By Nick Legan
Have a look at your bicycle. A close look. The likelihood is high that your frame, fork and most of its components were made overseas—not in the United States. That “Made in Taiwan” sticker, or one similar to it, adorns most bicycles sold in America.
HIA Velo, in Little Rock, Arkansas, is out to change that by producing frames and forks in the U.S. of A. With a passionate collection of longtime cycling industry engineering, production, marketing and sales personnel, HIA Velo’s team has rallied around making bicycles on a large scale here on home soil. So far the response from the industry, dealers and consumers has been far greater than expected and is picking up steam all the time.
In early 2017 the company launched its new bike line under the name of Allied Cycle Works. Starting with carbon fiber, other frame materials will eventually join the fold. HIA Velo currently employs 25 and aims to have 75 on staff within three years.
Tony Karklins, the founder of HIA Velo, says that the impetus for the company was born out of circumstance and a hard look at the state of the bicycle industry. After his work bringing Orbea to the U.S. market, Karklins went looking for his next project, a new brand to introduce stateside. After traveling significantly in Europe and attending global trade shows, Karklins came to the conclusion that an opportunity similar to the one Orbea had in 2001 no longer existed. He described the situation as “a sea of sameness.”
“Nobody was making their own product,” he said. “Everyone was using the same handful of people in Asia. I couldn’t find an angle.”
After looking into the idea of building his own brand using Asian production, he realized making carbon bikes in the United States would be much more viable than many people believed.
“People said overseas manufacturing was cheaper, but with Orbea the cost kept getting higher in Asia. Minimums kept growing and shipping delays, taxes and freight costs all increased over the years. We were building big warehouses full of inventory that was year model tagged and a ticking time bomb,” Karklins said. “The way the current bike industry works is really messy.”
When looking at the cost of producing in America, Karklins asked himself what are the real benefits of “just in time production” in America instead of the cost of building and storing a massive inventory overseas? His answer was, “when you deeply analyze that, it was a no-brainer.”
Stars further aligned when the Canadian brand Guru went bankrupt. Karklins and his investors bought its factory and intellectual property, moved the hardware to Arkansas and HIA Velo was born.
In the process HIA Velo is creating jobs, and because they are in the United States the company has access to materials and processes that Asia does not because they are protected by international trade laws. Thanks to this, Karklins believes that HIA Velo product will be much more advanced than a lot of people expect.
The first investment for the project came from an interesting source, the founder of Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee: a passionate cyclist and ideas man, Doug Zell. When speaking of HIA Velo, the imminent launch of Allied Cycle Works and manufacturing in the United States, a certain fervor is apparent in Zell’s voice.
“We want to be the next great bicycle company, with a product and a brand that can promise something extraordinary and actually deliver.”
Zell and his colleagues are on a mission. He hopes that HIA Velo is bringing a new wave of manufacturing to the United States, speaking enthusiastically about bygone influences.
“There was a point in time when design and manufacturing and beauty went together in the United States,” he said. “They [later] became separated. More recently we haven’t been engineering things that have great utility and are beautiful. I hope we can be a catalyst for a larger movement where we can do real manufacturing in the U.S. We can create real, meaningful jobs where someone can buy a house and have a family. My feeling is that if we can demonstrate that it’s possible, then there will be others who will do it as well.”
Much like the direct trade model that Zell created at Intelligentsia where everyone involved in the production chain was considered, he and the rest of the HIA Velo leadership are actively cultivating a sustainable, healthy culture for its employees. By paying a real, living wage with benefits for its employees, HIA Velo is creating a corporate culture that empowers its team and encourages them to strive for an ever-better product.
“People can see that there is a real career path in front of them and their input is being considered. We want that input to be thoughtful and collaborative,” he said. “Over time I think we’ll find that some of the best ideas come from so many different places and sometimes surprising places.”
Perhaps the idea that can buoy the bike industry is simply one that many overlook or dismiss as outlandish. Perhaps it took a long time cycling industry veteran from Arkansas and a coffee entrepreneur from Chicago to develop the way forward for manufacturing in the United States. Only time will tell, but in the meantime 25 more passionate cyclists have jobs and that’s a good thing.
“None of this is revolutionary,” Zell said. “It just makes sense.”