Zane Reinvents The Wheel

Sam Stricker Photo“In the world of bicycles, there are two kinds of people, riders and mechanics. I’m a mechanic.”

Humble words from Chris Zane, who began fixing bikes at age 12. He opened Zane’s Cycles at age 16, and over the past 30 years has built the Branford retail shop into a $15 million-a-year business.  He set the cycling industry on its wheels when he began offering lifetime free service and parts guarantees on all merchandise.

Zane began his career as a mechanic, but gained fame for his ability to fix customer relations. At a time when customer service is nonexistent or outsourced to oblivion, Zane has earned international acclaim for his innovative ideas about catering to customers.

The Branford resident is taking his story to the masses with his recently published book, “Reinventing the Wheel, The Science of Creating Lifetime Customers.”

“It’s fun because the responses I’ve gotten are wonderful,” Zane said of his book as he chatted with the Eagle last week prior to a presentation at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. “But it was incredibly hard writing the book. I edited it a million times.”

“The story started when I was 12 years old and I fixed a guy’s bike,” Zane told the standing-room-only crowd of about 65 people at the bookstore. When Zane’s father told him he needed to put air in the tires, the youngster said he was only getting paid to fix the bike, not pump the tires.

“If you’re going to do the job, you have to do it right and you have to do the whole job,” his father told him. His mother reminded him that good service was the most important aspect of any job. “Take care of your customers,” she admonished.

That advice, and an innate talent for business, was the impetus that inspired the16-year-old Zane to borrow $23,000 from his grandfather in 1981 to buy a bike shop. The teen-ager had been working part-time for Scharf’s Bike and Hobbies on Main Street in Branford when the owner decided to sell.

In 1992, the business moved to the corner of Cedar and North Main streets, and in November 2008, it moved to a specially-designed store at 330 E. Main St, just off of Exit 55.

“People think we’re in the bike business. We’re not,” Zane said. “We’re really in the service business.”

To illustrate his point, Zane held out a jar filled with $100 worth of quarters. “Help yourself,” he told five people in the audience who each took only one coin from the jar.

“At Zane’s Cycles, we provide more service than you believe is reasonable,” he said as he handed each of the five people a hand-full of coins.  “People are reasonable. They’re not out to take advantage of you.” 

He explained that by providing more than customers expect, he can win their allegiance.

“We build a lifetime relationship with customers,” he said. That relationship extends from the youngster who gets his first bike at Zane’s, to the 18-year-old buying a bike for college, to the adult buying the mid-life crisis bike or the retiree looking for some easier wheels.

“A typical Zane’s customer will spend $12,500 over his lifetime,” he said. “I want them to continue to come in.”

Zane later told the Eagle that he first used the quarter analogy when he was speaking at a business conference in Sweden. The presenters were all using props to highlight their talks, and he had none. “I thought since service costs money, I would just give them money.”  So he grabbed a jar and a bunch of quarters to demonstrate his philosophy. “When people find there’s no restriction, they self-regulate. Most people just take two or three quarters.”

Zane is also well-known for how well he treats his employees, calling them the “lifeblood of the company.”

He began his speech by asking three of his managers to stand and be recognized.

“I always talk about my wonderful team,” he said as he introduced Tom Girard, Warren Weaver, and Colin Kagel. They take care of the day-to-day business, enabling Zane to focus on marketing, lecturing and building the company.

He talked about his employees’ passion for bicycles and serving customers. “They don’t go to work to work, they go to work to hang out with what they love,” Zane said. “The only difference between us and our competition is the service we offer. My employees are empowered to do the right thing.”

For example, he explained that it was Girard’s idea to offer trade-ins for kids’ bikes, a program that has been very successful. When a child outgrows a bike that was bought at Zane’s, the parents can return it and receive 100 percent credit toward a new bike. The used bikes are donated to underprivileged kids.

Diana Stricker PhotoZane and his staff concentrate on making the store an appealing location where customers can have a positive experience. There is a play area for children, and a free coffee bar for adults. Employees work with customers to find the type of bike or accessories they need. There is a 90-day price protection guarantee if customers find the same bike at a lower price at another store.

