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Out of cash and employees, Renovo calls it quits

Posted by on October 4th, 2018 at 5:11 pm

Renovo founder Ken Wheeler in his booth at the 2012 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Sacramento.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The ride for Renovo Hardwood Bicycles is over.

The website is gone. No one responds to emails. The building at SE 8th and Ash that has housed its factory since 2008 is for lease. And there’s a lien notice posted to the front door.

According to the notice, Kenneth Wheeler of Renovo Designs LLC owes $34,864.53 in rent that hasn’t been paid since May.

This is a sad ending to a company that was once one of the bike industry’s shining stars.

Wheeler launched Renovo at the 2008 North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) in Portland. With experience and success making hardwood lighting fixtures and airplanes, Wheeler figured out how to make bicycle frames with a CNC machine. When I first visited his shop in February 2008 he proudly watched his CNC machine at work and said it would be done with the frame in five minutes. Not only were the frames beautiful and relatively easy to produce (or so it seemed), Wheeler said they tested stronger than high-grade aluminum.

He was clearly on to something.

After NAHBS, Renovo’s brand grew quickly. Three years later Wheeler had inked a partnership with German carmaker Audi; opened a showroom in the tony city of Sausalito, California; and graced headlines all over the world.

Not surprisingly, orders rolled in.

“When I got there we had about 85-90 bikes in the queue and zero cash. We had a lot of unhappy customers, then restricted cash flow. That stuff tends to snowball.”
— Tyler Robertson, former employee

Sales peaked in 2012. Unfortunately that’s also when things began to go awry due to a combination of production issues and the challenge of meeting customer demands.

Tyler Robertson, a former employee in charge of marketing who worked for the company in the summer of 2014, recalled in an interview today that they faced, “massive delays in production.” While the CNC construction method sounds quick and easy (Wheeler told me back in 2008 that his CNC process, “Lends itself to high volume production”), the truth was much more complicated. “It was a really hands-on, meticulous process,” Robertson said. Adding to the problem were customers frustrated by longer than expected delays. Robertson says they were promised a bike in six-to-eight weeks; but some people on the list had been waiting as much as two years. As word spread of the delay (there are several very negative Yelp reviews during this period), many customers cancelled their orders.

Renovo was counting on those orders to meet payroll and other expenses. As orders dried up, so did their main source of revenue.

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“When I got there we had about 85-90 bikes in the queue and zero cash,” remembers Robertson. “We had a lot of unhappy customers, then restricted cash flow. That stuff tends to snowball.”

“It’s a complicated mess.”
— Ken Wheeler, company founder

The backlog wasn’t just because of demand. Production problems started to bubble up as early as 2012, according to former employee I spoke with today who asked to remain anonymous. The allure of Renovo’s production model was that you could just put the wood in the CNC machine, hit a few buttons, and a bike frame would pop out. But wood is a “tricky material,” the former employee shared with me today. “The problem with CNC’ing wood is that, especially with the multi-laminate, it’s tremendously difficult to machine wood in a consistent fashion with the tolerances needed for a bicycle.”

Each frame was made-to-order both in terms of size and wood selection. Add the fact that they were built as two separate halves that had to be accurately joined together and you have a very complicated process.

None of the production difficulties were insurmountable, but each step meant more hands-on work to ensure quality, which in turn led to more delays.

Reached on the phone today, Wheeler said offering custom bikes was, “A stupid idea.” He said it was complicated to keep track of 20-40 custom bikes on the production floor at any one time. Managing customers’ needs was also difficult. “Our record was 128 emails from one single customer about his bike.” He told another story of a customer’s wife who threatened to sue Renovo for fraud after they took so long to deliver a bike.

Wheeler in his shop in 2008.

Hoping to stem the tide and scale-up production, Wheeler decided to stop selling custom frames in 2014. In a company press release, Wheeler joked about the backlog: “Struggling to control this unruly beast has kept Advil profitable.”

Unfortunately that shift didn’t fix the Renovo’s production problems.

As each new “ready to ride” model was released, the company would publicize six different sizes on its website. “Of those six,” the employee told me today, “Only 2-3 of the sizes were fully programmed into the CNC machine. There would be errors in terms of programming.” If the CNC work wasn’t perfect, the two halves of the frames would not line up perfectly, increasing the chance for misalignment and adding even more production time to get it right.

