( IRENE CHEN)
Bonnie Tu, chief financial officer of Giant, believes that more women will buy bicycles designed by women
Did you have a chance to see them?” Bonnie Tu asks as she sweeps into the room and gestures towards a display of seven bikes of various shapes and sizes. “All designed by women for women: that’s what is going to change the way the world thinks about bicycles.”
By and large, the world thinks of bikes as an exercise in machismo on wheels, from muddy mountain bikers to lycra-clad road cyclists or commuters taking their chances with the lorries and taxis that seem to claim ownership of the roads. Ms Tu has other ideas.
She settles down, and prepares to explain how increasing numbers of women cyclists — particularly in Asia — are going to change the shape of urban commuting and restore the bicycle to its natural role as the mass transport of city dwellers everywhere.
Then she remembers to introduce herself: first by her technical title of chief financial officer of Giant Manufacturing, the world’s biggest bicycle maker; and then by her clearly preferred alias, “the godmother of bicycles”.
For too long, she says, women have been an afterthought in the maledominated worlds of both bicycle design and use. It is, in her view, a vicious circle: women are not attracted to bicycles in their traditional, male-designed form, so they buy fewer of them and bicycle makers respond by channelling fewer resources into the supposedly sluggish end of the market.
“To get more women on the road, we have to get them to think of these things as accessories,” she says. “Natural, everyday accessories, like handbags. All major brands claim they design specifically for women, but it’s not true. It means something when I say I’m the godmother — nobody should doubt that our women’s bikes are designed for women by women. I tell my girls: ‘Only design things that you yourself would definitely want to buy. If you make something and look at it and don’t feel any urgency about buying it, don’t release it.’ ”
Ms Tu describes an array of fundamental changes that Giant is making to the shape of the frame, the seat and the relative positioning of the handlebars in an attempt to make bikes more female-friendly. Much of her designers’ attention has been plunged into making bikes with Asian — rather than Caucasian — body shapes in mind.
“The ones for shopping have also got a very stylish detachable basket. The car industry has slowly realised that women drivers are interested in more than horsepower, and the bike world has to accept the same thing.”
The “girls” do not leave anything to chance: every Friday, they bring a new design to their boss and demand that she test-ride it over the weekend. Ms Tu herself has twice ridden the punishing 1,000km circuit of Taiwan island. She turns to her assistant, reminding her that she has done the run only once. “It’s not a company rule to do it,” Ms Tu hastens to add, “just company culture.” That culture includes annual global management meetings at the top of steep mountains and an insistence that participants arrive on the company’s latest products.
Asked whether cyclists should, along with other users of the road, be required to hold licences, she changes the subject quickly, cracking a joke about Sturmey-Archer — the venerable Nottingham gear-maker bought by a Taiwanese firm nine years ago.
Ms Tu’s push to create a worldwide green army of women cyclists does not stop with bicycle design. Fast-swelling megacities in China and elsewhere, she says, are creating a generation of girls who do not know how to ride a bike: lessons should be compulsory in schools, she argues, as they have become, effectively, in Taiwan itself.
Nor is she in any hurry to make any moves at the expense of her core business — high-performance bicycles used by road-racers, off-roaders and everyone in between. “We are the biggest, but that has never been the ambition: we want to be known as the only one making certain innovations,” Ms Tu says.
“We were mass-producing carbonfibre bikes 13 years before they first appeared in the Tour de France [in 2000]. Inevitably, carbon fibre will become standard. The bicycle is actually ahead of the car industry in material science.”
She breaks off into a discussion of other technical changes in store for the bicycle, describing “a lot of very interesting things lying around in our R&D department”. The derailleur gear system, she says, may not be standard in the future.
Much of the impetus behind Taiwan’s love affair with the bicycle arises from the high-profile passion of Giant’s chairman, King Liu, 75. His publicity antics, which include cycling from Beijing to Shanghai, are as much about promoting the concept of the bicycle as the Giant brand.
Cycling, ultimately, is what matters most — more than a third of Giant’s annual revenue of 41 billion new Taiwan dollars (£774 million) last year came from building bikes for well-known American brand names, such as Trek and Scott.
But Ms Tu wields a clear strategic force on the board. She was at the table for the famous lunch in 1972 when Mr Liu declared to a group of friends and family — seemingly out of nowhere — that there was money to be made in bicycles. Ms Tu was a founder investor and, in 1994, responsible for bringing the company to market.
“We went into bicycles to make money,” she says. “Over the years, particularly as the world has woken up to environmental issues, we have seen that the bicycle is about so much more.”
