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Detroit Bikes: Promoting Urban Cycling By Revitalizing U.S. Bicycle Manufacturing

When Zak Pashak first got started with his launch of Detroit Bikes back in 2013, most of American bicycle production had been sent overseas. “My background had nothing to do with manufacturing,” he said. “I got into it because I believed in urban cycling.” The Detroit Bikes motto is, “We believe that streets are best explored on two wheels.”

Pashak has grown his company from just a few people to about 40 today, and has capitalized it to the extent of about $5 million, with investment coming entirely from him, his family members, and his friends. He’s developed a slate of product offerings focused specifically on supporting urban transportation. And it’s been an interesting road he’s traveled along the way.

Zak’s career started off in a very different world, in music promotions, where he was eventually running multi-venue music festivals featuring as many as 400 bands. “I equate it to putting on five weddings a night, five nights in a row,” he said.

Along the way, he realized that the organizational skills he’d developed could be put to other good uses. He started to become active in local politics. “I come from a political family,” he explained. “My dad was a member of the Alberta [Canada] Legislature. I got into municipal politics as I saw things I wanted to change. One thing I realized was that a transformative thing a municipal government can do is in transportation policy – you can achieve a lot.” He read up on transportation policy and ran for office in 2010, for city council in his then-home of Calgary. He lost.

At the same time, though, he also realized those same organizational skills could be used in another way to affect the urban landscape, through business. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t you make something there in the city?’” Pashak said. “I decided to make bikes.”

He chose Detroit for a variety of reasons. He has a family connection to the city. He felt he could provide a benefit to the area while also helping create the change he wanted. “I saw an opportunity to create jobs in the Midwest, and to make a great product for the new Urbanism, in a city that’s invested in creating that.”

He sold his home in Canada and gathered all his savings together to buy an existing manufacturing facility in Detroit for about $170,000. There was a benefit to the location. “There was lots of expertise around – people with manufacturing experience who could help,” said Pashak. Even so, getting started was slow going. “We didn’t have a guy who could weld 15 frames a day like we do now.”

Another challenge was how to automate parts of production. “When you send a whole industry overseas, it’s hard to bring it back,” Pashak said. Even the most basic of equipment was a chore to find – not because it wasn’t out there, but because they didn’t know where to look. “The sequential number stamping machine to put the serial number on the bottom bracket, for example – we went and found the catalog to order it.”

A related challenge was that customers simply expected parts to come from overseas. “Bigger customers are conditioned to buy from China,” said Pashak. “We found a machine that fully automated wheelbuilding, so there’s no labor savings to buy from overseas, and you can save all that transportation cost. We can actually deliver them cheaper by making them here.”

Detroit Bikes started with a single model back in 2013, but they now offer a slate of choices, most of which are still focused on the original goal of supporting urban transportation. “We make a mountain bike that’s more recreational – that one is about being here in Michigan, with its great natural areas.”

The company has had some big volume years. They made custom bikes for New Belgium Brewing for several years starting in 2014. Over three years, they made 5,500 bikes for the company to give to their employees. They’ve also done assembly work for Motivate, the bike-sharing company. But things have contracted somewhat lately. “We’re not at our production peak, but we’re at our highest quality level ever,” Pashak said. The company continues to strongly market its contract manufacturing capabilities to supplement retail sales, providing both complete bikes and assembly services as needed. “Our domestic final assembly can help with the tariff situation,” he said. “We’re currently assembling police bikes – they’re made with more expensive components that are imported from advantageous countries. Then we do final assembly here. It helps with our customer’s costs, and it’s a fit with our urban planning ideals too.”

Contract work for other bike manufacturers has also helped. “We have a contract with Schwinn now. We’re making their 125th anniversary bike – it’s the first time since the 1980s that Schwinn will be made in America,” he said.

Detroit Bikes is facing a challenge others in the cycling industry have run into, a flat market nationwide that’s stagnated at least in part due to rider safety concerns about distracted drivers. However, they hope to tap into the growing popularity of having a variety of alternatives for urban mobility to drive business growth, and to help them in their quest for improved urban planning.

“If you sit back and wait for big companies to solve these problems, you might be waiting a long time,” said Pashak. “Mobile solutions will come from government and infrastructure too, not just products. We’re all citizens – be active, and help drive that change.”

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