Giant Bicycles: Coming Full Cycle
Checking in with Giant USA GM John “JT” Thompson
Words and interview by Peter Koch
Given its outsized reputation and massive production capacity—the world’s largest manufacturer, it can churn out 6-million-plus bicycles annually—you’d be forgiven for thinking that Giant’s brand name is a little obvious. But company founder King Liu, a Japanese-educated engineer, created the word from three kanji characters: 捷(Jie), 安(An), and 特(Tè), meaning “Fast, Safe, Special.” What he launched in the 1970s as a behind-the-scenes Taiwanese OEM company, manufacturing bikes for the likes of Schwinn (and later Specialized, Trek, Colnago and Scott, among others), is today one of the biggest brands in cycling, known globally for its history of innovation, its “farm-to-table” approach to making and selling bikes, and—among dealers, perhaps—for its retailer-first approach to sales.
Nobody’s shouting that story louder or with more enthusiasm than Giant USA boss John “JT” Thompson. An outspoken advocate for independent bicycle retailers (and frequent, unwavering critic of competitors distributing outside of the IBD channel) since starting there in 2011, he’s worked closely with retail partners to ensure a closed distribution network that provides maximal benefit to IBDs, developed retail training and partnership programs, and molded his staff to be more knowledgeable of the challenges unique to independent bike retail. All the while, Thompson has steadily raised the brand’s profile among North American consumers. We caught up with Thompson last month, and picked his brain about the key takeaways from 2018, what sets Giant apart from its competition, and whether he sees any end in sight to the U.S.-China trade war.
1. Looking back at 2018, what were the big stories coming out of Giant USA?
A huge, ongoing story is our WebLink online sales model, which is focused on selling retail inventory first, and also shares 100% margin with stocking retailers when the rider buys direct from Giant/Liv for in-store pickup.
We also released a complete e-bike line featuring exclusive, game-changing battery and motor technology. Our updated EnergyPak batteries are managed to the individual cell level for a longer lifetime, and are enclosed in a fireproof case for added safety. Giant-exclusive SyncDrive motors are manufactured by Yamaha to boost a rider’s power by up to 360%. The most important asset, though, is the exclusive and proprietary firmware—which can continually be updated and modernized via our RideControl app—created and developed by Giant to optimize performance and make the entire system shine. Giant is the one and only brand making e-bikes for the past two decades.
Our Liv bike product family remained the only pure line of women’s bikes in the industry. Designed and engineered by women for women, these bikes go well beyond the “pink-and-shrink” approach favored by our key competitors. We have an exclusive play focusing on the female body type, including form, fit, and function in regards to women’s unique body characteristics, especially regarding the strength of their upper bodies and hands.
We also had massive new technology launches in the Gravel and Trail 29 categories, and I believe our e-bikes set new benchmarks for the entire industry. And, of course, we continued to raise the bar where retailer support is concerned.
2. What sets Giant apart from its competitors in the “Big 4”?
We are the most integrated cycling company in the world. From our alloy foundry to our exclusive carbon manufacturing, powerhouse engineering, manufacturing expertise, and sourcing competence all the way to our retailers’ front doors, we deliver quality control, unmatched quality, innovation, and the one and only farm-to-table processing in global cycling. We are the most authentic brand.
3. Giant is one of the few brands that owns and controls its entire manufacturing process. What difference does that make for consumers who buy your products?
Not one of our key competitors make! Would you eat the food at a restaurant that did not cook? We execute the most authentic cycling story (life) in this industry.
4. Since starting at Giant in 2011, you’ve been a powerful advocate for retailers, building retail support programs and calling out brands with damaging omnichannel distribution strategies. Why are retailers so important to Giant, and what’s it doing to support them?
Our health as a company has a direct relationship to our retailers’ health. When they are healthy, we have much more robust partners to achieve our vision of more people on bikes—we benefit. Healthy retailers are better able to create a positive store and service experience. If you're not having success or fun, retail is exponentially more difficult to do well.
