Owning a professional cycling team can be a lot like owning a motorsports team. Money buys speed... and because revenues from sponsors, event payouts, etc. typically do not cover operation costs, the owner finds a way to make up the difference. 

Breaking even is the goal, but is usually just a dream.

Unless you're Rally UHC Cycling, the U.S. based UCI Pro Continental team that regularly punches above its weight  -- and turns a profit.

In 2002, Rally UHC owner and managing director Charles Aaron cobbled together a living as a valet in inner-city Baltimore and wrote business proposals in his spare time. 

Seventeen years later? Charles has built, from scratch, a multi-million dollar cycling team backed by Rally Health and UnitedHealthcare, that has become a leader in cycling sports marketing. 

And a team that, after recently secured an invitation to one of the world's most historic one-day races, Le Flèche Wallonne, in just its second year in the Pro Continental ranks -- marking the first time an all-North American team will take part. And just this weekend Brandon McNulty won the Giro de Sicilia, making the 21-year-old the first American winner in the race's 24-year history.

All of which made it the perfect time to talk to Charles about how to launch a cycling team that is clearly built to last.

Obviously you didn't just wake up one day and decide to start a cycling team.

My story is not uncommon. As a kid I was a bike racer, raced juniors, had some success in the senior ranks... but I just didn't have what it takes to go farther. 

The last year I raced the bike company I worked with said, "Hey, would you like to run our team?"  I had always been intrigued by leadership, responsibility, what drives teamwork... plus I believe in the power of cycling and sports marketing to create a ton of value... 

So I was a wanna-be pro racer who pivoted 

I'm a wanna-be pro racer who pivoted and landed a job running a cycling team.

I had a lot to learn, though. My first sponsorship meeting was with a major bank on the east coast, and one of the questions asked was, "What are the demographics?" and I didn't know the word. (Laughs.)

Learning curve aside, you had a very successful run.

It was a really great 8-year run of running a pro mountain bike team. 

Then the recession hit, 9/11 hit, GM reevaluated their marketing strategy and spending and we lost Cadillac as a sponsor... it was just brutal.

I had a tremendous amount of success at a young age and then the world changed. (Laughs.) 

I took a job valeting cars at the Baltimore Hyatt, working nights and days. I was broker than broke. It was a painful time, but was also one of the most defining and reflective times of my life. 

I learned things I didn't want to know about myself... but I also learned to believe in myself.

So you're parking cars by night... and pitching potential sponsors by day?

Funny story: I had a meeting with a company at 1 p.m. and had to be at work at 3. I put on a suit, make my presentation, walk back to the hotel and change... and I'm valeting cars and who pulls up but the guys I had just met with. 

I said, "Welcome to the Hyatt!"

They said, "Wait. Are you the guy...?"

It was a humbling moment.. but also a proud moment: I was willing to do whatever it took to get it done. 

And as often happens for entrepreneurs, someone finally saw the potential in what you offered.

A friend said, "You need to meet with John Kelly of Kelly Benefit Strategies." At that point I wasn't giving up but was planning to move back to Minnesota and hit a restart button.

I told John I was moving  and he looked at me and said, "If you want an office, you have an office here." We had an immediate connection.

That was the trigger. My meeting with John showed me that 1) I wasn't crazy (laughs), and 2) someone else recognizes the marketing power, the value, the return on investment...  John was the first to see something in me, and vice versa.

It's easy to build a business -- but it's hard to do it the right way.

Finding the right sponsors is a challenge, but so is finding the right people.

A few years ago I met with a potential sponsor and he said, "Why should I do this with you? I can do it myself."

I said, "Here's the scorecard. If you want to do this, you don't go after the riders -- you go after the people who hire the riders."

Our first hire was Jonas Carney. I told him, "I believe in accountability. It's your job, not mine, to build a team." I had made the decision that you can't be great at everything.

I'm often asked who chooses the riders who join our team, who decides which riders go to which races... I say we have people who live and breathe this, they're the best at it... and that starts with Jonas. I have some veto control, but I've never exercised it.

Owners own. Directors direct. Managers manage.

We haven't had a year that Jonas and our team has failed to exceed expectations or goals.

So your job is...?

I steer the ship. If we're a little off, I nudge us back. My job is to keep our vision intact, to stay true to our values, and to develop and maintain relationships. 

Ultimately, our goal for the team, and for everyone on the team, is to be the best we can be.  I want our sponsors and partners to say we brought value, brought integrity... that we brought more than what they expected.

That's one of the reasons you launched a women's team.

We started the women's team in 2012. But we see it as one team: Not a domestic women's team, not a distant relative, but one team: Same equipment, same clothing, basically the same everything. It's not gender specific. 

Healthcare decisions are driven largely by the women in a family. It's a natural connection for UnitedHealthcare. But the "one team" concept was unique at the time. We pioneered that.

And keep in mind "winning" is not just crossing the finish line first. Winning means other things. For example, we're involved with the UnitedHealthcare Children's Foundation. We get involved with families who go through tough times and introduce them to cycling, give kids a bike, let the kids meet a rider, bring the kids to an event... and help raise money for the Foundation.

That's just as big of a "win" as winning a bike race.

Some motorsports team owners see sponsors almost as a necessary evil. Which may be why NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs always calls sponsors "partners." 

It's all about responsibility. The story starts and ends with responsibility to everyone involved: Partners, employees, riders, etc.

The former CMO of Optum, a sister company of UnitedHealthcare, said, "I wasn't looking for a cycling partnership. I was looking for a health and wellness platform." 

We're more than a racing team. We're marketing-centric. We're performance-centric. We're ROI-centric. .

But we have to constantly evolve and constantly strive to be better. Reporting, activation, organization, outreach... our goal is to not just be the best cycling team in the world at delivering value, but the best sports team period in the world at delivering value.

That's a lofty goal. But as I like to say, "Why not us?"

Since the nature of your industry means you have multiple goals to accomplish, how do you define success?

Our goal is to accomplish more than anyone expects on the road, and more than our sponsors expect in terms of delivering value. 

Keep in mind this is pro cycling in America. (Laughs.) I do not take for granted what we have had the good fortune to build. To have the environment we've built, to work with the people we work with... that's success in itself. 

And if it was to end today, would I feel successful? Absolutely. We accomplished great things. We provided great value to great people and great partners.

But it's a lifelong journey, and I won't stop. I'm a lifer. This is what I do.

The passion, the drive, the excitement, the integrity... executing on those things gives us a tremendous sense of pride. We execute on what we exemplify. We do things the right way. 

Sounds like success to me.

Published on: Apr 5, 2019
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