Coffee with Matt Bracken of Independent Fabrications

Posted by on October 26th, 2006 at 3:07 pm

Matt Bracken, Pres. of Independent Fabrication

[Matt Bracken]

This morning I met Matt Bracken, a 20-year bike industry veteran best known for his work as President of Independent Fabrications, a company widely respected for their custom-made bicycles.

Matt was in town for some dealer visits (including Veloce on Hawthorne) and I caught up with him at Albina Press in North Portland before he headed down to Eugene and Bend.

IF started 11 years ago from the ashes of another fabled, Somerville, Massachusetts-based bike maker, Fat City Cycles. In just over a decade, IF has grown to 13 employees. What I like about IF, besides their stunning bikes, are the values and the business practices they’ve adhered to even as the company has had great success and growth.

Foremost is the fact that they’re employee-owned. But beyond that, it was clear from listening to Matt, that for him, the most exciting thing about the business wasn’t event the bicycles. It was the people.

“A mentor of mine used to always say, ‘What’s the difference between a frame and a pizza pie?…the pizza can feed a family of four”

Matt is proud that because of IF’s success and the way they do business, the company is able to provide a good living, health insurance, and a safe place to work for all its employees. This may not seem like a big deal, but remember they’re building bikes, not computer chips. It’s a competitive and low-margin business with a relatively small market. To succeed for the long haul you’ve got to be smart.

Matt, who’s now 38 and has also worked at Mavic and Merlin, came across as a thoughtful and sincere person who has clearly matured in his career. He spoke about having respect for framebuilding elders (like Tom Kellogg and Richard Sachs) and stressed that building bikes isn’t just all about passion and love (although those are important), but that in order to make it a sustainable profession, you’ve got to think about dollars and sense.

“I know there are a lot small builders whose hearts are bigger than their heads. A mentor of mine used to always say, ‘What’s the difference between a frame and a pizza pie?…the pizza can feed a family of four’. I’ve always remembered that.”

Matt Bracken, Pres. of Independent Fabrication

I can appreciate Matt’s no-nonsense approach to the business. He can’t stand the perception that being a framebuilder is just an excuse to have some sort of cool, hip lifestyle, full of riding bikes, drinking beer and hanging out:

“I don’t build bikes to provide a certain lifestyle for myself, I do it to provide a living. There are cold, hard decisions that need to be made in this business, just like any other business.”

In many ways, IF seems like the type of company the PDC would love to woo to Portland. Matt would fit right in with our local crop of framebuilders. In fact, Matt shared a few dreams of his that were similar to ideas that have already come up at recent bike industry meetings.

He wants to make the bike purchase into a destination experience (like Volvo does for cars), where people would come and get to know the builder, learn about framebuilding, go on rides, and then take home their bike. Matt also shared his vision for a bike builders co-operative that would leverage marketing budgets and buying power to make materials cheaper and increase margins for everyone involved.

When I asked Matt if he’d consider a move to Portland, he quickly answered no. “It’s tempting, because it’s so expensive to live in Boston. But I couldn’t do it, my people would all quit. They’ve got too many roots.”

We may not get IF to move here, but with any luck, you’ll be able to meet Matt and see his bikes when/if the North American Handmade Bicycle Show comes to Portland in 2008.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

13 Comments
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    Austin October 26, 2006 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Jonathan. That sounds like it was a good cup of coffee. If anyone needed another reason to dig these guys, here you go:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_OefeeRDHw

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    Carl October 26, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    I’m all for bringing bikey business to Portland, but I’ve got a lot of respect for IF’s regionalism.

    My memory of the time is foggy, but I remember some serious concern and sadness when Chris Chance moved Fat City’s operation to New York with Serotta. There was some real regional pride in Fat City. Even though I didn’t own a Fat Chance, my favorite T-shirt was my Fat City “Don’t Tread on Me”/”Made in Massachusetts” t-shirt. A friend of mine wanted a Fat Chance so badly that he had his old Fisher repainted and put some Wicked Fat stickers on it (he’s probably sold it for $1500 to some sucker on eBay by now). IF are the folks who stuck with Somerville. They were our heroes and we were so excited to hear that they were making a go of it.

    It’s such a pleasure to see them still going strong and in the same town. I don’t know what happened to that old Fat City shirt, but that’s okay, I’ve got a holey old IF shirt that shows my pride…and inability to afford any more than a tshirt.

    I can only hope that Portland’s native bike builders will have the same connection with the community that some folks in Somerville have had.

    Thanks, Jonathan, for the article and subsequent flashback.

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    Dabby October 26, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    I love my 89′ Fat Chance, and am in the process of gaining one or two more Fat Chances this winter, and a older Independent mt. bike in the spring. In fact, my off road bike and bike polo ride of choice is A Single speed, pre-suspension, Fat Chance Wicked.
    I recomend them to anyone.
    I also agree that Independent belongs where they are, not here in Portland.
    They are an institution, started by Chris Chance, and held up by Independent now…..
    In fact, I am going to go work on the ole Fat now… I have a belt to win!! http://portlandmessenger.org/main.php?e=noise&t=noise2006

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    SKiDmark October 26, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    I have an old Fat City Cycles postcard that looks like a Somerville, Mass. postcard. On the back it says : Fat City Cycles, where old machines come to rest. I would love an old Fat Chance to make singlespeed mountain bike out of.

