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Second-chance venture capitalizes on Pittsburgh cycling scene

| Monday, April 18, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Cathy Rogers, owner of AeroTech Designs, a manufacturer of biking apparel on the North Side.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Cathy Rogers, owner of AeroTech Designs, a manufacturer of biking apparel on the North Side.
The Pennsylvanian in Downtown is one of the sites for Doors Open Pittsburgh, a two-day celebration of architecture, design and heritage where guests are invited to walk through iconic buildings Downtown and on the North Side.
The Pennsylvanian in Downtown is one of the sites for Doors Open Pittsburgh, a two-day celebration of architecture, design and heritage where guests are invited to walk through iconic buildings Downtown and on the North Side.

Cathy Rogers is part of the reason Pittsburgh has become a cycling city.

Rogers, 59, of Moon has advocated for building bike lanes and safe paths for cyclists to ride through her involvement in organizations such as the nonprofit Bike Pittsburgh. She's also outfitted local riders through her company, Aero Tech Designs.

Founded in 2005, the company has carved out a niche for clothing sold to riders of all shapes and sizes — not just elite athletes. It sells products internationally through its website but is very much rooted in Pittsburgh. The company recently relocated from Coraopolis to the North Shore near the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, a move aimed at boosting its local prominence.

Rogers talked to the Tribune-Review about turning her passion into her profession, how she recovered from a failed first attempt at her business, and the growth of cycling in Pittsburgh. The following is an edited transcript.

Trib: What has been the impact on your business from the greater support for cycling in Pittsburgh?

Rogers: It's made the segment very competitive. Everybody and their brother wears clothing. So everybody and their brother thinks they can design clothing. The cycling apparel, if you look back at history, is all about racing. It's all about these elite riders who ride a lot and they need competitive aerodynamic types of things. Whereas nowadays, with more people coming in, the clothing is more casual.

Trib: Elite athletes spend a lot of money on their equipment. If you've got more casual riders, does that change the way that you have to approach your costs?

Rogers: Elite riders don't really buy anything; it's their teams that buy them. The people who ride the most are not what I would consider to be affluent customers. The customers that are on the entry level and moving up, so they're a little more serious, they're coming into it. These moving-up-type people are the ones who are most excited about the sport, they have money to spend, they work and so these people are looking for more looser-fitting type of things.

Trib: How has your business evolved since 2005 to cater to those people?

Rogers: We try to include some of these niche markets. That would be a plus woman. A tall man. A big man. We have done some children's things. We've tried to focus on places where we can excel.

Trib: What did you hope to accomplish with your move to the North Side?

Rogers: What we really wanted to do was to come into the city and get involved with bicycle culture. We are right on the bike trail, and we wanted to participate in events and be a part of the lifestyle. People can ride here, we can ride at lunchtime. A lot of our employees can ride on the trail.

Trib: This is your second go around in starting a bicycle apparel company. What happened the first time?

Rogers: The first time I started the company, I made a really big mistake. I had one of my competitors come up to us and say, “You do really beautiful work. Will you make my product for me?” So we started making clothing for all these different companies. And what happened is when you start being a grunt, they all start beating you up for price. So then you're competing for nickels and you're not making any money because there are all these downward price pressures.

Trib: Shutting down a business can be very emotionally draining. How did you make the decision to give it another try?

Rogers: We lost our house, our business, they came and they towed my van away, they came and they took our savings account. We walked away with $2,700. Once you go through a big crisis like that, where you lose everything, you do get a sense of what really matters, and that is family, friends and the people who love you. So I got a job as a high school teacher. I raised my kids. But as they got older, I said, “I'm going to try this again.” And I tried it again, learning from the first time. I realized that I don't just want a couple customers, I want a lot of customers. And that would be the consumer direct idea. The other thing that I learned is about brand building. So if this whole factory were to burn down, the core value that we have is our brand. So we're focused on building our brand, and the manufacturing is secondary.

Trib: Clearly you have a passion for entrepreneurship. I'm assuming you have a passion for biking?

Rogers: Oh yeah. I'm an avid cyclist.

Trib: How did that begin?

Rogers: It started when I went to Girl Scout camp when I was 12 years old. One time, we took a 15-mile ride. I remember riding in the country and looking at snakes and weeds and berries and thinking, “Oh my God, this is what fun feels like.” And from that point on, it was just a love affair with the bicycle.

Trib: Where do you like to ride locally?

Rogers: In Pittsburgh, my go-to place is really the Montour Trail. It's really long; it's very dynamic. I also like the Heritage Trail right outside our building. I do not ride in traffic anymore.

Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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