“We want people to have a great feeling about why they’re there.”

“Of course there are mistakes,” Zane told the audience with his characteristic smile. He told a story about how they almost ruined a couple’s Valentine’s Day when a woman paid half the cost of a bike and put it on layaway as a surprise for her husband. She asked if someone could put the bike in the window decorated with a sign and balloons the night before Valentine’s Day so she could bring her husband to see it.

The employee forgot, and when the couple and their co-workers arrived, there was nothing to be seen. The woman was angry and disappointed.

“We messed up,” Zane said. “We basically killed cupid.”

To make amends, the store forgave the balance owed on the bike, treated the couple to dinner, and catered lunch for the co-workers. Everyone was happy.

Zane said what makes the story important, was that three days later the 21-year-old employee who forgot the bike handed over a check for $400 to defray the store’s costs. “He took a week’s pay and he sent a check to me because he felt so passionate about what we do,” Zane said, adding that he still has the un-cashed check and the employee is still at the store 10 years later.

Zane’s secret to success is providing service, expertise and a memorable experience. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way.

In 1986, he opened a store at an area mall and filled it with outdoor gear that neither he nor the staff was familiar with. After 10 weeks, the store closed and he lost $100,000.

“At that point I realized it wasn’t about stuff, it was about taking care of the people who come in,” Zane told the audience.

The business struggled to recoup its losses over the next two years and things looked grim. “I thought, ‘I’m done. I failed.” He decided to hold a going-out-of-business sale, but he didn’t want to call it that, so he dubbed it the “Big Wheel Sale.”

To his surprise, the sale was so successful they were able to pay off creditors and make a small profit.

Diana Stricker PhotoThis past weekend, Zane’s Cycles held its annual “Big Wheel Sale,” which featured thousands of bikes and attracted prospective customers from throughout New England.

New this year was the stack of Zane’s books on the counter. The book, which started as a training manual for employees, evolved into a compilation of stories and advice for people in any business.  “I hope that people can read it and say, ‘I get it. I can make this story mine.’”

The book takes a comprehensive look at business and customer relations, illustrated with Zane’s own experiences. The reader, whether business-oriented or not, will also enjoy some laugh-out-loud anecdotes.

Zane’s marketing techniques have been included in about a dozen college textbooks worldwide, and he is often asked to speak at colleges and business conferences.

Zane told the Eagle that he appreciated the opportunity to speak at the Madison bookstore because his family was able to attend.  He publicly thanked his parents, John and Patricia Zane; his wife Kathleen; and their three sons, Ian, Charlie and Oliver, who range in age from 10 to 14.

He remarked about how supportive his parents were when he asked to go into business while still in high school. “Now, when I look back, I think, ‘Wow, what were they thinking,’” he joked.

Over the years he has amassed an enviable list of awards which include Quinnipiac University’s first entrepreneur-in-residence at its School of Business in 2004; the Better Business Bureau’s Award of Recognition for Customer Service; one of the 30 most influential people in the bike industry; Connecticut “Retailer of the Year” in 2006; and he was featured on the cover of “1to1 Magazine” when he was named 2008 Customer Champion.

Zane also believes in giving back to the community. For example, he established The Zane Foundation in 1989 and annually awards five $1,000 scholarships to high school students. The company also sponsors Little League and basketball teams.

Plans for the future include opening Zane’s Cycles stores nationwide, and expanding their offerings in specialty markets. The store has built highly successful partnerships with various corporations, such as American Express and Marriott, who feature Zane’s bikes in their corporate rewards programs for their valued customers.

Despite all his acclaim, Zane is never far from being the affable boy-next-door with the ready smile who will fix whatever’s broken.

He keeps advice from his father close at heart: “Find the thing you love, do it right and you’ll become an expert.”


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posted by: Morris Cove Mom on April 6, 2011  12:26pm

What a great self-made man story!  We need more people like him.

I especially like the point about the jar of coins.  I may try it at my next Girl Scout meeting, to make a point.