Rouleur Classic

Independent Fabrication: part one

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Photographs: Daniel Sharp

The car that spends most of its time parked outside my house is a Skoda. It was chosen mainly for pragmatic reasons. A couple of bikes will fit easily in the back. It is economical. Practical. The diesel engine will keep chugging away for a decade or so, hopefully. And the Czech company puts a fair chunk of its marketing budget into cycling. It only seems fair to consider their cars over competitors’ products.
It is of little importance that it resembles two totally different models cut and shut together by a dodgy south London welder in a lock-up in Peckham and then given a quick respray. As I am on the inside, driving the thing, its exterior appearance is irrelevant. The kids hate it, of course, and insist on being dropped off round the corner when they are given lifts to friends’ houses. Ungrateful blighters.
But the bikes sitting in the back? That is another matter altogether. The bikes must look right. Friends may mock my choice of four wheels if they wish (and they certainly do) but take the piss out of any of the five machines dotted around the house and we are going to fall out. They may not be top of the range stuff but they are well maintained, clean, and far from ugly. Like the Skoda they were chosen for practical reasons but, unlike the Skoda, they were also selected with image in mind: no gaudy paint jobs (but certainly no stealth black, the drabbest of the drab); few of those irritating buzzword transfers which manufacturers insist on slapping on every available surface; an avoidance of fat ugly tubes and enormous bottom bracket junctions. They may not be the stiffest thing since Ron Jeremy’s appendage but unless you are a serious racer, who needs it?
What I seek is clean lines on a clean machine. The Skoda can wait until the end of the ‘cross season for its annual wash and brush up. Bikes take precedence every time.
Image goes a long way towards informing bicycle choice. Otherwise why would manufacturers pay millions of pounds a year to supply ProTour teams? It can’t all be down to rider feedback, no matter what they try to tell you. Pros winning races sells bikes, simple as that. Yet for every BMC or Cervélo that comes in at the top with big bucks backing, there are dozens of smaller concerns trying to build up from the bottom, with limited resources and negligible marketing budgets. Without an angle, a niche, a sector of the market to aim for, they are doomed to fail, no matter how good the product.
The reason I mention all this is because we are visiting Independent Fabrication in the States. They are the personification of a small manufacturer doing very nicely – with a few hiccups along the way, which we’ll come to later – through presenting undoubtedly fine bikes in a fresh manner, appealing to those seeking something a little outside the norm.
The company grasped the fundamentals of marketing right from its inception. Consider the name and its shortenings. Independent Fabrication; Indy Fab; IF. They all work. I read somewhere that the company’s six founders were advised against the moniker, so I checked with Indy Fab original Mike Flanigan, now the owner of ANT Bikes. He confirmed that a group of Harvard MBAs who were consulted on the matter considered the name insufficiently ‘sexy’. The half dozen went their own sweet way, leaving the failing Fat City Cycles in Somerville, taking inspiration from their East Coast descendants who turfed out the British in the War of Independence, and launching Indy Fab with a hint of rebellious streak high on the agenda.
So the image is good. What about the finished product? The quality of Indy Fab’s paintwork has been one of its selling points since the beginning in 1995. Clean, unfussy, with a smattering of handsomely designed graphics, an IF frame is an uncommonly handsome beast. Of course, if the customer requires a plethora of decals covering every available surface and a garish hue not covered by the 26 standard colour options, then the guys at Indy Fab will do their best to oblige. But really, why would you? A more likely request for an IF buyer seeking something out of the ordinary is shown to us by lead painter Chris Rowe on a frame nearly completion. The understated Japanese script is clearly painstaking work but graphics designer Ryan Waters enjoys a challenge. His meticulous handiwork is a joy to see at close quarters.
Indy Fab has won its share of awards at the annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS) over the years, deservedly so. I would contend that such award contests are essentially puffed up beauty pageants, judged on aesthetics alone, but understand the marketing aspect. There is kudos to be gained by acclaim from your peers. If the ride did not match the level of the look, the buying public would see through the hype in no time.
