An Interview With NAHBS Director Don Walker

An Interview With NAHBS Director Don Walker

RKP: Where did the vision for NAHBS come from?
DW: NAHBS was talked about for a few years, not as NAHBS though, but as a “get together” to help out the new builders so they wouldn’t fall into the same pitfalls or traps most young builders fall into. I felt like it should be much more than an educational get together, but it needed to help market the builders “on the cheap.” Bringing in the cycling media was the plan all along. Without them, the show wouldn’t have grown with exhibitors and attendees. My entire vision was to bring a spotlight to this niche and help my brethren secure orders, media articles and contacts that they may not have made elsewhere.

RKP: Has it changed?
DW: Not really. I mean, I stepped back a bit within the last few years and let my (now ex-) wife run the registration and I had Robin Rinehart run the onsite operations. Sadly, I feel like not enough of my energy had been directed towards the show like it was three or four years ago. The vision was still there, but the message seemed diluted and not as clear as it once was. With my relationship ending last year, I was at a “peak” of distance from the show. I was not myself and didn’t have my “A-game”, so to speak. The show suffered from my lack of involvement and I realized that this year in Charlotte. The good news is that I am back. A-game and all. And I am working hard at getting that vision back to the forefront of the conversation in regards to NAHBS.
IMG_8257There can be a bit of horse-trading at the show. 

RKP: What is the most rewarding part of the show; what is the least rewarding?
DW: When I wander the hall, on any given day, any year of the show, any location, and people, exhibitors and attendees and media, come up to me and thank me for putting the show on. I must have shaken ten thousand hands since this ride began and it means the world to me that I have created something that brings so many people joy or happiness. You know, thinking about it, it dang near brings tears to my eyes. Also, during the Sacramento show my sister had brought my elderly mother down to the show in her wheelchair and was pushing mom around and they came by my booth. My sister explained to my mom that I had created the show and my mom looked so shocked at first. That look soon turned to one of pride. She was thrilled that I had an event that made so many people happy.

The least rewarding part is that I have unfortunately lost friends and allies. I’ve always had my exhibitors best interests in mind with every decision I make in regards to the show and many people don’t understand that. Their vision for the show differs from mine. I’ve seen all kinds of folks try to change the show, not follow their exhibitor contracts by throwing parties which is against the contract because its very divisive and I want all exhibitors to included.  It’s resulted in me getting a bad reputation for overreacting because they are forcing their own vision into what I like to term as the “framebuilders family reunion” weekend. So yeah, losing friends and allies does suck.

RKP: What is the most challenging?
DW: Honestly, there are several challenges I face. One is the fact that I don’t have an MBA or some sort of business background. All the decisions I make I do with my gut and with discussion amongst some longtime NAHBS exhibitors. I think most folks forget that I am just a blue collar guy who builds frames. Also, I have a bit of social anxiety, which is never helpful. That second year of doing the awards in San Jose was really tough. I dang near wet my pants on stage with all the stuttering and stammering I did (laughs). Beyond that, so many of the exhibitors all want the show in their own backyard. It’s tough to tell them, “Hey, we’re going to blank city” and have them say, “Why? My city would be much better.” I think it goes back to everyone wants it to be easier on them year after year. I sometimes have to remind them that I have had to drive more than 3 hours, or fly, to every show but one thus far. Louisville will be only the second time I’ve been so close to the location.