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    IF Rider October 26, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    Indy Fabs are great bikes. Sadly, they guy who sells them in town is (in my opinion – which is based upon experience) a shady character. I would never buy a bike from him – no matter how nice. I wanted another Indy Fab but ended up buying a Seven because I could not in good conscience give him any business.

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    Rick W October 26, 2006 at 10:14 pm

    Great interview, Jonathan. I love IF and it would be great to see more of their bikes around PDX. I think their Club Racer is one of the most versatile and beautiful all-purpose road bikes on the market with its braze ons and fender compatibility – a great fit for commuters in our climate. They got this bike right years ago and the market is only just catching up…
    And let’s not forget what the bike industry has gained from ex IF employees like Mike Flanigan of ANT who have moved on to better listen to the whispers of their own muses.

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    IF PDX Rider October 26, 2006 at 10:46 pm

    I bought my IF bike used…so I don’t really know the whole story as to where it came from. What I do know, is that it is an awesome bike! I get so many compliments on my bike every where i go.

    Also, I have much respect for a company that takes care of its employees so well…of course.

    Ultimately, I guess…all I can really say is that..I have deep love for IF because my bike is so rad…My bike has made me truly fall in love with BICYCLES…and for that, I am grateful! Thank you IF! for building beautiful bikes. 🙂 AND thank you, my bike, for being so much fun to ride…I luffa you!!

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    eric October 27, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    Thank You IF rider. I was one of Demetri’s employees when he folded business overnight, stole over 400 bicycles from Diamond Back and Raleigh, sold them to a liquidator and f—ed us all out of a last paycheck. i was appalled to find that he had moved to Portland to work at Sears until this all blew over and as i understand, his credit is permanently ruined and that is why Veloce Bicycles is Incorporated under his wifes name. I plan on making it up to Portland to pay this chump a visit. Until then, people should know just what a shady charactrer this guy is, thief!!

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    Fatty Fatty Fat Fat October 27, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    I agree, after having been in Veloce bike shop, that something is not well there.
    It is one of the SE shops I do not like to support, The Recyclery being the other. The last shop mentioned has many times over either jacked, ripped off, or even stolen bicycles from customers (stolen as In traded a good bike for a piece of crap from the shop…)
    beware of bike shops, but truly, beware of ALL BIKE SHOPS!
    Build it yourself…

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    Darren October 27, 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Every interaction I’ve ever had with Demetri at Veloce Bicycles as been extremely professional and pleasant. The guy gives back to the community, promotes races, and carries a decent line of bikes. Maybe there are two sides to every story, but my experience has all been positive. I’ve had more unpleasant dealings and spent time with what I consider truly shady characters at some of Portland’s “finer” bike shops. Demetri is not the low end. I’d rank him pretty high and have no regrets about sending friends to him for bikes, repairs, and fittings. My 2 cents.

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    retroMTB October 28, 2006 at 1:28 am

    Not only did IF come from former Fat City/Fat Chance employees, so did Seven, Merlin and SRP.

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    PCwholesale October 31, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Being in the wholesale bike industry I can verify the story of Demetry of Veloce Bikes. The guy is a thief and a cheat. He did own a couple bike shops down in the Eugene area. He shut them down overnight right after receiving two HUGE orders from Raleigh/Diamond Back and Gary Fisher. His employees showed up the next day to a vacant store and no paycheck for the hours they put in. Meanwhile Demetry takes the Raleighs and Gary Fishers and sells them off to a liquidator, sells his house and hides in the Portland Metro area taking a job at Sears and buying a new swanky automobile and home. Opening a new shop with your wife’s name may get you new accounts within the industry, but you shouldve moved far away from where you once screwed vendors, your customers and your employees.
    Receiving bikes and not paying for them IS stealing. Taking employees hours and not paying for them is about the lowest form of theft you can do.
    Your credit may suck, but you walked away with some decent cash. Probably a nice little stockpile to where it was easy to start up a new shop with a new identity years later…
    All the community-based things youre doing now with Veloce (as told above) dont mask the corruption youre responsible for. If you havent already done so, the LEAST you’d do is find every single employee you screwed over and pay them for the time you stole PLUS INTEREST! Luckily for you Raleigh/Diamond Back went Chapter 11 after you pulled this and arent looking for recourse.
    If Independent Fab was smart theyd dig deeper into your history and see who they are dealing with…
    You tarnish their good name.

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    ellis November 3, 2006 at 5:54 pm

    dude- you cant be serious. no f-ing way this guy can rip off all of those people and just move a couple of towns away and start over. jonathin, whats the real story here??

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