Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on October 26th, 2006 at 3:07 pm
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.
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.”
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.