Chris Mogridge could tell his family’s Oxford, Mississippi real estate development business was in for tougher times as the financial crises of the late 2000’s deepened.
“I was on the financing side of the business and could tell things were getting harder. No matter how much advertising I would do, sales were starting to slip. And the bank was getting funny with us borrowing money.”
On a Friday afternoon in ‘08, with a backlog of offers awaiting financing, Mogridge’s bank was taken over by the FDIC. On Saturday, a bank in South Carolina bought the assets, but subsequently wouldn’t return a phone call or email.
The writing was on the wall. “I needed to figure out something else if I wanted to stay here and avoid the prospect of getting on a plane for a job Sunday nights and getting home Thursday nights,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I would have done that, but that wasn’t my preference at the time.”
His preference was launching a business, and this past summer Mogridge and wife Karen moved Mercury Wheels, his post-real estate endeavor, from Oxford to the cycling-industry hotbed developing in Ogden. Today Mercury Wheels has 15 U.S. employees and makes a wide range of road and mountain bike wheels.
A connection to cycling provided a quick transition as the real estate market imploded. “That summer I’d had some success racing,” he explained. “I wanted to buy a time-trial frame, and carbon was just getting popular. But the ones I wanted were about $5,000 for a frame-set. I thought to myself, ‘Someone’s making some money here.’ And the light went on.”
Mogridge has since hustled his way to a growing carbon wheel business, not frames, sourcing components like rims, hubs, cassettes, and skewers from Taiwan but assembling here to provide his racing clientele and dealer network highly customized, performance wheel sets. “At first we were just selecting parts from catalogs or wherever, but today we’re working with factories on the design phase; for example we’re working now on a new road disc. We’re designing wheels for specific applications.”
But as growth beckons, so does the need for a qualified workforce. For Mogridge and Mercury, that meant leaving Mississippi.
“There are a couple different reasons we made the move. The first one is networking. There’s a better pool of people to hire in Utah. It was harder for me to get someone to come down to Oxford,” he says.
“In my mind there were really three cycling hubs, or clusters, to consider,” he says. “There’s southern California, Boulder, and Utah. There are too many people in California; I wouldn’t say I’m a small town boy, necessarily, but it’s still too crowded.
“Boulder’s more my style but for us we viewed it as too expensive. We weren’t going to be able to own our own commercial space, which we eventually want. So I’d heard about Ogden and what was going on there but had never been. We’d taken ski vacations in Utah - there are five or six world-class resorts accessible from Salt Lake City. It’s a clean city, and there’s no crime. Plus we’d been to DealerCamp in Deer Valley.”
“Utah was very interested in our business. Ogden, in particular. I think they understand that it takes businesses of all sizes to build a growing industry cluster.”
If there was a close second, it was Boulder. But just as Colorado’s cycling epicenter has been the choice of others, Utah seemed the inevitable destination for Mercury. “Mayor Caldwell and Steve Fishburn of Ogden rolled out the red carpet for us on our two visits. They showed us the town, introduced us to other bike companies who made the move and really made us feel like Ogden was home.”
I asked him if he’d gotten to the point of comparing incentive packages? “No, we’re really too small. But I looked at them compared to what’s available in Mississippi. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good state to run a business - overhead is low - but Ogden’s so competitive. They sat down and said, ‘what do we need to do to get businesses interested in Ogden?’”
All in all it bodes well for region’s lifestyle manufacturing prospects. The mountain West is an emerging lifestyle superpower. Ogden’s growing cycling industry, anchored by ENVE, a carbon composite powerhouse OEM, seems a healthy rival to its more established sibling east of the divide. But as Mogridge noted, the region’s national reputation as a destination for recreation-related light industry is growing. Including more manufacturing.
Reshoring the development and manufacture of new products is on Mogridge’s radar. “We’re working on a project here that would bring more manufacturing to the U.S. The irony is that Asians love American products - they’ll pay a premium for U.S.-made.”
In Utah, or Colorado. In the West.