5. How is Giant building upon Giant Retail Academy and the Giant Retail Partnership Program?
With Giant Retail Academy, we’re developing a new curriculum each year, plus specific subject matter to attract owners, shop managers, salespeople, service technicians, and entry-level retail staff. Here in Newbury Park, we’re blessed with one of the best riding environments in the world, with gorgeous road, gravel and MTB options right outside our office door. What GRA teaches for half of the day is applied during the other half to a top-notch experience on the bike, right in our own backyard. We learn, we connect, and we have big fun. We share our passion for cycling with our retailers, and offer them full transparency here in our home (headquarters). It’s all a part of how we support, and execute, the cycling experience and way of life.
The Giant Retail Partnership Program exhausts every asset, service and support tool at our disposal to help our retailers achieve commercial success. We learn from these inner family retailers about where we need improvement. In the end, it’s simple—we have to constantly raise our performance, and never rest, because the retail environment is changing daily. It all comes down to execution.
6. Does Giant directly own any retail stores? How does that inform and influence the company’s dealings with its retailer network?
We own two stores, which helps keep us relevant, as well as very cognizant of how challenging retail is, and how quickly it changes. We’ve come to understand that retail is a living and evolving environment, and it’s grand experiences with riders that keep them in the family. An owner on the floor is a critical asset. Retail must be loved, nurtured, and managed with immediacy—you simply cannot do that well from afar. I know of no brand that has stores (other than Apple, perhaps) that thrive, despite a remote staff. This is especially important in an industry that’s rooted in delivering an experience. Furthermore, in our opinion, a quality experience cannot be delivered to your door in a box.
7. In 2016, Giant began selling direct to consumers via its website, but told retailers it was “100 percent committed to helping [IBDs] grow [their] retail store’s revenue, profits and business relevance.” Is your direct-to-consumer program more favorable to retailers than most?
We’ve shared thousands of full-margin interactions with our participating WebLink retailers. In a huge way, our retailers are pleased with the program thus far. It’s not perfect, but certainly is the best we’ve seen that’s focused on supporting the retail network. We continue to learn, and have ideas on how we can keep evolving for the retailer and rider.
8. How has the Liv brand set Giant apart in its commitment to growing cycling participation among women?
We believe women deserve a unique and pure product, therein delivering the most rewarding experience. Our investment strategy with Liv is higher as a percentage to the business versus Giant, and worth it!
9. What else is Giant doing to move the needle on women and youth participation?
We have an army of 100-plus Liv ambassadors living the brand story, and pushing it at retail, events, and festivals. As far as youths, we support on a national level Trips for Kids, Sprockids and, through our retail partners, NICA athletes. Locally, we give bikes and equipment to the California Highway Patrol’s annual CHiPs for Kids Toy Drive.
10. Is Giant as heavily involved in/dedicated to building e-bikes as it is in human-powered ones? What’s it doing to advance pro-electric legislation and E-MTB access?
Yes, e-bikes are one of our fastest growing global categories, and we’re very dedicated to them. In fact, we’ve been producing e-bikes since as far back as the 1990s. Regarding legislation, we’re fully vested with PeopleForBikes. We’ve been doing everything possible to support the entire industry to help local and federal government understand that pedal-assist bikes are no more impactful or less healthy than a traditional pedal bike. We are also supporting and promoting education and proper trail etiquette within our local trails.
11. What impact have the Trump admin’s tariffs had on Giant, and the bike industry as a whole?
The current supply channel was created over the past three decades, and one does not change that in short order. You need a village of manufactures and suppliers to create a complete bicycle, and that village was long ago created in Southeast Asia. Ignorance is no excuse for stupidity, and this irrational view and unwillingness to understand the forces at play will certainly create challenges and, in cases, will cause bicycles to be less affordable for many Americans. Frankly, it’s everyone’s loss, as it’ll only lead to more obesity, higher health care costs, less green transport and more dependency on the archaic transportation system we have in place today. These tariffs make bikes—and the entire bike industry, as a whole—far less beneficial to public health, to our environment, and to sustainability efforts.
12. Do you anticipate a near-term resolution to the trade war?
That’s well above my pay grade, but we will continue to monitor and support all cycling industry initiatives that work towards a resolution.
13. What are you most looking forward to in 2019?
We will continue to build and empower our Giant USA team to assist and help our retailers build their businesses to new highs. Retailers have a super hard job, and we will do all we can to help them face the headwinds and punch through. Together, we can build the cycling culture, and create an environment that is clean, healthy and, ultimately, life-changing.