Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Made in the U.S.A. ?

In the eighties when I was foolish enough to get a buisness license and turn my hobby into a fulltime job there were a number of small bicycle companies that struggled to do battle with the big brands of the day-Trek, Specialized , Bianchi.....mostly these small companies were producing all sorts of stuff related to the newly popular sport of Mountian biking. These small companies made frames, forks , cranks, stems , headsets , q.r. skewers.....you name it. I used to see all of these little operations flogging their colorful anodized offerings at Interbike, the big bicycle trade show. One by one these small companies started fnding out that building stuff in the U.S.A. was not only expensive, the process was tightly regulated and aggressively taxed by federal and state governments-not only that, the insurance costs for liability were not cheap. All of these factors, along with an increaslingly saturated market drove these companies down one of two paths: Path # 1, quit......liquidate and get a job in high tech. # 2, get bought by the competition. You see, in the mid '90's , the larger companies were losing market share to the smaller folks as a percentage of the buying public thought that the big companies had no 'soul' and the smaller compaines were producing hipper, more appealing goods. Another factor was the ability of small compaines to change and improve products -innovate at a rapid pace compared to the gigantic corporations with their layers of beurocracy and delay-ridden outsourced products. Trek, Schwinn and a few other industry giants began buying up smaller brands , trying to get a 'hipper' image....in effect, they were not really interested in the products of the small folks they were buying-what they were mainly after were the names and trademarks that folks associated with a group of people in a small building doing their best to created the best and latest stuff to ride in the woods. Since most of these small companies inspite of their popularity were not all that profitable, the big new owners set out to make them cash cows , dismantling the little operations, laying off most or all of the employees , selling off tooling and disposing of old inventory. Now these popular small brands would be just that-brands. All new products would be made offshore to lower costs and to boost the production numbers. Essentially , your old favorite brand from Nor-Cal would appear on something made in Taiwan and would have the outward appearance of the original but not the same quality . Prices on these products didn't get much lower, either. Net result ? Loss of U.S. jobs, loss of some of the driving forces in the pursuit of excellence and innovation in bicycles -but what I find saddest of all is the dismantling of these small brands , destroying the public trust. While I do believe that good products are coming from offshore, some are even better than domestic products, I feel that the golden age of the small shop-buisness in the bicycle industry has passed. The temptation of small companies to cash in by selling out to the big companies has made branding more important that substance , marketing more important than quality. Lucky for me, my company was too small, to pathetic and not innovative enough to get and offer I couldn't refuse. Am I sorry ? Believe it or not , I feel that my little treadmill is just fine.


  1. What about companies that were US but now do a lot of business overseas (looking at you Tom Ritchey!)? I suppose the argument is that we are always looking for ways to be more efficient. We all shop around to some degree. Maybe I look for a good deal on tubing, or files. The folks out-sourcing will argue that "My customers are always looking for the best price and so should I."

  2. Good point. Staying in buisness a lot of the times means getting good deals on materials-I guess where you draw the line on when you have to source away from the US depends on your individual situation. Right now the coolest lugs,bb's and crowns come from Taiwan....what can I say ? I guess trying to keep as much of it over here is what I am seriously trying to do but I might be in a better position than most to attain that.

  3. Yeah, my feeling about where all this "cheaper is better" mentality falls apart is when you realize that labor, is not a part. There are real people making those carbon frames for pennies. We need to dig a little deeper to discover the difference between "value" and "cost."