IMG_2906The big man himself. 
RKP: There’s been some criticism of your selection of some of the show sites. Why/how did you come to choose Louisville?
DW: There always is. Every year exhibitors are up in arms unless its a “4 star cycling city” like Portland or Boston or New York City.  Tier 1 cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago or San Francisco are all much more expensive than Portland, which is a smaller city. The convention centers are all far more pricey and and I don’t know of one exhibitor that wants to spend $299 a night for a hotel for 3 or 4 nights. The smaller cities are much more affordable and we don’t usually have to worry about paying someone to carry our boxes to our booths, or really high drayage rates, etc. It’s not always the booth cost that is the major expense for the small businesses and framebuilders that exhibit. It’s usually all the ancillary costs and I do my best to keep those to an absolute minimum, and that is always much easier in smaller cities.
Many of the cities we visit are within a few hours drive of some pretty major cities, and as we have found out fairly early on, NAHBS will attract from up to a 5 hour drive from most locations. Some of the more hardcore fans will fly cross country and even internationally, so its not always about the specific city that we visit, but the show is drawing from surrounding areas.
Also, NAHBS has always gone to locations with either an established cycling culture, or an emerging one. Case in point; the vast majority of the exhibitors didn’t want to leave the West Coast and go to Indianapolis because they were unaware of any cycling culture in the Midwest. In fact, I received a letter signed by 15 framebuilders from California saying essentially that I “don’t know what I’m doing” and that the show would fail. Ultimately, the few that did go to Indy were surprised at how well that show went. To some, it remains the high water mark for NAHBS because of the energy there.
Choosing Louisville was actually an easy decision. We hadn’t been to the Midwest since Indy in 2009, and before people get all bent out of shape about Kentucky being in “the South,” let me say that if the Ohio river didn’t exist, Louisville would touch Indiana and there’s really not much more Midwest than Indiana … but I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, why Louisville?  Louisville hosted the UCI Cyclocross World Championships last year, at our own dedicated cyclocross park. By all accounts of folks that came in for it, they loved our city. They loved our top notch independent food and restaurant scene. They loved the nightlife options around town. Some of them even left some of their guts here because they loved our bourbon a bit too much, hahaha! When I ask folks who came to town for worlds, they usually all say something to the effect of “I had no idea Louisville was such a cool town!”
Those of us who live here already know how cool it is, which is why we live here in the first place.  Louisville has one of the oldest active cycling clubs in the nation dating back to the 1890s (Louisville Bicycle Club) and it has over 1500 members! Mayor Greg Fisher has been busting his butt putting in bicycle lanes in town to make the city more cycling friendly. We have the world’s first underground cycling park in the Mega Cavern. Louisville has several parks around the perimeter of the city which are in the process of being linked by bike trails and greenways and when its finished, there will be around 100 miles of trails to ride around the entire city. Louisville also has been host to USA Cycling Masters National Championships, and the Louisville Ironman. The list of reasons why could go on and on, but I think you get my point. I know some folks are complaining that its “too close to last year’s venue” and while I understand their issue with that, again, the show hasn’t been to the Midwest in five plus years. I think it’s time it comes back around for the Midwesterners.
IMG_2889Richard Sachs, an early supporter, has chosen to visit other events lately.
RKP: There’s been some exhibitor erosion. What needs to happen to make NAHBS grow?
DW: Patrick, I’ve made mistakes.  I gave an exhibitor “pep talk” in Austin because a company or two had operated outside the scope of their exhibitor contract. I got emotional and my talk strayed from the point I was trying to make. The plain and simple fact is, my talk turned people off. One or two exhibitors had me so upset because they deceived us. This is that part where I regret not having an MBA and dealing with stressful business situations in a much better light.  It goes back to my vision for the show. Some of the exhibitors were trying to make the show way more commercial, way more like Interbike, and that was never my intention to have it go that route.
So, to this point, some of the builders weren’t happy with more and more larger commercial entities and their corporate marketing being added to the mix. Some have closed their doors. Others have had  the realization that NAHBS takes too much time for them to prepare for and time out of the shop from being productive, that they can’t afford the time away from the bench.  In other words, the show has helped their business to the point where they feel that they no longer need it, so-to-speak.
How does NAHBS grow?  That’s the million dollar question. I am suffering from what is known as “founders dilemma.” I just recently heard the term, but it means I started a business that has loads of energy and potential to be a household name, but I only have a skill-set to take it as far as it is now. I need someone who has the ability to take it to the “next level” to step in and partner with us to provide a better return on investment for the exhibitors. In addition to this, I have to provide a return to the builders that far exceeds the value of the lost time at their bench. Another question becomes, are the builders only interested in seeing packed aisles, or more qualified customers but in fewer numbers? At this point, I am open to suggestion….
RKP: You’ve floated the idea of allowing builders who can’t afford to attend the option of sending a frame or two to enter in the awards. Where does that stand?
DW: Currently, it’s seriously a work in progress. I need to find a team of reliable folks from the area that could receive, unpack, inspect, transport, set up, transport, inspect re-pack and ship all of these bikes. We’re talking about a lot of time invested and its a load of responsibility in case one bike gets damaged in any way. Do I want it to happen? Without a doubt.