In many ways, perhaps, there has never been a better time to be a manufacturer of bicycles. Beyond the windows of Ms Tu’s boardroom, for example, the colossal sails of wind turbines turn silently on the hills outside Taichung, part of a Taiwanese tilt at clean energy. They, in turn, could be a symbol of the kind of big, viable green initiatives that governments worldwide are striving for. Yet, with the Copenhagen summit on climate change only hours away, this may be the time of the humble, easy to use, easy to store, ever-so-eco-friendly bike.
As Ms Tu sees the world, bicycle markets progress in distinct evolutionary phases and different countries are at different stages. Government and corporate subsidies for bikes, and a more general sense of environmental concern, may now accelerate many of these.
In the first phase, when countries are developing, the bicycle is the stalwart workhorse of the masses. Later, when nations grow richer and cars supposedly confer more status, bikes become sporting goods. In the new, evolutionary phase — of the sort now emerging in places such as Britain and the Netherlands — the bike re-emerges as a commuter vehicle.
“At this point we are seeing a true evolution in Europe — the whole process is a step ahead there.
“In Asia, we are still at phase two. In China, the bicycle has to regain its status. It is so important. We have to break the view that status only comes from cars.
“What I want to do is to get the elite to start riding on high-end bicycles. Over the years, the idea will trickle back down to ordinary people that the bicycle is the best form of transport.”
And yet, despite these enticing prospects for the bicycle, and a seemingly foolproof business model for Giant, which is the leader in most markets, investors remain sceptical.
Since 1963, recessions in the United States have always been followed by an average 17 per cent jump in bicycle sales in the following year. Analysts, meanwhile, anticipate a far more modest gain of somewhere between 2 per cent and 5 per cent in 2010.
Two things, she says, may cause those forecasts to look conservative, especially in the longer term. The first is the emergence of the “e-bike” — a lithium battery-assisted bicycle that is steadily winning converts in countries such as Japan with burgeoning elderly populations.
Nothing, though comes near to the e-bike market in China, which has 100 million already on the roads and accounts for more than 90 per cent of worldwide sales.
Despite the popularity of the e-bike, Ms Tu is clear that there is plenty of work to be done. “The e-bike we have now is like the Prius — a good reputation, but with primitive technology and definitely not the final version we will see.”
The other area to watch, she says, is BMX bikes. After BMX racing was introduced to the Olympic list in Beijing last year, several Asian countries have quietly determined to win gold at the London Games in 2012. “The Chinese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese — they just want to beat the Caucasians at their own game,” she says.
Bonnie (Hsiu-Chen) Tu
Education Bachelor of Art degree from Tam Kang University, Taiwan, in 1972
Career Founder investor of Giant Manufacturing in 1972, with King Liu. Rejoined Giant (after 12 years in South-East Asia) in 1991 as special assistant to the chief executive. 1993, Transferred to head the financial division of Giant, and administered the IPO of Giant Manufacturing on the Taipei exchange in 1994. In 1999 became executive vice-president and chief financial officer of Giant Global Group
Person I most admire Margaret Thatcher
Family Married with two children
Giant Founded 1972 in Tachia, Taichung, originally making bicycles to be sold under other brand names. Today it has sales in more than 50 countries, in over 10,000 retail stores. In 2007, its global sales surpassed five million bicycles and $820 million in global revenues
捷安特 (Giant) 始終秉持著以人為本的理念，強調自行車的設計必須貼近消費者的生活體驗，近年來它更體驗到女性車友的地位大幅提升。
《泰晤士報》7 日刊登了捷安特執行副總杜秀珍 (Bonnie Tu) 的專訪，請她帶領讀者一同走進捷安特替女性車友打造的世界。
「你們一定從未看過這些，這裡的自行車皆是由女性設計師專為女性車友設計，而傳統自行車的世界即將被顛覆。」杜秀珍一邊說，一邊展示了 7 輛不同大小、形狀的自行車。
杜秀珍現在正推動全球女性走入自行車的世界，她說︰「中國和其他地區的快速膨脹，造成許多新世代已經不懂得該如何騎自行車。這種課程教導應該由學校強制學習，如同台灣一樣。」台灣教育部自 2006 年 8 月起，便積極辦理國民中小學自行車推廣教育。
「我們在 13 年前大量生產碳纖維自行車，使其具有叫好的抗張力和抗重量。2000 年，碳纖維自行車第一次出現在環法自行車賽中，不可避免的，它成為自行車界的標準。事實上，自行車產業在材料科學上是領先汽車工業的」她說。
捷安特公司是由劉金標所創立，在他的推動促進下，捷安特成為國際上知名的台灣品牌之一。去年該公司的年收入為 410 億新台幣，且有 1/3 皆來自於替美國著名品牌 Trek&Scott 製造自行車。
當劉金標在 1972 年第一次向家人和朋友提出要利用自行車創業時，大家都很難想像自行車能有什麼「錢」途。然而，身為元老級投資者的杜秀珍，卻在 1994 年開始將捷安特推向市場。