Indy Fab has a pleasingly understated approach to marketing its wares that precludes unseemly shouting from the rooftops. It all comes back to image and promotion, the credit for which Flanigan lays squarely at the door of fellow founder Steve Elmes. “He was instrumental in getting our name out there within the industry. That gave us an edge as the ‘go to’ shop for the insider, which in turn gave us the respect from the person on the street,” says Flanigan. “Steve also got the jump start in creating the cyclo-cross team – which no-one else was in favour of, so props to Steve – and this gave Independent a lead in that area, as well as a podium spot in the ‘cross World Championships.”
Tim Johnson’s bronze medal in Slovakia in 1999 was the first of any colour in cyclo-cross by a US rider, a breakthrough moment. That a tiny company like Indy Fab should have provided the medal winner with Planet Cross machines was not only savvy work by Elmes but a major coup. The guys from Somerville were now on the map worldwide.
Current owner Gary Smith, formerly a vice president at clothing and footwear giant Timberland, agrees that Elmes was key in getting the IF name out there. “I have never met him but I can say that he was a very good brand builder, and much of IF’s appeal is owed to his early efforts,” says Smith. “He possessed some very good consumer insight, and drove the brand with great success considering how little resource he had at his disposal. He played on the rebel theme, and made the brand appear much bigger than it actually was.
“It’s pretty common today with the advent of social media for a brand to burst onto the scene with a bigger shadow than actual turnover, but back in the mid to late ‘90s, Steve Elmes had to do it on a much more physical, grass roots level: seeing – and being seen – at all of the important cycling events; handing out branded merchandise to key influencers, and generally putting the brand on the map, one touch at a time. He and the others leveraged the story of a phoenix rising from the ashes of Fat City to the max, stretching the truth in the process and ultimately creating an enduring myth.
“That rebel crew image, fighting the good fight, combined with quirky logos and lots of funky paint jobs, gave the brand an edge. That edge is something that I’ve been mindful of since it became my responsibility to steward the brand.”
Coming from a globally successful company like Timberland, Smith is fully aware of the need to keep the Indy Fab brand evolving. Tread water, resting on your laurels and, before you know it, you are sunk.
“We are 17 years old now [21 years now]. IF has always been a bit of an attitude brand. It came from the mountain bike world; has a bit of a swagger. Youth is an important part of that. You can’t let a brand age. Oldsmobile in the US is a perfect example of that. In 1986, Oldsmobile was the number one selling manufacturer in the States. If you drove a Cutlass in ’86, you were cool. In 2004, they killed the brand. A 100-year-old brand lost in just 20 years. It doesn’t take long. You can think that you’re secure but you’re not.”
Attitude. Swagger. Some of the stories I’d heard about the early years of the company – including one involving an irate woman taking a lump hammer to a fellow worker’s best bike during a fit of rage – suggested there was too much attitude in play at the original Indy Fab factory in Somerville. The company history contains more messy break ups than Fleetwood Mac, so my suggestion to IF’s boss Smith that we focus purely on one worker – tail them all day long, go home, meet the family, sit down to some fine New Hampshire cooking – was never likely to wear. Something about “upsetting the group dynamic,” Smith said.
He was quite right, of course, but at that point I was blissfully unaware of the company’s past. Singling out one employee for a big feature was, in retrospect, about as stupid a suggestion as anyone could have made. I’d hate to be responsible for any unfortunate incidents involving hammers and bicycles. Especially Indy Fab bicycles.
The manufacturer’s swish new premises in Newmarket are a big step up from the previous shopfloor in Somerville on the edge of Boston. The sleepy New Hampshire town seems an unlikely setting for industry of any kind, although the imposing former textile mill that IF has called home for a year now gives an indication of former glories. A host of small businesses and high tech companies fill the space formerly taken by rows of looms, with Indy Fab enjoying a prime spot on the ground floor, overlooking the Lamprey River to the rear. A capacious retail area gives ample space for displaying the full range of frames produced here – and a lot more besides. It may seem odd to stock another bike manufacturer’s wares but Smith sees Ridley’s range, especially the aluminium offerings, as complementing what comes out of Newmarket. “The only frame material we don’t use is aluminium, and the only reason is because it doesn’t do anything for us that we can’t get from the materials we already use. And it has this stigma of being cheap, which is unfair because the higher-grade aluminiums are phenomenal.”