RKP: Let’s be honest, there’s been some criticism of your leadership. Why don’t you talk about the changes you’ve made to benefit the show?
DW: There’s always been that. When you have something as big as NAHBS, people are always critical of what I do. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. I’m not perfect, nor have I ever proclaimed to be. But I do absolutely want to do what is best and right for all of the exhibitors, but as the saying goes; you can’t please everyone.
As I mentioned earlier, I did step back and let my wife run most of NAHBS with me really only making executive decisions. I really regret that since I have felt a distance from the framebuilders. I’ve come to the conclusion that if NAHBS is to thrive, its thriving depends solely on the strength of what it delivers to its exhibitors.  It really falls on my shoulders to deliver a top-shelf product to the exhibitors. I have spoken to many of them (exhibitors) about how Charlotte went and/or how the show was for them, and I received loads of feedback. Some good, some, well, not so much. In order to make NAHBS a much stronger, energetic show and better for the exhibitors, I had to start by making changes in myself.
I decided between Christmas and New Year of last year that I wanted to take a year off of alcohol. I quit cold turkey. While It was tough at first, the more time goes by, the better I feel. The more time I have invested into it, the more I don’t want to drink at all past this year. Its like a fog has lifted, and all of my decisions are more clear and concise. I seem to be much more focused and my energy is returning daily. I don’t want to make it sound like I was a fall down drunk or anything, but I did like to have a “good time” on occasion. Anyhow, as the fog lifted this year, I realized that I had done some really stupid things while I was having a “good time.” I’ve pissed off people. I’ve alienated some close friends. I’ve lost some very close allies. In the end, I realized that while our time on planet earth is somewhat short, its those relationships that make our time here special. I can only hope to earn back the trust, faith and those relationships from those I’ve offended or upset.
I’ve gone back to church as well. I’ve been blessed here on earth with some great opportunities, but I never really felt like I lived up to my full potential because I didn’t take life as seriously as I should have. I am much more conscious and introspective now than at any other point in my life and much of that is because of my faith. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “in your face bible thumper” trying to convert you, but if you want to talk about Jesus, I’m good with that. I think in many ways, the breakup of my marriage was the turning point of my life getting better, as odd as that may sound. It forced me to really look at myself and help me understand who I am and make me focus on myself. When I am more focused and positive, NAHBS is more positive and on target. While I am not where I want to be in the grand scheme of consciousness or enlightenment, I am sure I’m on the right path and that can only mean good things for NAHBS.
IMG_2890David Wages, of Ellis, has been a stalwart since hanging out his own shingle. 
RKP: Would you sell the show? 
DW: Would I?  Yes, but allow me to explain; I’ve had three offers to buy the show from me. Two from the same person and at this point, I almost regret not selling to him because he could, and would, do a better job than I. I’ve always maintained that I wasn’t the right guy for the job, but someone had to get the ball rolling. Anyhow, I’ve had people come up to me the last couple years and ask if I was selling out to Interbike. I guess I should explain the reason for their question.
At the Denver show, Pat Hus came by my booth and we were chatting and he asked “have you ever thought about selling NAHBS?” Well, the smartass in me couldn’t be contained; without really thinking about it, I said “Why, do you have your checkbook?”  When he replied that yes, he did indeed have it, I realized that this was not a joking situation. It got very serious very quickly and I could only muster a “I’m thinking of a number between…” and he said well, we will be back in contact, but if my old and feeble memory serves, that was really the end of the conversation. I was more panicking at that point because if I did indeed sell to Interbike, all of the relationships I have with my brother builders would be in jeopardy in my mind as they turn against me for being a “sell out.” Furthermore, if I did sell, it would absolutely have to be to someone I trusted implicitly with the direction and management of the show. Do I think its worth a million bucks? Sure, but I also think my sense of sweat equity might be a bit overinflated.

RKP: What’s next for NAHBS, after Louisville, in the bigger picture? 
DW: Finding that perfect balance of exhibitor to media ratio. Finding a way to get the absent builders excited to come back. Hopefully, keep this industry in the spotlight and thriving and successful. Find that next level of inner peace for myself, knowing and accepting that I can be loved and hated at the same time.  Its tough to always be in some peoples’ crosshairs.


RKP: Where do you hope NAHBS will be in another 10 years?

DW: Continuing to do all it can to help keep builders busy and profitable, hopefully even more than I did for the first 11. I want whoever is running it to continue to raise the bar for framebuilding worldwide. And regardless of where it is located that year, the Good Lord willing, I’ll have a booth and be shaking hands.
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17 comments

  1. Pat O'Brien

    We are thinking of attending next year since we have family close by. I am interested to see what others who have attended in the past say in their comments.

