Stickin’ it to the Man from Morgan Hill

In the recent VeloNews Buyers Guide print issue, Cannondale placed what may be one of the more taunting ads in recent cycling history, a two page spread in the front of the book. Most of the right-hand page is a photo of a computer screen, presumably at Cannondale’s offices, showing an email from Shannon Sakamoto, the head of Specialized Bicycle Company’s recruiting team. You can view the online version of the ad here. The email was allegedly received by three of Cannondale’s engineers, and invites them to a February Specialized recruiting event in Bethel, Connecticut, where Cannondale’s offices are headquartered. With the exception of Sakamoto’s email address and phone number (blurred out), the whole email is there, right down to the corporate address and link in the contact information.

It’s certainly ballsy for Cannondale to go ahead and lay the potential poaching of their engineers out there, and pretty clever. From this angle, it all checks out. I’ve spoken with Sakamoto personally several years ago regarding a marketing position, so she’s certainly a real person, and a pleasant one at that – the kind of person you expect to find working in HR. Additionally, the Specialized recruiting event held in Bethel in February was genuine – it’s been listed on their web site for a couple of weeks. When I initially saw the event announcement, it seemed interesting. I’m not sure what else Bethel, Connecticut is home to, but it isn’t exactly a cycling industry hotbed – Specialized’s own California home, Interbike, Taiwan, or M.I.T. all seem like likelier places to go recruiting if you’re just looking for engineers. So it was pretty clear even before the Cannondale ad came out what Specialized’s interests in visiting the area were.

The timing certainly makes sense – both for Specialized to start circling Cannondale engineers like hungry sharks, and for Cannondale to come out on the offensive in response. Cannondale was recently purchased by Dorel, the same Canadian company that owns Pacific Cycles, purveyors of crappy big box store bikes for North America. Pacific has also acquired the Schwinn and GT brands in recent years, both of which have rocky histories similar to Cannondale, and has taken both brands down-market. Schwinn has gone straight into the department stores at the bottom end with some LBS presence at the top, and GT is now a mainstay of chain shops like Performance Bicycles. The purchase by Dorel got people in the industry talking about what the future held for Cannondale, and whether we’d soon be seeing oversized aluminum hybrids gracing the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart. However, these rumors have been dismissed by Dorel since the sale.

Regardless, Specialized clearly smelled blood in the water – the same engineers designing the System Six wouldn’t likely look forward to designing a $180 price-point bike with Alivio components. Employees with itchy trigger fingers might be looking to jump ship in Bethel, and the sunny port of Morgan Hill, California might seem pretty appealing if you’re stuck in a Connecticut February sitting on an uncertain future. The first line of the email cuts right to the motivations, referencing “long term job stability,” which is presumably on a lot of minds at Cannondale these days. At least where the marketing hits the paper and the web, Cannondale’s people are staying put, and sending smartass replies to Sakamoto's advances. But you have to wonder who, if anyone, showed up under cover of night at the Bethel Holiday Inn Express when she rolled into town. It could be months before the truth comes out, and Cannondale might not be feeling so smarmy then.

Either way, this little campaign reveals some daring moves on both sides – Specialized in making a blatant play for Cannondale’s engineering department, and Cannondale in taking it public before any results of Specialized’s attempts are fully realized. It also exposes some of the normally hidden maneuvering inside the notoriously inbred cycling industry. So far, this little insurrection has only really backfired on Specialized, allowing Cannondale to trumpet how desirable their engineers are while taking a dig at their Made-In-The-USA competition. However, should Cannondale employees diverge from the marketing plan and take Specialized up on its offer, it could backfire on them as well, but likely in a much less public manner.