Dinner With Friends

I missed work yesterday to pick up my friend Scott Towne at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Scott works for Sole Tech, and his employer is hosting a sales meeting in Newport Beach this week. Scott and I spent six hours before his first appointment visiting mutual friends: Brad McDonald at VitalBMX first, then coffee, skateboarding and dinner with Mad Dog at S&M. We swung by Ride BMX HQ to chat with Keith, Jeff Z and Ryan, but those guys were on a video shoot in Portland, OR. 

Southern California has been the spiritual and physical home of the BMX media and industry since racing emerged in the early 1970's. I used to love making the rounds to BMX Action, CW, Redline, Voris Dixon, Race Inc. and the half dozen other bike companies it was my job to visit on a regular basis. I love the BMX business, and I love talking about it with old friends like Chris, Scott and Brad.

Chris recently wrote a story about the SoCal BMX industry for Ride magazine, so he was brimming with tales of fortunes made and lost by the pioneers of his vocation. Many of the tools and machines that were used to make BMX bikes in the '80s are now being used by S&M employees for the same purpose. Chris has acquired these machines through bankruptcy auctions, swaps and other means. Chris is a resourceful businessman and a shrewd negotiator, and he knows where to find the good deals on mills, lathes, and tooling.

In the early 1980's there were nearly a dozen small bike brands and job shops churning out American made BMX products in SoCal. Today that number is down to two I'm aware of: Quamen and S&M. Other machine shops dedicated to bike building are sprinkled across the US, but their numbers are nothing compared to a century ago. In the late 1890's, US bicycle makers led the Industrial Revolution with groundbreaking mass-production technology that beat Henry Ford's Model A to the end of the assembly line by nearly a decade. Some of those factories survived, and others staved off obsolescence by transitioning into other industries. It took nearly 100 years, but corporate greed, consumers' lack of concern for high quality and cheap labor in foreign markets finally rendered the American bicycle industry all but obsolete. Major forces like Trek still enjoy a foothold in high-tech niches like carbon fiber, but Chinese factories are neck and neck with this American juggernaut. 

I've worked for six BMX brands in 27 years, and I've watched all but one of them close the doors on domestic manufacturing and make the switch to foreign outsourcing. In two of these instances, not even lower priced goods from Taiwan could keep the companies afloat.

Today's BMX business is populated by dozens of niche brands, the majority of which rely on regional wholesalers to import and distribute their goods—one BMX brand I'm intimately familiar with doesn't have a single full-time employee on staff. Most boutique BMX brands today don't employ more than a handful of people, and few of the riders they sponsor earn a living wage. There are easily four dozen more BMX brands today than there were 15 years ago, but I'm sure they don't employ more people combined than the top five BMX brands did in the 1980s. When I worked at GT there were 250 people on the payroll. Can anyone name 25 BMX brands that employee 10 people? How about 10 BMX brands that employee 25 people? I can't.

The president of Mongoose once told me his greatest responsibility was to provide jobs for his employees. At the time, I thought my greatest responsibility was to sell more bicycles. To do that, I employed marketing practices that Mr. Manko deemed distasteful and unacceptable. Consequently, I was fired. It took me a decade to understand what Harry Manko was talking about, and another five to realize he was right.

Roughly 30 people count on Chris Moeller for their livelihoods. The S&M factory is in the heart of Orange County's industrial complex, and is surrounded by empty buildings of once healthy businesses that have gone belly up on the current global economy. The responsibility of running a profitable business that caters to the expensive tastes of fickle consumers in a niche market weighs heavily on my friend, and he handles the pressure as well as any entrepreneur I've ever met. It is testimony to his tenacity as a businessman and to S&M and Fit Bike Co. as global brands that Mad Dog's ship still sails proud in today's stormy seas. 

Congratulations, Chris. Harry Manko would never have approved of your marketing strategies, but your business achievements would make him proud.


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