Independent Fabrication -- Manufacturing Bicycles in Somerville, MA
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edited June 21, 2009 in Street and Documentary
Lloyd Graves is tall, dusty blond, and has an incongruous Southern drawl, a leftover from a childhood in Mississippi. He founded and works for Independent Fabrication, a company that does something surprising: they build bicycle frames in metropolitan Boston. This might not have been surprising in 1920, but today making bikes in the U.S. is “not the smartest thing in the world to get into. The only way we do it is to make custom bikes. We can’t compete with China or India or anything like that. We only do like 850 bikes a year. Most of those orders come from the Continental U.S. We can do what we can do that other people can’t do very well.”
Independent bicycles start at $4,000 and can cost more than $10,000. The buyer gets no compromises. The bike fits him and not Lance Armstrong. Long femurs get a long top tube to keep the rider's knees directly over the pedals. Racers get stiffer bikes with greater road feel. Long distance tourers get long comfortable rides. They also get high performance bikes, which can take fenders and panniers, a combination not easy to find when bicycles are seen either as utilitarian transportation or fitness equipment. Color schemes can be whatever the buyer wants. An argyle example is in process.
Lloyd has been building bicycle frames in Somerville for a long time. Before 1994, he worked for Fat City Cycles. Fat City had about 25 people. “They had people who worked hard. They had people who didn’t work at all.”
But, “what ended up happening is we all got laid off.” Fat City was “in the hole. They owed like every vender in the world the maximum amount they could owe. They hadn’t paid rent in a while. When we got paid, everybody would clock out and drive over on our bikes to the bank and try to cash their checks as fast as possible.”
But Lloyd and a few other “disenfranchised workers” wanted to keep making bikes. “We thought we knew what we were doing in terms of making bikes.” They found a machine shop in South Boston that they could use for $75 a month. The machine shop is still there. People build radio-controlled airplanes and hand cycles for disabled people there. Next-door is a fireworks factory, “for 4th of July celebrations where they launch them out of the Charles and stuff.”
Lloyd worked during the day as a bike courier and built bikes at night. At first, there was a welder from Fat City, but “she couldn’t stay on because we went for more than a year before we could pay ourselves, and she had a couple of kids.” After she left, Mike Flanagan welded and painted every bike.
Jeff Buchholz did the tacking in addition to taking care of the tools. Tacking is the first step in fame building, “sort of where the frame takes shape. All the tubes are cut, mitered.” And lightly welded into place. What emerges from tacking has the shape of the final frame, but is only strong enough to hold together until the final welds are made.
Lloyd, Mike, and Jeff started to sell their frames through a local bike store. They built a couple of hundred frames, and their business outgrew the ad-hoc shared space. They got a little money from the city of Somerville and spent a long time looking for a space they could afford. They had $50,000 and borrowed a little bit more here and there to start their employee-owned business.
At first they had only one product, a steel mountain bike they now call “The Deluxe.” They still make it, though “we’ve made changes in it over the years. Every tube is different than it was. The same thing from the outside, but it’s kind of evolved… a little lighter, a little stronger.”
As they established themselves, they started to build road bikes as well. “Every product we come out with is a product somebody here wanted… We make things we believe in.”
One thing Lloyd believes in is steel bikes. “The steel bike is not in vogue, but there’s always [some people who] want to buy a steel bike. But it’s not ‘the greatest thing.’ Steel, though, is a very high tech material. The steels that are available now are much stronger than they were in the 70s and 80s. A lightweight steel bike is competitive with a titanium bike. If steel was invented today, it would be like the new wonder material. It’s great. It rides awesome. It’s pretty cheap. It’s easy to take care of. There’s lots of [options] available. You can easily make a highly customized bike.”
Even though “steel is real,” Mike wanted to build a titanium bike. That strained Independent’s limited capital. Aircraft suppliers make titanium tubes. They sometimes do Independent a favor and sell “only” a hundred feet of tube at a time. At $30-$40 a foot, maintaining an adequate selection for custom bike building represents a big commitment. “It was pretty huge for us to get into.”
Lloyd leads a tour of the shop floor. Bike frames take shape in the tacking department where Jamie and Leah select tubes and finalize frame geometries according to the personal traits of the customers. They then cut the tubes to size and miter their ends, fitting and then tacking them together on adjustable stands.
Tyler and Jim are master welders. Independent bikes are T.I.G. welded without lugs. This exposes their craftsmanship. “Immaculate welds” is a feature listed in Independent’s catalog.
The welders are doing more than meets the eye. Lloyd stands next to a metal table, the alignment table.
“After Jamie tacks it, before they start welding it, they’ll check it. They’ll write down how far it is off. This one’s off by five thousands of an inch. They can weld to pull it closer to the frame alignment.
“All these tubes are pretty high strength; you can’t really bend them hardly at all. You can only bend them a little tiny bit. So they have to be pretty close to start with. It used to be material was a lot weaker. You could bend it with your hands. But tube materials got a lot stronger, and they were able to make bikes lighter. It made it harder to align the frame. So we had to get a lot better at basically welding them into alignment.
“So he’s going to start welding on the other side first. That will pull it or shrink it toward the weld. So they’ll pull it a little way first. Then they’ll check it. They’ll check it a couple of times. Then they’re done.”
Nevertheless, the frames make a final trip to the alignment table after welding. If they are still slightly out of alignment, a huge lever and old-fashioned elbow grease are employed to bend that last little tiny bit.
Of the founders, only Lloyd is left. Jeff has a business selling tools to frame builders. Mike pursues his own idiosyncratic vision in his own one-man shop far outside town. Now Lloyd is president of a company with 12 fellow enfranchised workers.
And a majority stockholder, also chairman of the board, Gary Smith. Gary first encountered Independent Fabrication in his previous job, president of the outdoor products division of Timberland. In 2004, Timberland and Independent were teamed in a CNN reality TV program called “The Turnaround.” The format was for large companies to extend their expertise by mentoring small companies.
Gary is an enthusiastic cyclist and got the role of mentor. After the show, he kept in touch, bought a bike, and eventually the controlling interest of Independent. About the bike purchase, he says, “I’m tall and lanky and so physically need a custom bike.” About the company he jokes, “I could have either had a really nice bike collection or a really nice bike company.”
Gary’s analysis is that the company’s challenges fell into two “big buckets:”
- Under-capitalization. They were always just one step ahead of the sheriff relative to cash flow, not to mention being able to make any kind of investments.
- Leadership. There were 6 original founders, 3 bike makers and three “business people”. There was this us-vs.-them mindset, the office vs. the shop. “And that ‘s the kiss of death” in a small business that is really dependent on the shop. “There was no one to call the ball.”
Lloyd accepts Gary’s leadership. Gary is from Maine and grew up working in textile mills, “saw people working really hard and treated poorly. All those mills are shut now. In Bridgeport, there’s nothing left.” Lloyd feels that Gary shares a sense of building things, a desire that “not everything be imported.”
Lloyd can hold his passion about building bikes close to his chest. “When you’re making a bike you’re making a product that’s not really hurting the earth or anything. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not like making a missile or M-16 or even a car… It’s a pretty small footprint on the earth. You know you can be kind of proud that you kind of did something that’s good at the end of the day.”
Above the shop floor, in graffiti is a motto, “Live the Dream.” I ask Lloyd about this. He says it’s tongue-in-cheek. “People make OK money but it’s not like getting rich or anything.” The dream was we worked at Fat City and everybody got laid off. I wanted people to have jobs.”
If not now, when?