Crash Kills Bike Firm's Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Long, co-founder of racing and mountain bike maker GT Bicycles Inc., was killed Friday in a traffic accident while riding his new motorcycle to a bicycle race at Big Bear Lake.

Long, 46, died just a week before his company's innovative new design for a racing bicycle will debut for the U.S. Cycling Team's track racing squad at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Long, who was GT's chairman, president and chief executive, died of injuries suffered when he collided with a truck on a twisting mountain road. Michael Haynes, the company's chief financial officer since 1989, has been appointed president and chief executive. Haynes, 43, will retain his responsibilities as head of finance for the Santa Ana company until a replacement is found.

The mood at the office on Segerstrom Avenue and the factory on Yale Street was somber Monday, but things were busy. The company, which employs 400, will close for half a day on Friday for the funeral.

Employees wore ribbons of blue and yellow, the factory colors, pinned to their casual work clothes in memory of Long, whom they described as a man who lived and breathed GT Bicycles.

Ironically, Long--who started a retail bicycle shop after getting out of school in the early 1970s--wasn't an avid bicycle rider: His passion was for fine cars and motorcycles, colleagues said.

He founded GT with custom-bike maker Gary Turner in 1979 to manufacture parts for the then-new sport of youth motocross or BMX bike racing. The two began in Turner's garage in Fullerton: Turner, a musical instrument repairer by trade, had started making BMX bikes for his kids because he didn't like the quality of those commercially available at the time.

Now the company makes the GT, Powerlite, Robinson and Dyno brand bicycles at factories in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach, has a high-tech research lab where technicians experiment with exotic composites and thermoplastics and sells about as many bikes a year as Schwinn, according to Marc Sani, editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

GT also markets its bikes and a wide range of bicycle parts and accessories through an international system of distributors, most owned by GT.

While the death of a company founder is a jarring, sometimes catastrophic event, industry insiders say that GT is well able to weather Long's demise.

Unlike some businesses whose success is dependent on a single entrepreneur who developed the product and directs the operations of the company, GT had two founders with separate specialties.

And Long had been planning to someday leave daily management of the company to pursue other interests and had spent the last few years building a management team that could run the company without him.

Long's death "won't be a disaster or a death knell for the company." said Alice A. Ruth, a specialty retail analyst with Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. "They have great middle management, so the important thing will be for Mike Haynes to take [Long's] vision and make it work, and Haynes has been there for seven years, so he certainly knows the vision," she said.

Long and Turner kept GT a private company until last year, but in 1993 sold majority interest to Boston-based investment firm Bain Capital Co. in return for a cash infusion of about $7 million plus nearly $70 million in loans. Turner and Long each kept an 18% interest. In October 1995, Bain took the company public, raising about $40 million with a stock offering of 4.7 million shares.

In addition to designing and making bikes, GT--through its Riteway distribution network--also is a major distributor of parts and accessories to retailers. Long intended for the company to push for more growth in that $3-billion-a-year-market by emphasizing quick service and a vast catalog of goods from more than 140 manufacturers.

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To his workers, Long was seen as a demanding, sometimes intimidating perfectionist, but not an unreasonable one.

"He expected a lot and demanded a lot, but you would get a lot in return," said Jack Wilson. The technology shop supervisor was filling in as a forklift operator Monday. "Richard wasn't a person with a lot of words, he was kind of shy. . . . But you always knew where you stood. He never beat around the bush.

Long was headed to Big Bear to watch the fourth race of the National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. national championship series for mountain bike racers.

The company not only is a co-sponsor of the six-race series but sponsors several riders, including Olympic mountain bike racer Juliana Furtado.

"The whole race weekend ended up being a commemoration of Richard," said Doug Martin, manager of GT's professional mountain bike team and the company's Olympic effort.

"It was indigestible," Martin recalled of hearing of the death of his boss and friend. "You just wanted to freeze frame [the moment] to digest things, but we had a bicycle race to do and to win, just like Richard would have wanted us to do."

Martin was scheduled to leave for Atlanta on Wednesday to begin organizing GT's Olympic campaign--the company's bikes will be used for several track racing events and Furtado will be riding a GT Mountain bike in that newly recognized Olympic sport's inaugural outing.

He said that he now will delay his departure for the Olympics until after the funeral Friday. "If anything, the goal is clear now, the vision is clear now," he said. "Go do our best and bring home some medals."

Long is survived by his wife, Wanda, and sons Jeff, 26, and Chris, 21. The funeral will be held Friday at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach.

Also contributing to this report was Times correspondent Lesley Wright.

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