Sitting In with Hill and Laura
Thirty years. It’s a long time to do anything. But it’s much easier if it’s a labor of love. Since 1983, Bicycle Sport Shop has been a part of Austin’s cycling community. And for 28 of those years, Hill Abell and Laura Agnew have owned and operated the shop. Having had the pleasure of working for them for them for the past 6 years, I can tell you that I always see the joy they have for sharing their passion for cycling with everyone that comes in the store, be it an employee or customer. I sat down with Hill and Laura recently and asked them about the shop’s history, their experience, and what the future may hold.
Hill, like many folks living and working in Austin, you’re not a native Austinite. What brought you here?
Hill: I had friends going to UT and I came down from my hometown of Wichita Falls one spring break to visit them. The first day here we inner tubed Barton Creek and then had beers and nachos at the Armadillo beer garden, the second day we hit Barton Springs pool after which we had Jerry Jacobs barbecue, the third day was spent at Lake Travis. Needless to say, the hook was set!
That’s a pretty similar story to my own discovery of and falling in love with Austin—and probably a lot of other folks’. How did you find Bicycle Sport Shop, and what moved you to purchase the store?
Hill: I spent a good part of my college career “studying” at Barton Springs, which frequently took me up and down Barton Springs Road. I noticed a bunch of bikes on the overhang of this building at Barton Springs and Kinney and dropped in one afternoon to see what was going on there.
Bicycle Sport Shop had opened a couple of months before and I met its founders, Cody and Claire Stevens, and checked out their selection of bikes and apparel. It was a cool little beach boutique concept, lots of swimsuits and flip-flops and similar beach oriented stuff, and a good selection of bikes, mostly single-speed cruisers like Cooks Brothers and Kos Kruisers and OM-Flyers. They had a handful of mountain bikes, which I had just become aware of after reading an article about them in a Mariah magazine, which became Outside magazine. When I read that article and saw the ad for the first Specialized Stumpjumper I knew that I had to have one! They didn’t sell Specialized but I was more than happy with the Ross Mt. Whitney with Shimano Deore components that I bought from them. I rode that bike so hard that I ended up replacing every single part on it at least once, including the fork!
In the quest for parts upgrades I was always in the store asking questions and checking out anything new that had come in, and at one point Cody asked me if I wanted to work for him selling bikes on Saturdays. I jumped at the opportunity and loved working the sales floor and talking bikes all day. Not too long after that Cody and I were having a beer after work and he mentioned that he was going to sell the store and asked if I may be interested in buying it. I borrowed some money from my mother and was the owner of a bike shop about two weeks later.
Laura and I have been operating Bicycle Sport Shop for 28 years and feel very blessed to be in Austin and surrounded by so many great people who have helped us build a great business.
Laura, you’re a bike commuter, tandem rider, and mountain biker. To hear Hill tell it, a first cycling date went something along the lines of a Greenbelt ride where he was shredding along and you were less than excited. Tell us the truth, was that first ride with Hill really that bad?
Laura: Yes! He put me on a borrowed mountain bike that was a little too big for me and took me to the Homedale trailhead on Barton Creek, a really steep little drop-in. It was a rough descent and I had banged my shins enough times on the way down to start cussing. But he was so excited to show me his new found passion that I guess the enthusiasm rubbed off on me.
My next ride up the greenbelt was from the start of the trail at Barton Springs Pool. I was riding with a friend, Tim Burton. He told Hill I cussed like a sailor the whole way.
I loved being outdoors though and stuck with it. Hill taught me how to ride—look where you want to go, momentum is your friend, commit—although I never understood how to bunny hop until last year thanks to Lee McCormack’s skills class.
I’ve heard you both talk about the shop as a family. And it’s a big one! It’s not at all surprising to be talking with a customer who says, “I used to work for Hill and Laura when I went to UT.” Who are the current longest serving employees?
Laura: Aside from Hill, who started working at Bicycle Sport Shop in 1984, Marty Muehlegger our General Manager has been here just over 25 years now. Ross Park in the warehouse and Chris Donahue in the buyers’ office both started in 1995. Ryan Amey the Lamar store manager started in 1996. Brett Howard at Lamar started in 1997—he left for a bit, but like many folks came back! Brent Thompson and Scott Linville, both Chris’ colleagues in the buyers’ office as well as the Research store’s manager, Dylan Coates, all started in 1999. It’s amazing to think 1999 was 14 years ago!