“Things came to a head when production staff felt like their safety concerns weren’t being heard.”
— a former employee

By 2015 the company had reached a breaking point. Wheeler shared with me today that he was under so much stress he had a heart attack. He feels he did everything he could to increase production and boost sales. They hired an outside PR firm, added staff, and continued to get rave reviews for the bikes in major magazines. Despite those efforts however, Wheeler said sales never returned to their 2012 level.

“If you don’t have the sales,” he said. “Nothing else matters.”

In 2016, Wheeler met Al Spinks, a Renovo customer who also happened to be a wealthy, fifth-generation farmer from Texas who loved to ride bikes. Spinks offered to invest in Renovo to help them get over the hump. Wheeler eagerly accepted. He used the money to increase production, do more marketing, research and development, launch new models, and hire an engineer who previously worked at Shimano. (Bicycle Retailer & Industry News magazine wrote about Spinks’ investment in March 2018.)

But according to a former employee, the large infusion of cash led to a new problem: Pressure to meet production quotas that led to a difficult working environment.

After his heart attack in 2016, Wheeler took his first real vacation over Christmas in 2017 and realized he didn’t want to return to the stress Renovo caused him. His partner Al Spinks was interested in taking over the company, but some of his other investments hadn’t been going well. Ultimately, “Money stopped coming from him,” Wheeler said.

By this past spring, a former employee told me, “Things came to a head when production staff felt like their safety concerns [both in terms of their personal safety and their ability to ensure a safe product] weren’t being heard.” In March of this year seven members of the production staff walked out. “After that,” the employee shared, “the place was on life support.”

Tensions between remaining employees and ownership continued into April when all three of the engineering staff left the company. From a staff that once numbered 12 employees, just three were left to make one final sales push at the big Sea Otter Classic event in April. “We went to Sea Otter and nothing came of it,” Wheeler said on the phone today. “And that was the end.” By May all remaining employees were gone. Wheeler continued to negotiate an exit with Spinks. Then on July 2nd, Spinks, just 53 years old, had a surprise heart attack and died.

Renovo’s headquarters on SE 8th and Ash.
(Photo: Paul Souders)

Thinking back on the last 11 years, Wheeler said today that he feels he did everything he possibly could to make Renovo a success. What I’ve shared in this story is only part of the drama and difficulty this company faced. There was the broken CNC machine and the parts needed to fix it that seemed to never arrive, the difficulty in hiring machinists, the disagreements between Wheeler and his employees, a stubborn sales decline, and so on. “It’s a complicated mess,” is how Wheeler described it today.

“My only consolation is that I — we — did the very best we could do to make it work. I didn’t want to let our customers down; but I couldn’t solve it. It just didn’t work… That’s not totally unusual in the world of business.” Especially in today’s bike business. Just one year ago, Renovo was a subject in an Oregon Business story that chronicled the tough climate for bike builders in Oregon.

What about bikes themselves? Everyone I talked to for this story had nothing but great things to say about them. Wheeler seemed to take solace in the fact that — through all the ups-and-downs — everyone loved the bikes. Even the guy whose wife threatened a lawsuit. “We ultimately shipped him the bike and he posted pictures of it on our Facebook page!” Wheeler beamed.

UPDATE, 11:03 am on 10/5: Several former employees have shared scathing allegations of misconduct from Ken Wheeler on company review site Glassdoor.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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54 Comments
  • Sad Decline October 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Here’s another bike maker that’s effectively gone out of business: CETMA Cargo in Eugene. They’ve been unable to fill paid orders, customers have been complaining all over their social media accounts, and they’ve deleted their Facebook page.

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    • David Hampsten October 4, 2018 at 6:33 pm

      I admire their bikes. I’ve come across similar stories from various small manufacturers on the East Coast and Midwest – a few blame foreign competition, but most have similar stories of over-expansion, over-exposure, promising far more than they could possibly deliver, and various complex labor and money-flow issues. The series of heart-attacks is a new one to me, but I do know cancer treatments and other health issues have impeded bike firms before.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 4, 2018 at 6:39 pm

      Woah. Bummer to hear. Lane is a good guy from what I recall.

