Former Schwinn shop produces custom bikes

Since 1993, a small company based in Waterford’s industrial park has been turning out world-class bicycles, that have won numerous national titles, more than 150 state awards and hundreds of individual races. Three companies are based out of the small factory – Waterford Precision Bicycles, Gunnar Cycles USA and Fitmaster.

Elite Cycles  Most of the bikes made by Waterford Precision Bicycles and Gunnar Cycles USA are custom-fitted for specific riders. The company makes specialized racing bikes, as well as touring cycles.

Waterford Precision Bicycles is the main brand, while Gunnar is an offshoot started nine years ago. Fitmaster builds a bike-fitting tool made for bicycle dealers, said Richard Schwinn, vice president of Waterford Precision Bicycles and great grandson of Schwinn Bicycles founder Ignaz Schwinn.

Waterford Precision also does a significant amount of private label business, building bikes and parts for other high-end brands.

Waterford Precision Bicycles is a former research and development and limited production facility for Schwinn Bicycles. Richard Schwinn started the company after Schwinn Bicycles decided to shut down the facility.

The Waterford shop, which built about 2,000 bikes last year, retains its focus on innovation and custom work.

“The business is not filling the dealer’s store with bikes,” Schwinn said. “The one they have is to demonstrate the worksmanship. A lot of our dealers have ordered one for themselves. At a bike shop, when a Waterford comes, it’s like Christmas.”

Most of the bikes built under the Waterford label are road bikes – made for racing or long-distance riding. Bikes built by Waterford run the gamut from pure racing bikes and criterion or stage-racing to road and sport-riding.

Road and sport-riding bikes are Waterford’s most popular styles, Schwinn said.

“A good crowd enjoys (our bikes) because they’re fast, stiff in the right places, they perform right, they’re aligned right and they steer better,” he said.

“Part of our design is anticipating what a customer really wants with their bike, what they’re really trying to get,” he said. “People need meaning more than they need food. We help them get in touch with that part of themselves –spontaneous freedom, youth. Waterford can be an expression of that view.”

Schwinn also oversees the production of Gunnar Cycles USA from the Waterford facility. Gunnar, founded in 1998, was started as a more affordable line than the Waterford bikes, Schwinn said. Since then, Gunnar has evolved into some aspects of high-end production that it shares with Waterford.

“We’ve added a lot more values and features and it’s moved up in price,” Schwinn said. “The more we customize a Gunnar, the more it becomes more like an entry-level Waterford.”

While Waterford’s designs are almost all road bikes, Gunnar makes several off-road bikes, including several single-speed models designed for extreme riding. Gunnar also offers riders the Cross Hairs bike, a cross between a classic road bike and a mountain bike. The Cross Hairs is built for cyclocross, short-course races where riders are forced to dismount to climb, cross or go around different obstacles.

The least expensive Waterford bike sells for about $2,500, with the average bike running $3,500 to $4,000, Schwinn said. However, the more custom a bike becomes, the more expensive it gets.

“We’ve built frames and forks that were $5,000,” Schwinn said. “We can literally hand-craft the lugs on the bike (frame) for every angle.”

Gunnar bikes are less expensive, with a made-to-measure model running around $2,200, Schwinn said.

While those prices might sound high compared with other bicycles, their costs don’t compare with those of some other hobbies, such as sports cars, motorcycles and yachts, Schwinn said.

“Bikes are a cheap date, and the level of value you get is tremendous,” he said. “For the $5,000, you spend you’re getting one of the finest bikes made in the world, made just for you. And compared to a boat, motorcycle or sports car, you’ll spend a lot more time on a custom bicycle. Unlike with a lot of those others, fit is such an important component to it. And it becomes more important the more you use it.”

New division

The newest company based from the Waterford Precision Bicycles factory is Fitmaster. Started in 2004, Fitmaster makes only one product, a bike-fitting machine marketed to bike shops. The adjustable machine measures how a rider will be most comfortable and perform optimally on a bike.

“The biggest value that it serves dealers who don’t necessarily want to sell custom (bikes),” he said. “And for a dealer, it helps them select the right model (for a customer), whether that bike’s in stock.”

Fitmaster has sold 200 to 300 machines so far, Schwinn said.

Waterford Precision Bicycles doesn’t plan to sell high volumes of its Fitmaster for the future. But they do expect the machines to help fuel the continued demand for custom bicycles.

“That’s one key area in the future (of the company),” he said. “Made-to-order bikes are where we have a key advantage.”

Revenues at Waterford Precision Bicycles grew about 10 percent in 2006. The company is on track for about 10-percent revenue growth for 2007, Schwinn said.

“We’re seeing our brand grow, along with our private label customers,” he said.

Waterford has 15 full-time employees and one part-time employee now, and will likely add one person next spring, Schwinn said.

The company started implementing elements of lean manufacturing about two years ago. “I think we will get some significant improvements in productivity,” he said.

While many other race bikes are built with composite materials, allmost all of Waterford’s bikes are made with stainless steel, Modern stainless steel can be made light and flexible enough to compete with composite materials, from both a weight and a performance standpoint, Schwinn said.

The company is preparing to use Reynolds 953, a next-generation high-performance stainless steel with corrosion resistance similar to titanium, Schwinn said.

“The cost is now comparable to titanium and the performance is at the level enjoyed out of the best of titanium,” he said. “And I think we will see more applications of stainless steel in the bike world.”

 
Waterford Precision Bicycles/ Gunnar Cycles USA/ Fitmaster

Address: 815 W. Bakke Ave., Waterford
Products: Precision bicycles, many custom built for each rider
Revenue growth: 10 percent in 2006, projected 10 percent for 2007
Employees: 15.5
Web sites: www.waterfordbikes.com; www.gunnarcycles.com; www.fitmaster.net

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