Bike Industry Vet Believes in E-bikes
Larry Pizzi is the president of Currie Technologies, the company founded by Dr. Malcolm Currie, which has been pushing electric bike technology for over a decade and is currently an industry leader in the marketing and development of pedal-assist bicycles. Pizzi tells us why he sees a future for e-bikes in America. From the days of hanging on every pedal stroke of the European riders, ogling high-end Campagnolo parts and putting his Atala Super Corsa through its weekend paces, Larry has moved through some of the biggest company names in the bike industry.
By all accounts Larry Pizzi is a lifer in the bike industry. Growing up as a teenager in Pennsylvania, he was only 14 when he took his first job at a bike shop in Elkins Park. By the time he was 18, he had moved on to the Common Wheel bike shop and was smitten early on with notions of being a bike racer. “You know what it was like back then? It was the ’70s and bicycles were pretty popular, and for me, it was an easy decision—I wanted to be a bike racer.”
THROUGH THE AGES
EBA: Larry, can you tell us about your background in the bike industry?
Larry: Well, after those days of working in a handful of different bike shops, I decided to open my own store, Bike Tech, which eventually became a few shops. They grew to be pretty big in the Philly area, but in 1992, I sold them and went to work for West Coast Cycles as an outside sales rep for brands like Haro, Nishiki and Raleigh. After a few years there, I moved over to Service Cycle as the East Coast sales manager. Mongoose was sold to Brunswick in 1998, and I became the director of sales there. Those were the years when the bike industry went through a lot of consolidation among the big companies, so after a few years, I decided to leave the industry and went to work for Fog Dog Sports. In 2002, I wanted to get back in the bike industry, and I had a few opportunities. One part of the deal was that by this time I had settled in Southern California, and after having moved my family four times already, they didn’t want to move again, so finding a job in the area was important.
EBA: This was when you heard of an opening at Currie Technologies, but you already had some previous experience with Dr. Currie, hadn’t you?
Larry: Yeah, that’s the funny part of all this. Back in 1998, when I was at Mongoose, I received a phone call from this really articulate-sounding gentleman who told me that he had an electric bike he thought we might be interested in. I told him that if he was ever in the area that I’d be happy to meet him. Well, he was on a road trip, so the next thing I knew, I was standing in a snowy parking lot in Illinois giving his bike a test ride. Let me tell you, the bike was a kludge of a bike. The thing was a tank and only had a throttle. They may have known about batteries and such, but they didn’t know anything about bike setup. In my mind, I kept asking myself, “Why would they want to screw up what is already the most efficient means of transportation known to man?!” So I rode it and it was impressive, but I knew it wasn’t a match for Mongoose. I told Dr. Currie that I could hook him up with Schwinn, and eventually they did spec the technology and sold a few thousand bikes. Dr. Currie was thrilled with the numbers, but for Schwinn, that amount of sales wasn’t even a blip on the radar, so they discontinued it.
EBA: But, apparently, Dr. Currie wasn’t dissuaded by that experience.
Larry: Not at all, so in 1999 he formed his own bike company. The two things that altered the future for Currie was the arrival of the Razor scooter and Dr. Currie’s partner, Richard Mayer. The Razor had become an overnight sensation, but Richard had the idea of designing a battery-operated version with bigger wheels. That thing was a big success, and it was what really provided the funding for the bike development to continue.
The problem is that the bike shops back then just weren’t interested in the concept. Currie had better luck selling the bike to the big-box stores like Sam’s Club.
EBA: So when you came on, were you really a convert?
Larry: No. I have to admit that I saw the position as more of a bridge to get me through until another bike industry job came along. I didn’t know anything about electric bikes, but at the time Richard was running the business, and, I mean, he was a former high school shop teacher with no business acumen—that was the expertise that I brought. One of the first things I did was take our electric scooter that sold for $499 and took it to Asia where I was able to find new vendors, and then we were able to get one to the market for $199. We did great with that product, but in 2004 Razor countered with a $99 version, and not only could we not compete with that, but I wasn’t interested in competing in a race to the bottom. We realized then that to go further we would need a new strategy.
EBA: Which was led back to bicycles?
Larry: Yes, that was when we developed the Izip bike with five models that were all powered by Currie Technologies. They were pedal-assist only, and they looked like bicycles, which was the one thing I had been adamant about. The one thing we had heard from all of our customers was that the bike had to have a throttle to be successful. Wait, I take that back; the dealers wanted throttles on the bikes, but one key expectation they had from us was ensuring quality product and service. They wanted the bikes to be reliable, but they wanted to know that we could be reliable as well. Those became our two key competencies, and they are what we needed to ensure our own success.
Of course, the one thing outside our control, which really helped fuel the popularity of electric bikes, was when the gas prices started to skyrocket in 2008. People became desperate for anything they could get their hands on that would provide some alternative transportation to their cars. We opened a bunch of new dealers and sold every stick of product we had then.
EBA: And with that success, someone came calling?
Larry: In 2012 we were acquired by the Accell Group [distributors of Raleigh, Redline and Diamondback]. Suddenly, we had new buying power and could utilize the vendor relationships they had with the bike brands already found under their banner. As a strategy, we knew that the experience of riding an electric bike is what made the difference for the consumer, so we created a demo program with five vans filled with bikes that made up a rolling road show. Also, I’d have to say that in the last three years there has been so much development in new software that the riding experience has really become seamless.
EBA: Tell you what, let’s play a game where I say a word and you give me your definition of it. “Bosch.”
Larry: Campagnolo Super Record—the best. Let me see if I can put this in perspective; as a company, Bosch is bigger than the entire bike industry combined. They are a professional company with a ton of resources. The thing to know about Bosch is that they aren’t involved in the electric bike business because they like bicycles. They’re looking at solutions for the future of global mobility and what the modes of transportation will be—not in five years but in the coming 50 years. And, I bet they’re pretty sure that the mode of transportation in 2068 won’t be a gas-powered car. The result of all that is that they can put 50 engineers to work developing new ideas; no one in the bike industry can do that.
Bosch is really concentrated on providing top-of-the-pyramid expectations for e-bike consumers. And, I think we’ve caused them to rethink their expansion plans. A couple of years ago they didn’t think America was ready, but I’m pretty sure they’ve altered that opinion.
Larry: Coming soon. We know America is not the same as the Netherlands, where the electric bike sales have exploded, but I really feel like we are on the verge of a tipping point. At the recent Interbike trade show, we were slammed with interested dealers. They are the ones who are saying, “I can’t afford to miss this any longer.” A few years ago they would be rolling their eyes, but now they recognize how much the product has evolved, and they see the diversity of potential customers. It’s not just bike geeks like us. The ideal customer could be young or old; an urban or suburban dweller with totally different needs in regards to traffic, income and personal physicality.
EBA: So, where do you stand on electric bikes these days?
Larry: Oh, I’m sold. I mean look, back when I was a kid, cycling changed my life. All my friends were smoking and I raced my bike. And when I owned my bike shop, my greatest sense of joy didn’t come from dealing with my racer friends; it was in bringing something new to a customer who was coming to cycling for the first time. I don’t care what perspective you’re using, if electric bikes are getting people outdoors and on two wheels, well, that’s a good thing. And, it’s something that anyone who considers themselves to be a cyclist should be celebrating. I don’t know when or where it clicked for me, but for the last decade I’ve been excited about building a new type of bike that I wouldn’t mind being seen riding. I still like riding regular pedal bikes, but electric bikes have brought about a new experience that I’m happy to say has changed my life for the better.