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    • GlowBoy October 5, 2018 at 9:51 am

      I saw that too, when I tried to go to the CETMA site a couple weeks ago. Was hoping it was just technical difficulties. 🙁

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  • 9watts October 4, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    Running a successful small business is way tougher than many folks imagine.

    Thanks for the detailed forensics, Jonathan.

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  • SD October 4, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    I have an idea. How about a bike tax?

    I say this just to point out that all of the Oregon legislature pro-business banter sounds dumb when you realize that one of the only sales taxes in Oregon is a punitive tax on a local industry that is struggling. If the OR bike industry was successful enough to buy votes in the state senate, there wouldn’t be a bike tax.

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    • SD October 4, 2018 at 6:48 pm

      And, its a bummer that Renovo is out. I always admired the creativity and beauty behind those bikes.

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    • Jd October 5, 2018 at 5:58 am

      Do you really think a $15 tax is keeping people from buying $2000 artisan-made bike frames?

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      • Lester Burnham October 5, 2018 at 8:24 am

        In a city where many people can barely keep a roof over their head, who has money for $2000 artisan-made bike frames?

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      • SD October 5, 2018 at 8:30 am

        The tax is on bikes that cost $200 or greater, including children’s bikes.

        The value or intent of a tax, and the integrity of law makers who passed it, isn’t measured by whether or not someone will pay it under specific circumstances.

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        • Jd October 6, 2018 at 9:27 pm

          Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favor of the tax. However, to state that the $15 bike tax is contributing to the struggle of the local bike economy is naive.

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      • soren October 5, 2018 at 9:37 am

        more like $5000 artisan-made bikes.

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  • Champs October 4, 2018 at 7:23 pm

    First Islabikes, now Renovo. Moral of the story: never send a bike to Eben Weiss.

    There’s a saying in the restaurant industry that the easiest way to get to one million dollars is to start with two. The bike industry is no better, but I applaud those who try.

    In all seriousness it is unfortunate that they did not beat the odds, but at least they’ve regained some health and sanity. Money is nothing without them.

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    • Al October 4, 2018 at 10:18 pm

      Right? It’s wiggin’ me out. It’s like 2007 all over again.

      If I hear of another couple of bike shops / manufacturers calling it quits, then I’m shorting the market.

      Beautiful bikes though. I’ve never seen one in the wild.

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    • Alan Love October 5, 2018 at 9:04 am

      That’s one of the first things I thought when I saw this article. BikesnobNYC=kiss of death. Perhaps Eben could review an SUV next…

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      • Mark October 5, 2018 at 3:04 pm

        Marin Bikes seems to be doing well

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  • Shawn Small October 4, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    Running a small niche bike business (or any small business) is incredibly difficult and the effort it takes to successfully balance sales/marketing/employees/innovation/etc cannot be overstated.

    Sad to lose two local bike businesses this week.

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  • Racer X October 4, 2018 at 10:44 pm

    Yep. More sad news…the Portland bike boom with 1000s of new bike commuters has long stalled and now the small creative businesses that catered to them are going going gone…please please please City start doubling down and impliment the 2035 bike plan with quick parking removal…or else it will be too late if another 10 years goes by. This is an emergency to the Portland vision.

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  • B. Carfree October 4, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    While it’s incredibly sad to see the people who create such beauty find themselves unable to keep the business afloat, all is not lost. We’ll soon have several of the folks currently working out of their garages to create and convert bikes to e-bikes growing into prime-time. Sadly, none of those contraptions, useful though they are in raising our mode share, are objects of art.

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    • Mike Quigley October 5, 2018 at 5:48 am

      I’m concerned about the future of e-bikes given the cost (and availability) of replacement batteries. These batteries have a life span of 400-500 recharges. Most are made in China and Japan, and are expensive. And are getting more expensive as tariffs kick in.

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      • Al October 5, 2018 at 8:46 am

        That’s an outdated number. Batteries have improved quite significantly over the last decade. Most will now last at least 1,000 cycles and much more if they are managed properly.