  2. Aar

    Patrick: Thank you very much for this very insightful interview. If Mr Walker backs up these words with actions over the long term, I expect NABS’ future will be very bright. That is a good thing. I’ve been to two and look forward to more.

  3. Tom in Albany

    Tell Don Walker that when he comes back to the east coast, I recommend Albany or Syracuse, NY, Springfield, MA or Hartford, CT. Close enough to Boston/NYC/Montreal and still in small cities – and, conveniently, pretty close to me!!

    1. Doug in Syracuse

      Backing Syracuse! Within a 5-hour drive of (going clockwise) Ottawa, Montreal, Boston, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Toronto, 6 hours from Pittsburgh. Nice convention center, cheap hotels, great food, awesome local bike shops, fantastic road riding (head south), and even a custom frame builder or two 😉

  4. Don

    Thanks for the comments, y’all.
    Tom, the biggest nut to crack in the Northeast/New England is available dates. Providence is right in the middle of some dense population areas with super easy access via rail, but the CC was booked for years in advance for our time of year. I’m still looking into other venues in the region, but availability seems to be the main issue followed closely by cost.

    Thanks again!

    Don Walker

    1. Tom in Albany

      February, right? That rules out the ski resorts in Burilngton and Rutland. What about Saratoga Springs? I’ll leave you alone now. Good luck!

  5. Phillip

    Go! Go! Go! I have been to the Richmond, VA and Charlotte show and enjoyed both very much. Lots of beautiful bikes, people are great, many wonderful parts and accessories, etc. Take a camera, talk to as many people as you can. It’s a great time! I’m hoping for a Knoxville, TN or Charlottesville, VA venue…(I’m in southwest VA.)

  6. Greg White

    Patrick and Don,

    A Good read! Thank you both for the insight. NAHBS is a great event which I hope continues for many years to come. I look forward to being at the 2015 NAHBS exhibiting. Oh, and racing…YES?! I wouldn’t miss it for anything!

    Cheers,
    Greg White
    Magic Cycle Werks

  7. kurti_sc

    How about some names for the faces. Recognition is a big part of NAHBS. I think I recognize the guy in the Hawaiian shirt as a builder from VA, or? and yes, David Wages, and you got his name.
    thanks!

  8. Greg White

    Don,

    I forgot to add to my earlier comment. As a thought, Perhaps the west coast in SoCal? Anaheim or Long Beach have convention centers which I hear are fairly reasonable. We have a cycling community in SoCal which is HUGE! Attendance would be very good I am sure. Just food for thought.

    cheers,
    Greg White
    Magic Cycle Werks

  9. sean

    @Kurti_sc

    That top photo is Brad Bingham (Eriksen), Butch Boucher (Moots), Titanium King Jim Kish (Kish), I don’t know the fella peering over from the back, Bruce Gordon (not from VA) and someone else I don’t know.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      From Part VIII of my NAHBS coverage this year: Left to right: Erksen’s award-winning welder, Brad Bingham, Moots co-founder Butch Boucher, ti builder Jim Kish, carbon master Mike Lopez, paint meister Joe Bell, and veteran builder Bill Holland.

  10. Carl Strong

    I just wanted to chime in and thank you for this interview Patrick. I consider DW a friend and am excited to see him emerge from tough personal challenges with a positive attitude and renewed energy and enthusiasm. While the show may have had some bumps along the way, what business doesn’t. The thing to remember is what the show has brought to the framebuilding and cycling communities. NAHBS changed everything and we’re all better for it. I’m sure DW will do everything he needs to to make sure NAHBS continues to be the standard bearer for craft bike shows.

  11. Richard D

    What was the point of this? If the show this year was good; thank you and talk about next year. If it wasn’t, then talk about next year.

  12. Brian

    Going to NAHBS in Sacramento a few years back was the peak of cycling for me and the highlight in an otherwise grey year. I went into an overstimulation mode where I couldn’t look at another tube, lug, or customized lighting system. I regret seeing Peacock Groove last because I was so tuckered out, but started to follow them online.

  13. Walt S

    It took a lot of guts for Don Walker to talk about his personal demons and the nemesis he has faced. I commend him for being straightforward, taking responsibility for some things that didn’t go so well, and vow to keep trying to improve NAHBS.

    I respect him for his personal courage to publicly talk so openly about himself. To those who he may have lost along the way, I hope you can give Don Walker the second chance he deserves.

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