Updated 11:44 a.m. to note Gary Ellerman’s years of service at Trek
By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — In attempting to explain her two-year work hiatus in the early to mid-1990s, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has said she was just burned out after an intense period of leading European operations for Trek Bicycle Corp., her family’s Waterloo-based global manufacturer.
In fact, Burke apparently was fired by her own family following steep overseas financial losses and plummeting morale among Burke’s European sales staff, multiple former Trek executives and employees told Wisconsin Reporter.
The sales team threatened to quit if Burke was not removed from her position as director of European Operations, according to Gary Ellerman, who served as Trek’s human resources director for 12 years. His account was confirmed by three other former employees.
“She was not performing. She was (in) so far over her head. She didn’t understand the bike business,” said Ellerman, who started with Trek in 1992, at the tail end of Burke’s first stint as a manager at Trek.
Ellerman said Richard Burke, Mary Burke’s father and founder of the family business, asked Tom Albers, Trek president and chief financial officer at the time, to fly to Amsterdam to evaluate Mary’s performance.
It wasn’t a pretty picture. The European operations were in disarray, Ellerman said.
Full disclosure: Ellerman is chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. As to the possibility that his accounts are politically colored, Ellerman said, “I was there. This is what went down.”
A former employee with the company told Wisconsin Reporter that John Burke, Mary’s brother and current Trek president, had to let his sister go.
The former employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from the Burke family, said Mary Burke was made to return to Wisconsin and apologize to a group of about 35 Trek executives for her treatment of employees and for the plummeting European bottom line.
Managers in Europe used to call Burke “pit bull on crack” or “Attila the Hun,” one source said.
“She never made money in Europe when she was there … Germany was gushing blood and it would take profitability from everywhere else,” the former employee said.
“There is a dark side to Mary that the people at Trek have seen … She can explode on people. She can be the most cruel person you ever met,” said Ellerman, who started a consulting business after he was “asked to leave” Trek in 2004 over a difference in hiring philosophy.
As HR director, he said he heard plenty of complaints about Mary Burke, but he said she was “hands off and everyone knew it. She was absolutely bulletproof. She could do anything she wanted.”
To a point, apparently.
In her campaign against Republican incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, Mary Burke has bragged that European sales climbed to $50 million on her watch. She originally said the increase was closer to $60 million in a 2004 resume to officials in Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the Democrat who in 2005 tapped Burke to be his secretary of the now-defunct state Commerce Department.
Ellerman and the other employees tell Wisconsin Reporter that Burke’s sales boasts are lies, that the European division did significantly lower numbers — at least $10 million lower — during her tenure as director. Most of the sales increases, they said, were in Trek’s United Kingdom market, which was well established before Burke arrived, and in the Japan operations, which Burke had nothing to do with. Any growth in sales was well offset by the losses sustained in Germany and other European countries, according to the former executives.
Trek is a privately held company and does not disclose its sales or earnings figures. Mary Burke, too, has refused to provide documentation of the numbers.
When asked to apologize to staff before her departure from the company in 1993, Mary Burke struggled and stammered through the apology much as she appears to do in a video clip of the gubernatorial candidate trying to define the word “plagiarism,” according to one former Trek employee. The Democrat has been dogged throughout her campaign by revelations she lifted large sections of her policy plans from other sources.
“She had a list of excuses, but the fact is she made fatal errors. She thought she knew everything,” the former employee said.
John Burke, who at the time was vice president of sales and marketing, was forced to “unravel” the mess his sister Mary made of the European operations,” the former Trek employee said.
The former employees’ recollection of Burke would seem to jibe with Burke’s predecessor at the Commerce Department.
“She’s a disaster,” Cory Nettles, secretary of Commerce under Doyle from 2003 to 2005 told one of Doyle’s top aides in a 2006 email, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story published earlier this month.
Nettles told the newspaper he didn’t remember sending the email, which the Journal Sentinel obtained in an open records request.
Regardless, he said he does not feel that way anymore.
The Burke family, publicly at least, has had nothing but smiles and accolades for Mary Burke, praising her business acumen.
John Burke’s book about his father, published in 2012, refers to Mary as “the brains in the family.” In the book, “One Last Great Thing: The Story of a Father and a Son, a Story of a Life and a Legacy,” John applauded his sister’s performance in Europe.
“I hired my sister Mary, the brains of the family, to move to Europe and run the business. Mary and her team opened Austria, Spain, the Benelux, and France the following year. Trek’s business in Europe took off,” John Burke wrote.
That’s revisionist company history, sources insist.
Following her forced apology, they say, Mary Burke left her family company in a huff in 1993, taking off for the snowy mountains of Colorado and Argentina — her “snowboarding sabbatical,” as some of the candidate’s critics have derisively put Burke’s personal work stoppage.
While Burke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month that she wanted to “resolve any inconsistencies” about her time away, the details and the timing remain foggy.
Burke told a Doyle administration official in 2005 that she was burned out from her European Trek stint.
“This had been a very demanding job, and as a result I decided I needed some time off,” Burke wrote, as quoted in the newspaper story. “I joined some Spanish friends of mine and moved to Argentina to snowboard for three months.”
Not true, according one former Trek executive.
“She made the statement that she was burned out. She wasn’t burned out. She was fired. (The firing) was definitely over performance issues and there were major people problems over there,” said the executive who also asked not to be identified because the source believes the extraordinarily wealthy Burke family will “destroy any individual” who brings such information public.
She did some other things during her two-year break from Trek, but full-time employment during that period wasn’t Burke’s scene.
Burke’s resume notes that she returned to Trek in 1995 as director of forecasting and strategic planning.
Not quite true, according to Ellerman and other sources.
“I remember (Richard “Dick” Burke) talked to (John Burke). I was there. Dick said we need to bring her on, so they put her in a marketing role and she worked for the marketing director for a while,” Ellerman said. It didn’t last. “She was creating dissatisfaction in the marketing world so John came to me and asked me, ‘What can I do?’ I said, ‘I can’t touch this.’”
Then, Ellerman said, Burke’s father and brother created the strategic planning role.
Another employee who worked with Burke confirmed Ellerman’s account.
Neither the Burke campaign nor Trek officials returned several calls and emails from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
Ellerman claims that throughout Burke’s tenure with Trek, she showed that she was not a person who could bring people together.
“She is very divisive, very opinionated, but she’s not smart enough to have the right opinion,” Ellerman said. “But she’s a Burke, and she got to do whatever the hell she wanted.”