        Deep battery cycles are the most damaging. That’s where you charge it 100% full and then use it to 0%. It’s also damaging to leave the battery 100% charged all the time. Batteries do best when you shallow cycle them, charge & discharge between 20 and 80% capacity and do so without having them sit idle for long periods of time. Temperature swings are also bad but this is where Portland is actually ideal because we never get really hot but also don’t get really cold weather either.

        One of the myths about battery charging is that rapid charging is bad. Not all rapid charging is bad for the battery. The problem is the generation of heat rather than rapid charge acquisition. If heat can be managed, then rapid charging is actually not a problem. Most people want to rapid charge from 0 to full and this is where heat generation is hard to avoid.

        One of the ways to avoid this is to have multiple batteries. I know, money solves all problems but managing 2 batteries allows you to avoid some of the issues I discussed above and both batteries will last a lot longer than a single battery used to failure and then a second battery used alone to failure. So in the end, buying a second battery while your first one is still working is actually going to save you money assuming you use your bike enough for both batteries not to sit around for long periods of time without charging and discharging.

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  • Mike Quigley October 5, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Should have bought one and stuck it away. In future years it’ll be worth a bundle to collectors and enthusiasts.

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  • Chris I October 5, 2018 at 8:12 am

    I wonder if they hired a manufacturing engineer at some point? Of course, given the recent booming economy, it has been hard to find good engineers looking for a job. This is unfortunate.

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    • Gary Becke October 5, 2018 at 9:30 am

      That was my thought, too. Not that we have the complete history, but that seems to have perhaps been the missing link to make production. I understand cash flow challenges (on paper, anyway, I’ve never actually tried to run a small business), but with the benefit of armchair critiquing, I’d say hiring marketing without having the production cycle nailed down may have been the fatal flaw.

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  • Dan A October 5, 2018 at 8:28 am

    It’s interesting to me to see the different reaction to a niche adult bike manufacturer ($3500 wooden frames) going out of a business vs a niche kids bike manufacturer ($550 bikes) leaving the US. Does it say something about how we feel about kids bikes?

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    • 9watts October 5, 2018 at 8:33 am

      Craigslist.
      I wouldn’t myself buy either bike.
      But speaking just for myself, someone actually creating a bike more or less from scratch is far more interesting to me than someone packaging components into a bike.

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  • Bikeninja October 5, 2018 at 8:46 am

    This makes me very sad, not just for mr. Wheeler but because it is another signpost along the road telling us our fair city is quickly turning from a community of Artisans, Bikebuilders, Musicians and Brewers into a burg of clerks, call center staffers, orderlies and real estate hustlers.Perhaps it is the March of progress, or just the realities of the costs and requirements of the modern world. But darn I miss the days when everyone I met did something cool for a living and got everywhere on a bike.

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    • John Lascurettes October 5, 2018 at 9:24 am

      I don’t think the cost of this city had anything to do with this one. This was a story of production problems and unpaid back rent.

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    • B. Carfree October 5, 2018 at 1:10 pm

      Ah, that magical time that never was. Cycling in Portland peaked in 2014 at 7.2% of commuters. It’s currently at 6.3% (2017), which is better than or equal to every year prior to 2014. In fact, a lower percentage of Portlanders are car-dependent now than every before, with motorized commuting down to 65.3% of workers.

      That golden age many years ago when everyone rode their bikes just never happened. It could be that you moved in a tiny echo chamber of people who did ride, but that wasn’t terribly representative of the city at large, just as it isn’t now.

      (I can’t speak to whether or not fewer people have cool jobs/sources of income/hobbies. Personally, I find most people’s work to be fascinating, but perhaps that’s just me.)

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  • mark October 5, 2018 at 9:01 am

    It was bound to happen; the company has always had cash flow problems. I was an early employee at Renovo, but left in 2011 with about 6 months of unpaid wages. I stuck it out for longer than I should’ve, figuring it was simply a matter of time before the company really took off. It wasn’t a total loss though, I did learn a lot while working there.

    Really sad to hear about this, Ken. I sincerely wish you the best.

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  • John Lascurettes October 5, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Such a bummer. These bikes were a thing of beauty. It was always my dream bike. I don’t know if I could have ever afforded the luxury, but I always dreamt of one.