When I first came to Austin, I found Bicycle Sport Shop on Toomey Road and loved it. The next year, when I came back it was gone! But just around the corner. How many locations have there been?
Laura: Barton Springs opened in 1983 then in 1988 the second location on Research near Anderson Mill in the Galleria Oaks Shopping Center opened. Marty was hired to open that shop. In 1992 what’s now known as the Lamar Store moved from Barton Springs to Toomey Road between the Zach Scott Theatre and Schlotzky’s Deli. There was also a South Austin location on South Mopac at William Cannon for a while. The second location moved to Braker and Research—now known as the Research store. 2004 saw the Lamar store open in its current location and in 2010 the Parmer store opened for business.
Hill, I love your Facebook profile where your current job is listed as “Chief Initiator” at Bicycle Sport Shop. Sometimes I read that as “Chief Instigator” and sometimes I read it is “Chief Inspiration” because I see you play those parts too—get folks moving by motivation and/or example. What other hats have you worn at the shop over the course of 30 years? What about you Laura?
Hill: My role at Bicycle Sport Shop has evolved greatly over the years. It’s been a natural progression from being a total hands-on owner/operator who was in the store almost every hour that it was open for the first 15 years to being able to come and go at any time due to the great people who are now responsible for the day-to-day operation of the business.
I’m fortunate that Laura is a great numbers person and I never had to handle that aspect of the business, a good thing because we’d probably be long gone if that was the case.
In the early days I did everything else, ordering product, merchandising it, selling and doing all I could to promote Bicycle Sport Shop and mountain biking in general. When we hired Marty to come onboard and open our second store I realized that my role had to grow and that I needed to learn management and leadership skills if Bicycle Sport Shop was going to continue providing great products delivered with the best customer service possible. I had to learn how to cultivate a smart, talented team of people and give them as much responsibility for our success as they could handle, and I’ve been fortunate to attract people who are as passionate about cycling and serving our customers as I am.
I think the biggest challenge for most business owners is developing a compelling vision for the future that everyone working in that business can embrace and work together to make reality. One of the reasons for our success to date is that I’m a huge dreamer and can gin up lots of projects and things for us to pursue, which is balanced by Laura and the management team at Bicycle Sport Shop who are the ones who figure out how to execute my sometimes crazy ideas, and they do an incredible job of that.
Laura: I was the bean counter. I kept the books and set up systems. This was BEFORE computers! Sales in 1986 were $278,949.
I did work the sales floor one summer. My first bike sale was a sexy Fisher Hoo-Koo-e-Koo after I convinced the service department to install a kickstand and cushy saddle. See? We’ve always been about customer service! But, I never understood exactly how derailleurs worked and didn’t care, so the sales floor was not the place for me. I left in 1999 but still have a little cred because a few folks remember when I signed their paychecks.
What have been some of your proudest moments for Bicycle Sport Shop?
Hill: For me it’s every time that I get a letter, email, or personal feedback from someone who is just blown away by the exceptional customer service they received from one of our staff members. I love to share those stories with our store managers and the individual who went above and beyond in exceeding that person’s expectations, there is just nothing more satisfying for me. On the other hand I always really appreciate it when someone tells me how we’ve failed to deliver on our promise of 100% satisfaction guaranteed as that’s the only way that we can learn from our mistakes and do what it takes to make it right for that customer. Many times when we’ve had the opportunity to make it right that customer becomes one of our biggest evangelists, and that is just as satisfying as doing it right the first time.
Laura: I get a little choked up at the annual State of the Store meeting every year. I am so proud of the Bicycle Sport Shop staff! We have an incredible team of talented people. I was also very proud to see Bicycle Sport Shop recognized by the industry as one of the top bike shops in the country.
There have obviously been huge changes in the cycling industry over the last 30 years. Products have evolved, product offerings have come and gone and come back, women’s cycling was born, and whole categories that didn’t exist 30 years ago are now industry backbones. You were at the birth of mountain biking in Austin. Through all of that, what’s been the biggest surprise?
Hill: I love the diversity of cycling genres that have developed in the last ten years and the growth in urban cycling in Austin. While I’ve always been a huge advocate for off-road riding and ensuring that we have great places to ride, in the past few years my sense of priority has shifted to transportation cycling and how the bicycle can be the cure for so many of our society’s current ills. From the health challenges due to a sedentary lifestyle to the transportation gridlock that bedevils us in Austin and many places in the US, by integrating bikes into our everyday lives we can help alleviate many of those problems.
Growth of the city overall aside, how has the cycling community changed in Austin over 30 years?
