By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Responding Wednesday to allegations she was fired from her family’s firm in the 1990s, Mary Burke now says she was a victim of downsizing at Trek Bicycle Corp.
“We reorganized and eliminated the position that I had, and I left that organization in charge of two other people who reported directly to the U.S.,” said Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor. Burke is running against incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday’s election.
Burke was responding to claims by multiple former Trek employees who told Wisconsin Reporter that Burke was fired from her family-owned business over poor performance and conduct issues.
She characterized the Wisconsin Reporter article as “ridiculous.”
“Frankly, this is the sort of nonsense, six days before an election, baseless allegations that are deterring frankly from the issues that are really important here,” Burke said on the campaign trail in Green Bay, according to a story from the Wisconsin Radio Network.
That information is not listed on her resume, nor has she alluded to the “elimination” of her position on the campaign trail.
“There was no reorganization,” a former high-ranking Trek executive told Wisconsin Reporter. The executive, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said he stood by all of his statements in Wisconsin Reporter’s story, published late Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Burke told reporters covering her campaign stop that the story was nothing more than a “desperate” attempt to “undermine my credibility based on no evidence at all.”
Multiple sources told Wisconsin Reporter that Burke was fired in 1993. But before she left, her family forced her to return to the Waterloo-based bike maker’s headquarters to apologize to about 35 managers for her treatment of employees and for the company’s plummeting European bottom line.
“She never made money in Europe when she was there …. Germany was gushing blood and it would take profitability from everywhere else,” said another former employee, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Gary Ellerman, who served as Trek’s human resources director from 1992 until 2004, recalled there was a “dark side to Mary that people at Trek have seen.”
“She can explode on people,” he said. “She can be the most cruel person you ever met.”
Mercurial, too, it seems. The sources told Wisconsin Reporter that Burke decided to move Trek’s European headquarters from Frankfurt, Germany, to the Dutch port city of Amsterdam because she didn’t care for the German people, and because Amsterdam better reflected her lifestyle.
Burke’s campaign and her brother, Trek CEO John Burke, who, according to Wisconsin Reporter’s sources, had to fire his sister, released a statement attacking Ellerman.
“His politically motivated characterizations of Mary and her tenure at Trek are inaccurate,” John Burke said in the statement, according to the Wisconsin Radio Network.
Ellerman, as noted in Wisconsin Reporter’s original story, is chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, and ran as a Democrat in the state Senate recall campaign against state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. Ellerman was among several so-called “pretend Democrats” who ran to force primaries and give targeted Republicans more time to campaign.
The company sent its statement to other media but not to Wisconsin Reporter, and has not returned Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comments.
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, Trek founder Richard “Dick” Burke, 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 1993 apology, they say, Mary Burke left her family company “in a huff,” taking off for the snowy mountains of Colorado and Argentina — what some of the candidate’s critics have derisively called Burke’s personal work stoppage her “snowboarding sabbatical.”
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.
In 2005, interviewing for a position at the now-defunct state Commerce Department, Burke told an official in the office of then-Gov. Jim Doyle 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. “I joined some Spanish friends of mine and moved to Argentina to snowboard for three months.”
Not true, according to a 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.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin on Wednesday made a little political hay on Burke’s statement that her job was “eliminated.”
“Mary Burke is outright admitting that she was let go from her father’s company – and it’s becoming clear that employees of Trek hold the same opinion as her predecessor at Commerce: ‘She’s a disaster.’ You’d have to be a disaster to be let go from your family business,” said Joe Fadness, executive director of the state GOP.
Walker leads Burke by 7 percentage points, according to the latest Marquette Law School poll, released Wednesday. It was Marquette’s last poll before the election.