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  • maxD October 5, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Maybe it is time for a good news story. I recently had a custom fork made by the guys at Norther Cycles. My old titanium needed a new fork to replace the old carbon one, and I chose hand-made, light weight(ish) steel. Those guys are building incredible stuff, and they have partnered with Jeff Lyons to offer handmade in Oregon Steel bikes for a great value. There are still a lot of great Oregon craftsman making a business in the bike industry, and they could use all the support we can give them.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 5, 2018 at 9:40 am

      I agree maxD. Norther is awesome (and in my n’hood!). Yes another story abt them would be good. Noted and on the list.

      And yes, just like the big bike shop shakeout a few years ago… it’s normal and natural for the industry to go through this type of thing as customer behavior and the economy shifts.

      There are just a million variables at play here.

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      • Dave October 5, 2018 at 10:04 am

        And, include Jeff Lyon in the story, one of the USA’s best bike makers and one who flies under most of the industry’s radar.

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  • nuovorecord October 5, 2018 at 10:00 am

    I’ll offer my condolences to Renovo as well. It’s always sad to see someone’s vision and hard work go up in a puff of smoke…errr, sawdust.

    That said, I tip my Campagnolo cycling cap to the visionary genius who decided to locate a wooden bike manufacturing business on Ash St.!

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  • Tony October 5, 2018 at 10:06 am

    I have a suggestion. Why doesn’t Mr Wheeler make these bikes alone in his home garage? No rent or lease and big inventory overhead. Make these bikes the way some people work with fine woodworking in their garages. The bike will be in limited quantities and he can charge premiums for them and he can make them at his own pace. No stress, working with employees or anything. It would be like a labor of love instead of meeting production deadlines. Each bike is ready when it’s ready. I don’t believe he needs to worry about Chinese competition. This is a niche market. The Chinese are only interested in mass producing cheap bikes.
    Why do businesses tend to always want to expand at the expense of staying in business in the long run. Start small. Stay small. This is a viable business model.

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    • Pat Lowell October 5, 2018 at 10:38 am

      Isn’t that just a hobby, though? It’s not a business model that would allow him to make a living. I think part of the reason small businesses expand is so the owners can finally start making a salary and having a bit more stability.

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    • B. Carfree October 5, 2018 at 2:03 pm

      That’s a good description of the person who made my first tandem. He would create them one at a time and one never knew when a given order would be ready to roll off into the sunrise. His motto was, “Why pay less” and he lived up to it. Of course he did have his day job as an engineer at CalTrans to pay the bills.

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    • 9watts October 5, 2018 at 3:30 pm

      “Why do businesses tend to always want to expand.”

      That would generally be because of (a) positive interest rates and the need to pay back loans, and (b) capitalism’s inherent pressures to grow, always grow.

      The same lose-lose growth logic applies to other areas of our lives too, but at least here few seem to have much of an appetite to question these dogmas.

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  • mh October 5, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Noooooooooo! I don’t think I would ever have considered myself deserving of such a bike, but I had selected all the options for my almost-affordable Renovo from when I first learned of them. It was going to be bamboo (when they still used it), because I believe in bamboo and it was the only good looking bamboo bike I’ve ever seen, size, components – the whole thing. I doubt I even have a catalog. Very sad. Hoping for something like a resurrection some day.

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  • Pat Lowell October 5, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Very sad news. This was also one of my dream “handmade in Portland” bikes. I saw my first one in the wild just recently. Its beauty caught my eye immediately, and the owner raved about what a great ride it is.

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  • Douglass McSaladbath October 5, 2018 at 10:57 am

    I think theres more at play here then whats mentioned. Check their glass door reviews…

    https://www.glassdoor.com/Overview/Working-at-Renovo-Hardwood-Bicycles-EI_IE1800718.11,35.htm

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    • Lester Burnham October 5, 2018 at 12:16 pm

      If the sexism claims are true that company deserved to close. That’s horrible.

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    • NS October 5, 2018 at 4:20 pm

      The Glassdoor reviews are spot on with my experiences working there. The demise of this business has nothing to do with Portland or the number of bike commuters here, it has to do with the owner being a lousy business person, people person, a liar and an egomaniac.

