Charlie Heggem marries business with philanthropy to create events
BBJ photo/NICOLE LANPHEAR
|Charlie Heggem started NorKa Recreation in 2003 to create recreation events for all abilities and fitness levels. The Mt. Baker Hill climb, his most popular event, is in its fifth year.|
Charlie Heggem rode in bicycle races from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam with war veterans and throughout the United States before returning to Bellingham to form NorKa Recreation.
NorKa, which began in 2003 and incorporated in 2006, is a company that orchestrates recreational events in the Bellingham area. Heggem’s signature event, the Mt. Baker Hill Climb, has expanded from 50 entrants in the first year to more than 750 expected for this year.
Heggem has operated NorKa Recreation solely for the past four years, but said he plans on hiring a full-time staff member this summer.
“This will be a huge step for us and a huge help to be able to hire someone,” Heggem said. “NorKa has grown to the point that I can now justify hiring somebody. This isn’t like opening a coffee shop where I know how many people I am going to need.”
Heggem organizes five main events each year, with many smaller events in between. The Mt. Baker Hill Climb is the largest event, followed by the Washington Omnium Points Race State Championships, Silver Lake Trials, live coverage of the Tour de France, and the Great Northwest Swap.
Heggem said since the last conversation with The Bellingham Business Journal, he is where he wants to be overall. In 2004, Heggem told the BBJ that although the business was slow to grow, he loved what he was doing and wished he could do philanthropy full time. These days, he is happy with where NorKa is, and is especially happy with the philanthropy side of the business.
“Philanthropy is an important part of the business puzzle for me, and I feel better about it now then I did then,” he said.
Origins of NorKa
Heggem is a former professional mountain-bike rider, who grew up in Bellingham and left after he graduated from high school in 1990. For the whole decade of the ‘90s, Heggem traveled and worked with various organizations around the world, including World Team Sports in North Carolina.
Many events involved working with riders with disabilities, and Heggem said that is where he first got the core idea for NorKa. Heggem lived in Los Angeles for a few years, but when his father passed away in 2000, Heggem came back to Bellingham.
“That is actually where the name of my company came from,” Heggem said. “It is my dad and my mom’s first names combined: Norrin and Karen. That was the name of our family boat for years, and I just took that name and turned that into the company name, with my mom’s blessing, of course.”
Because of Heggem’s background of working with people with disabilities, he said it was inspiring to get involved with such a diverse group of people. He met his wife, Kelly, who had a stroke at age 7, and helped her adapt to be able to ride. They have been married for less than three months, and she is a life skills teacher for the Bellingham school district.
“We all have our disabilities in some way or another,” Heggem said. “And we just have to work as a group, as a team, to make events happen. I went to Vietnam and I rode from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with a group of veterans from both sides of the war, and many of them were disabled in some way. And I have done trips across the country with the same types of disparate groups. Taking ‘I can’t’ out of the vocabulary and making these things happen is very inspirational.”
Paul Clement, president of the Ken Meyer Foundation in Bellingham, said he has known Heggem for years through cycling in Whatcom County.
“My first thought was that NorKa was the perfect thing for him to do,” Clement said. “He had done a lot of volunteer work with me and it was a natural extension for him to make a company out of it.”
Running the business
Heggem runs NorKa in tandem with holding several other jobs including working as a personal trainer at Fairhaven Fitness, an outreach specialist at REI, a ski coach and a private consultant.
“The learning curve of this has been steep because I didn’t go to school for it,” Heggem said. “I went to school for exercise physiology and sports medicine. So the business side of these events is new and challenging, to say the least.”
NorKa does not have a storefront location, Heggem said, because he doesn’t have any products to sell, but as NorKa takes on more events, that might change.
Heggem said one reason NorKa hasn’t made a substantial profit is because he donates money to local cancer foundations.
“Last year, we gave away $5,000 to the Ken Meyer Foundation,” Heggem said. “I try to be conscious where I put money back into the community. I support myself and support the organization that gave us our start.”
The Ken Meyer Foundation is named after Ken Meyer, a local cyclist and multiple state and national champion who died from cancer. Clement and Dave Payran started an organization to raise money for cancer care through producing bike races, and Heggem got involved with the organization.
Clement said he has worked with Heggem on numerous events.
“His events are starting to grow, and I help out so that they are a viable source for him and us,” Clement said.
Carole MacDonald, the president of the Mt. Baker Foothills Chamber of Commerce, met Heggem while he was promoting the first Mt. Baker Hill Climb, and she was intrigued with the idea of NorKa.
“I invited him to present at the chamber board and we were all very impressed with Charlie – his organization skills, his presentation skills, his sincerity and passion, and his ability to work 36 hours in 24 hours,” MacDonald said.
Heggem said the events rely heavily on volunteers and sponsors. He goes riding with prospective sponsors and talks about business while they ride.
Kulshan Cycles often works with NorKa, and owner Eric Moe has known Heggem for 20 years. He said he likes the Hill Climb best and is a financial sponsor of the event.
“I really hope to see that last for many years to come,” Moe said.
Organizing the events
NorKa’s events range from bicycle races to organized television viewing. The live coverage of the Tour de France event is in its third year. Heggem rents a big screen and every morning from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. he and anyone else interested watch the live coverage of the Tour de France at Mount Bakery in Bellingham. Heggem said more than 700 people stopped by in three weeks to watch the race before work.
The Mt. Baker Hill Climb, also called “Ride 542,” has grown steadily in the past five years. Participants of all ages and skill levels race 24.5 miles from Glacier to Artist Point.
“It challenges people to get to the top as fast as they can and enjoy the ride back down,” Heggem said. The event also has a big economic impact on Bellingham, and Heggem said he wants to expand it to a weekend-long festival of events called “Festival 542.”
The events are mainly cycling based, Heggem said, but it will expand in the future.
“I’ve been involved with running events and multi-sports,” Heggem said. “The goal is to establish some main events first. I know cycling best, and I want to get those established before we start incorporating other things with them.”
Heggem said his events cater to everyday people and not just elite athletes. He wants to create opportunities for people to try new things, and everyone can ride a bike, he said.
NorKa: ‘Can’t help but grow’
MacDonald said she is impressed with where Heggem has come in the last five years.
“If you look at where he was five years ago and now, it’s astounding,” MacDonald said. She and her husband volunteered at the Hill Climb and said she was amazed with Heggem’s ability to lead and organize. “(NorKa) can’t help but grow with Charlie doing what he is doing, and his passion. And he is intelligent; it is not a blind passion, but an organized passion.”
Clement said it may take a few years for the events to become recognized before NorKa will expand too much. “As the events become more cemented in local minds, the business will do well.”
“There is no way I would do this without having a good time,” Heggem said. “I’m not going to stress myself out and get gray hairs over these events. I want to do them and do them right, but reality is reality and you can only do so much. I don’t want to overextend, but I want to dream and push the limits of what is available out there.”