Annapolis Alum Finds Business Success the Johnnie Way

October 15, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Saul Leiken
Saul Leiken (A13) has always had a passion for bicycles.

“I’ve loved bicycles since before I could ride them,” says Saul Leiken (A13).

A self-taught cyclist and electric bike proponent, Leiken is now the USA category leader in “Fitness & Turbo” at Specialized Bicycle Components. While his passion has always been two-wheeled, however, he didn’t realize at first that it could lead him into a career—let alone such a successful one.

“I started working at a bike shop at the age of 15,” he recalls. “And when I was at St. John’s, I worked at a bike shop in Annapolis. I was really into bicycling from a transportation perspective. I thought they were the best way to get around town, so after I graduated, I thought I wanted to study urban transportation planning and go build bike lanes and things like that in cities.”

Leiken wasn’t quite ready to dive back into academics—“St. John’s is a little intense,” he laughs—and returned to the bike shop. Soon, he was running it. Three months later, he was running the whole chain.

“At that point, I decided, okay, maybe I’m not going to become an urban planner. Maybe I want to pursue this business thing,” he says.

He considered an MBA, but friends told him to skip it, asserting that “anything you learn in business school you can learn in business.” Two years later, in 2015, electric bicycles started to take off, and he knew he’d found his niche.

“I took a trip to a couple of places around the U.S. to research the hottest markets, then came back to Washington and decided to open an electric bike store as a part of the chain of shops,” he says. His work caught the attention of Specialized Bicycle Components (Specialized for short), who recruited him to work as a sales representative in New York City.

“After nine months, they decided that they were going to invest more in their electric bike business, and they said ‘Hey, we have this guy in New York who had an e-bike store and knows a lot about this, why don’t we have him come run it?’” Leiken recalls. “They offered me the position as general manager of the electric bicycle business for the USA, I moved to San Francisco in November, and I’ve been doing this job ever since.”

Leiken’s rise to the top of his field was quick, made even more impressive by the fact that he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted after leaving St. John’s.

“I came to St. John’s because I had gone to visit one other college, and they required you to apply with a major,” he says. “I thought ‘That’s crazy, because I have no clue what I want to do, and isn’t that what college is for?’ One of the many things that was appealing to me about St. John’s was that I was going to be forced to do everything, and that would help me figure out what I really enjoyed and what I was good at.”

After four years, however, Leiken says he knew “a lot more about [himself],” but not necessarily where he wanted to be career-wise.

“At that point, I knew I loved bicycles. I knew I was fascinated by how people get around cities. I think I chose the business side because it’s more fast-paced. Now, I actually always tell people that St. John’s is the best management school in the country.”

“In seminar, you have to figure out how to work together, one way or another,” he adds. “When I was running the bike shops, I had 70 people who reported to me and had to figure out how to motivate and work with them. You can’t just apply some business rhetoric and say ‘Everyone’s going to do what I say.’ You have to get to know them, figure out who they are, how their minds work. It’s the same at St. John’s—there’s no one authority. A business might be a hierarchy, but it’s never that simple.”

For other Johnnies seeking to advance their careers in business, Leiken says networking is key and that students should pursue whatever it is that they’re passionate about. His biggest piece of advice, though?

Ride a bike.

“I’m sure Mr. [Leo] Pickens would love me saying this, but we spend so much time studying and reading and being stationary that it’s really good for our bodies and our minds to get out and get our heart rate going a little bit,” he says. “I’m not telling anyone to run a marathon or win the Tour de France, but get your blood pumping. You’ll have more energy and you’ll be able to, you know, do your seminar reading a little bit more closely.”