Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke was forced out of her job at her family’s company, Trek Bicycle, in 1993, a top-ranking company executive at the time said Wednesday.
However, Trek CEO John Burke rejected that assertion, saying his sister left on her own and that allegations she was fired are “a highly orchestrated move by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.”
“Mary built the foundation of a business in Europe that continues to pay dividends today,” John Burke said. “What’s happening here is people are trying to discredit what Mary accomplished. What I’m saying is ‘No, I was there, Mary accomplished an amazing thing.’ ”
Burke, who is challenging Walker in Tuesday’s election, was rehired two years later by the Waterloo-based company her father founded and spent seven years as director of global forecasting.
Throughout the campaign she has said she was burned out after expanding European operations to five countries and left the company to take a sabbatical that included time snowboarding in Argentina and Colorado. John Burke said her position was eliminated because she had accomplished her mission.
But Thomas Albers, who joined Trek in 1982 and served as chief operating officer and president from 1993 until 1997, said the job wasn’t finished and she was let go as director of European operations in 1993 as operating losses mounted and employees threatened to quit because of Burke’s management style. Albers said he was not involved in making the decision to fire Burke, but CEO Richard Burke, who died in 2008, kept him apprised of the situation.
“We were losing a significant amount of money,” Albers said. “A lot of the people that reported to her in Europe were threatening to leave because of her management style. She wanted things done her way and people said that she wasn’t listening to them, that she didn’t value their input.”
John Burke, who oversaw sales, marketing and international business, said the European operations may have lost money in one year while she was there due to currency fluctuations but otherwise sales increased from $3 million to $50 million.
Albers, who oversaw finances and manufacturing, said Richard Burke sent him to Europe to evaluate Mary Burke’s performance after John Burke had determined that a change was needed. Albers said he later organized a meeting in Waterloo at which Burke had to explain the company’s poor performance to about 35 executives.
“She was put in a pretty tough situation,” Albers said. “She wasn’t nervous. She responded kind of confidently and fairly. She didn’t bypass questions. … I thought she handled herself well.”
John Burke said he had no recollection of that meeting, though Albers said he was there.
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Steve Lindenau, head of Trek’s German operations from 1989 to 2001, praised Burke’s leadership and said his operation did not experience financial difficulties until years after Burke left.
“I learned from her,” Lindenau said. “She’s one of the best bosses I ever had. My relationship with her was very good.”
Albers said in an interview that he was speaking about Burke’s time at Trek in response to questions from reporters, who contacted him for the first time Wednesday after a conservative media outlet, Wisconsin Reporter, reported similar allegations from Gary Ellerman, the company’s human resources director at the time and currently the Jefferson County Republican Party chairman who ran as a fake Democrat during the 2012 recalls. The fake Democrats forced a primary, giving Republicans more time to campaign and raise money.
A Trek spokeswoman said Wednesday that Ellerman was fired in 2004 for “poor performance.” He did not respond to requests for comment.
Wisconsin Reporter received $190,000 in 2012 from the Bradley Foundation. Michael Grebe, the foundation’s president and CEO, is Walker’s campaign chairman.
“This is what you get with Scott Walker-style politics,” said Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki. “Convictions, arrests, shady donations, secret email systems. This is what the people of Wisconsin are going to reject next Tuesday.”
He rejected Albers’ assertions, saying, “This lie is not surprising six days before an election.”
Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said the campaign played no role in the Wisconsin Reporter story. “We’re confident that voters will want to continue moving forward with Governor Walker’s plan and positive vision for the future instead of Mary Burke’s divisive, negative, and aggressive rhetoric,” she said.
Albers has contributed exclusively to Republican candidates, including $50 to Walker and $1,100 to former GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Green. He said he left the company on good terms in 1997 to become CEO of Specialized Bicycle Components, a Trek competitor, which John Burke didn’t dispute.
Albers also was complimentary about Mary Burke, though he wouldn’t say whether her temporary departure from Trek 20 years ago should affect her standing in the governor’s race.
“I’ve always thought she was very bright. She has an outstanding education,” Albers said. “I just don’t think she was ready for that job in Europe.”