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Trek Bicycle Head John Burke Says Obese, Unhealthy Workers Bad for Business

 John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp.
John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp.
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Trek Bicycle Corp.

THE LOOP — John Burke, president of Trek Bicycle Corp., had a blunt message for Chicago business leaders Wednesday: Obese and unhealthy workers are bad for the bottom line.

Obesity "isn't just a government issue. It's a company issue and it's a personal issue," Burke said Wednesday before 400 people at an Executives' Club of Chicago meeting at the Fairmont Chicago.

From higher health insurance costs to less productivity, he said, overweight and unhealthy workers can hurt a company's bottom line. So the president and son of Trek's co-founder isn't shy about telling workers when they need to slim down, both in person and his blog, which talks about the "brutal honesty" necessary to get workers to shape up.

 Trek Bicycle Corp. President John Burke advises a crowd of Chicago business leaders that his eight-step employee wellness plan is good for staff and a company's bottom line.
Trek Bicycle Corp. President John Burke advises a crowd of Chicago business leaders that his eight-step employee wellness plan is good for staff and a company's bottom line.
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DNAinfo/Lizzie Schiffman

"If you're not going to care about your health, then Trek is not going to pay for it," said Burke, whose Waterloo, Wis.-based company is the largest bike manufacturer in the country.

Burke practices what he preaches: he rode more than 6,000 miles on his bicycle last year and was also the chairman of former President George W. Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He's also completed four marathons and two Ironman triathlons.

To help employees stay healthy and keep the weight off, Burke on Wednesday outlined the mandatory eight-step wellness program he recently introduced at the 1,000-employee company, which he said has "changed lives."

Wellness programs have become increasingly more common. Chicago Public Schools teachers and other workers in the city are now required to take part in a similar program that increases insurance premiums for those who fail to undergo health screenings, for example.

The steps at Trek include removing most unhealthy foods from cafeterias and implementing a "Twinkie tax" on less-than-healthy products like Diet Coke that remain on the shelves, a weight-loss competition "similar to the 'Biggest Loser'" that coached more than 800 employees through slim-downs and a tobacco ban on company property.

"These are eight things that you could implement at your company tomorrow," Burke said to the crowd.

The most important step, Burke said, was making participation in the health-risk assessment program a requirement to get health insurance through his global company.

"If I could, I wouldn't pay for any of it," he said, referring to health insurance costs for employees who aren't conscientious about their health.

"But there are laws so you can only bring it down, and every year those laws get a little bit better and I keep ratcheting it down. Because seriously, if people don't care about their health, why should companies be paying for it? And that's the change that we made."

"We've reduced our costs. Have we reduced them as much as we've hoped to? No, but they've trended down."

What the company has successfully reduced is many employee's waistlines. Burke recounted two instances where he personally confronted employees with concerns about their health. One man weighed 300 pounds and was preparing for hip replacement when Burke urged him to join the wellness program.

"Twelve months later he weighed 224 pounds, with zero hip replacements," Burke said.

After calling another employee into his office to voice concerns about his weight, the "shorter guy," who "weighed 240 pounds on that day ... weighs 190 pounds today," Burke said, and recently competed in an uphill cycling race.

"Go back to your companies and make a difference," he said. "Don't wait for the government, don't wait for your employees. Show some leadership."

Burke also touted how bicycle commuting could ease some of the city's notorious traffic jams.

"If you didn't notice, you live in a  very congested city," he said. "Biking can have a huge impact on congestion."

He pointed to countries like Holland, where 35 percent of trips are made by bicycle, and Denmark, where the number is 25 percent. Congestion is far less there, and residents healthier.

"In the United States it's 1.2 percent and 40 percent of those cars are going two miles or less. To me that's an amazing opportunity for the bike," he said.

"Instead of having 1 percent of trips on bikes in Chicago, if that number was 25 percent, what would happen? Congestion would be slashed. The health of people in Chicago would skyrocket. You would see a great environmental improvement.

"When you see thousands of bikes you see an energy, you see the vibrancy of the city. The city really comes to life."