to focus on changing environment, and give up this libertarian-American-exceptionalism-style notion that every man has to be their own John Wayne hero and if they can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a change they’re just weak and lazy blah-blah-blah. It doesn’t work.

Here’s some more studies, for anyone who wants to learn about it:

Or, you know:

And this:
“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.”

This is an asshole thing to say. What’s the next “preventable health issue” for John Burke to decide is his employees responsibility and not his? That his insurance shouldn’t cover medical care for an employees child with a condition, because the family knew there was a predisposition for it in their genes. “Hey, I didn’t tell them to have a kid when they knew they were high risk! That hurts my bottom line!” So yeah, I’m going to call him an asshole. Asshole.

Setting aside the “exquisite eloquence” of Davis Moore, let me ask this question. If you were a person listening to most of the propaganda put out by the Cycling Movement and you were middle-aged overweight and out of shape, and you read the Manifesto posted above by the members of this so-called movement, would you feel in any way pressured to change your lifestyle to match their expectations?

I certainly would. And that leads me to wonder why it is not OK for a business person to ramp up their expectations of themselves and their employees to a slightly higher standard. What in fact is the reason for all of the shows like Biggest Loser if not to make you uncomfortable in wallowing in your inactivity?

Perhaps we should be looking at the messages we deliver to others when trying to ramp up progress in building bicycle infrastructure. Our target audience is likely to be the very person that John Burke has hired and whose health is burdening the risk pool in which they have been placed.

Let’s not make this a political argument since obesity and bad health are everyone’s concern. I for instance have a very difficult time understanding how such high-minded folks as wear the Cycling Movement on their sleeves are such ardent supporters of habits that lead to obesity and poor health. I am speaking now of making alcohol the theme for our gatherings.

But beyond the fact that drinking your calories in this manner is not a good thing for your waistline it is an even worse impediment to your making it home in “one piece” if you are trying to pilot a vehicle of ANY sort on streets.