Laura: You may find this hard to believe but when we started we actually knew all the people in Austin who wore Lycra cycling shorts. There were about five of them!
Hill: There are so many more women riding bikes these days and I think that’s great for the future of cycling. Women are often the key decision makers in a household and are good indicators of the cultural acceptance of an activity.
The cycling community has branched off in so many different directions and that is totally healthy as long as the various cliques don’t start excluding one another. We are still a tiny minority in the greater Austin population and I think it’s critically important that we recognize our common interests as cyclists and don’t let the particular style of cycling that we choose separate us. I know of so many cyclists who started as mountain bikers who then morphed into roadies who then became committed commuters, and as far as I’m concerned anyone on a bicycle is doing themselves and our community some good.
What’s left for Austin’s cycling community to accomplish?
Hill: So much! We still don’t have a strong advocacy organization that speaks for the common good of cycling in Austin. The Austin Cycling Association and Bike Austin, two good organizations that leave plenty to be desired in their comprehensive approach to bicycle advocacy, are currently in merger talks. I think these two organizations bringing their respective strengths together may result in a powerhouse organization that can really move the needle in making Austin the world class cycling city it has the potential to become.
You’re passionate advocates for cycling. How would you all suggest folks get involved in Austin’s cycling advocacy movement?
Hill: If you’re a mountain biker you should consider joining the Austin Ridge Riders, the local IMBA affiliated mountain bike club. They are doing great work in organizing trail work and host regular social rides for all types of cyclists. If you want to see more bike lanes and cycle tracks keep an eye peeled for what becomes of the ACA/Bike Austin merger, and in the meantime check out both of those orgs and see if one of them is a good fit for you.
The other thing you can do is get informed about the new 10-1 City Council districts and how that will impact the way decisions are made on how we spend our transportation dollars in Austin. Some very savvy city politics observers think we have a prime opportunity to influence the future Council if we are well organized and speak with a unified voice, another reason for a strong local advocacy organization.
Hill, I’ve heard you mention that competition is good for business. In the last few years new bike shops have opened, particularly smaller, neighborhood-oriented shops and, sadly, some long-time stores are gone. How is Austin’s cycling retail health? What’s the one thing it takes to make a shop work?
Hill: I think the independent bicycle retailer scene in Austin is relatively healthy and very diverse right now. There are some great shops in Austin and anyone looking for a shop that fits their needs can find one relatively close to their homes. Finding your bike shop is a lot like selecting your favorite outfit of clothing, there is no single one that will ever meet the needs and tastes of everyone.
The one thing that makes a bike shop great is the people working there. Bikes are ubiquitous and there are only small differences between a given model in any given category. What makes the difference is the folks who are there to help you understand how to find the right bike and cycling equipment for your particular needs and will be there to take care of you long after the sale is made.
If you had advice for an aspiring entrepreneur, what would it be?
Hill: Chase your dreams! The wildest ideas provide fodder for the biggest breakthroughs, and life is too short and precious to do something that you don’t have passion for. Either do something that no one else is doing, or do something others may be doing but do it in a completely different way. Work your passion and success will follow.
Laura: It’s critical to build a team of people who compliment your strengths.
You recently sold the shop—sort of. Bicycle Sport Shop as we’ve reported previously, is slated to become an employee-owned company in the coming years. What do you think that transition will be like for you two as it starts to take flight? What will you miss most?
Hill: Laura and I are eager to see how well the ESOP is embraced by the staff of Bicycle Sport Shop and are optimistic that it will provide a greater incentive for them to take ownership of the stores and the customers we serve. Our plan is to stay intimately involved with the management of shop for the next ten years or so, but I also have a goal of the ESOP owning a majority of the business well within that time frame. I don’t know what I’ll miss as its just too soon to have a sense of missing anything when I’m still immersed in the business.
Predict the future. Where is Bicycle Sport Shop in 2043, in another 30 years?
Hill: That’s crazy talk for sure! It’s hard enough looking out 10 years, much less 30. I’m working on a document right now called “Bicycle Sport Shop’s 2020 Vision” that will define where I see us being in just over 6 years, and that’s plenty challenging.
We will continue to grow our business by adding new stores in central Texas and we have a couple of new projects that we think many of our customers will find appealing that we’ll be rolling out later this year. But my sense is that people will still be riding bikes in 30 years because there is not a simpler, healthier, more fun way to get around and enjoy this beautiful world around us.
Crazy talk or not, here’s to another 30 years Bicycle Sport Shop!