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      • John Lascurettes October 5, 2018 at 5:57 pm

        Well, I guess he leaves open whole in the market for someone else to hear. Such a bummer to hear this. The frames were a thing of beauty. When I saw one at a bike show, I just stared at it for a long, long time.

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      • Peter Drake October 12, 2018 at 11:01 am

        Small industry, word gets around.

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  • bb October 5, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Bummer for small operations like this to go out of business.

    I greatly appreciated their creativity but couldn’t help but think aesthetics were a bit outdated for the current custom bike customer. Decreasing sympathy after reading glassdoor…

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  • hotrodder October 5, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    9watts
    …(b) capitalism’s inherent pressures to grow, always grow./blockquote>

    Much the same as a cancer cell

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  • Sean October 5, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    Sad to hear, but I am not shocked by this.

    The bike Ken is standing next to in that first picture is mine, a 58cm Elwood (Sapele, Wenge and Purpleheart), currently hanging on my lounge room wall in Newcastle Australia. I think I’m standing right next to Ken in that picture, I was there to pick up the bike and fly it home. The frame cost me $3K, total build ended up being $7020.

    Unfortunately, about 1 month before completion of the build, the guy I’d been dealing with stopped replying to me, along with everyone else at Renovo.
    Eventually someone new finally replied to me about 2 days before NAHBS to say they had it finished and would see me there. They stuffed up quite a few things in my build and in several respects I didn’t get what I ordered. I was never able to get any of the issues resolved, and after about a 18 months of trying I just had to give up and live with it as is.

    The frame is a thing of beauty, but on the whole I was disappointed with what I ended up with.

    The customer service was nothing short of appalling after my original contact left, and Ken did nothing but make up excuses and flat out lie to me, if he even bothered to reply, which was rare.

    No wonder at all that they couldn’t pull it together, more surprising that the lasted as long as they did.

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    • 9watts October 5, 2018 at 10:53 pm

      That is quite the story. Wow.

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  • Tony H October 6, 2018 at 9:05 am

    I was an employee at Renovo in 2012. I think, by now, most readers get the idea of what led to the company’s demise. I’m not going to “pile on”. I will say that it is a VERY common situation, in which an entrepreneur is completely unequipped to manage a business. And merely hiring a manager, but continuing to micromanage (with no consistency) does nothing positive. It creates an untenable situation from which a skilled manager will leave immediately.

    The bikes were beautiful. If I could have waved a wand and changed things, here’s what I would’ve done: two smaller and up-to-date CNC machines (Renovo’s CNC was an enormous fossil), smaller facility, the manufacturing process COMPLETELY thought through (we were reinventing the wheel on Every. Single. Bike. There was no “production” after the parts were milled), 2 or (maybe) 3 models, either “frame only” or a complete build where the customer is given a list of components from which to choose (a LOT of time and money was pissed away getting some components to work in situations that they weren’t designed for. This was an incredible exercise in frustration, and led to an ever-increasing financial hole).

    I could go on.

    Overall, I am saddened by this news. Another example of “what might have been”. Having a Great Idea is important, but is not a guarantee of any success.

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  • Mike G. October 16, 2018 at 9:24 am

    I purchased a Renovo bike in November 2015 when I took a family trip to Portland. On my list of things to do was to visit Renovo’s factory and purchase one of their bikes. I did that and while the bike wasn’t actually delivered until June 2016, it was well worth the wait. I bought the Bad Ash 29er.

    I sent about 5 e-mails checking on the status because, as the article stated, I was also told it would take about 6 weeks, but it actually took closer to 7 months. Ken or one of his staff responded to my e-mails promptly and they kept me informed about the delays.

    I have read things online about Ken being a bad business owner, but I’ll say this: He was kind, knowledgeable, and offered to give me a tour of the factory when I visited. He walked me through the whole production process – it was really something cool.

    His bikes are great and I am extremely happy with mine. Although, I’ll be hesitant to do anything rough with my bike now because I’ll have nowhere to send it if I break anything on the frame. Thanks Ken for the awesome, unique, and beautiful bike.

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