The move to Newmarket and the added floorspace allowed Smith to move another of his acquisitions, BaileyWorks, under the same roof. Offering a bewildering array of sturdily constructed and handsomely designed bags – all made in-house and all, like Indy Fab’s frame output, totally customisable – BaileyWorks is run by Smith’s wife, Toni. No strained industrial relations there.
Gary Smith is obviously, and understandably, very proud of the whole set-up. It’s debatable how much passing trade you get in a small New Hampshire town: we see a handful of people over the whole day. It is more of a destination where prospective buyers can see, in the flesh, where their cash is going and be measured up for their dream machines. Smith gives us the full tour of the range. Tall, slim, with greying hair, he bears more than a passing resemblance to David Byrne. He smiles more readily, talks confidently without hesitation and is (I’m guessing) a better dancer, so comparisons with the former Talking Heads frontman end there. The New York band did split acrimoniously though…
To find out how a Timberland executive came to be in charge of a small scale bespoke bike producer we need to backtrack a bit. The original half dozen Indy Fab founders came from Fat City Cycles, the mountain bike pioneer set up by Chris Chance and which closed the doors of its Somerville factory in 1994. IF’s first Steel Deluxe, a hardtail MTB frame, was released the following year and the hip new company was on its way. Both road (Steel Crown Jewel) and cyclo-cross (Steel Planet Cross) models swiftly followed. Sales were good, the range expanded as the market for quality steel bikes grew, and IF dipped its toe in the world of exotic frame materials with the introduction of the Titanium Crown Jewel in 2000.
All going swimmingly, then, except that beneath the shiny veneer things were far from rosy. In 2005, Indy Fab invited American TV programme The Turnaround to the factory. The premise of the show was to pair a struggling company with a mentor from a successful one – in this instance, Timberland chief executive Jeff Swartz, who brought along newborn cycling fanatic Gary Smith to assist. These formats can be pretty painful viewing, with deliberately staged confrontations and over-dramatic editing, but what Smith found was truly nothing short of shambolic.
Five of the original six founders had departed by this point, with only Lloyd Graves remaining, and what was now a team was attempting to run the company on a joint decision making basis – with the predictable consequence of not many decisions being made. Two of the workers on camera argued in favour of increasing titanium production on profitability grounds, while two others clung onto the ‘steel is real’ line, believing it better represented what the brand was built on and what IF devotees expected. There were clear open battles going on between so called co-workers with a resultant lack of direction and progress, notably financially. It all culminated in Smith being invited to invest in the company in 2007. Much like Victor Kiam in those Remington shaver ads of old, Smith liked it so much, he bought the company.
This is where it gets messy, as if it wasn’t already. Smith has asked I do not dwell on the past but concentrate on the present and the future. I maintain that to do so would be to only tell half the story but, having talked to him at length off the record regarding ongoing legal proceedings, I agree it serves no useful purpose to rake over the last few years in detail. Some left the company of their own volition, others were helped on their way. Several – having left the company years earlier, victims of the aimless bickering – returned. It’s a messy business all right, and it is not over yet.
What is clear is that Independent Fabrication as a going concern was sunk without Smith’s intervention. While disgruntled former colleagues carped from the sidelines, the businessman took care of business and kept his own counsel. Having a former Timberland executive take charge of a famously standalone bike brand clearly rankled with some IF fans. Smith took the flak, kept shtum and turned it around. Why a comfortably-off business executive at a major corporation should choose to throw it all in and sink his money into a failing bike company is hard to fathom. Certainly Smith must have wondered precisely the same thing at times. But he has committed time and money to the cause above and beyond the call of duty. For that he deserves much credit.
Originally published in 1 issue 33. Part two to follow

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