By Eric Peterson | Aug 20, 2018
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: High-wheel bicycles
"My father was an entrepreneur," says Barron of the company's founder, Mel. "In the 1970s, he was importing bicycles from Europe and Asia and selling them nationally."
Differentiation grew increasingly difficult as manufacturing consolidated in Asia, leading Mel to look for a gimmick. He found one in replicas of antique high-wheel bicycles, a.k.a. penny farthings, with front wheels that measured three feet across or more. "These bikes were different," says Barron. "It was a gimmick to sell his regular line."
After the bike industry hit a turbulent patch in the mid-'70s, however, Mel focused on manufacturing with Rideable Bicycle Replicas (RBR) and largely got out of importing.
"I grew up in it," says Barron. "As a child, my father would take me to work and turn me loose." The only rule: "Don't cause trouble." He joined full-time in the late 1980s after working in construction and on research boats in Florida when RBR relocated from Ohio to California.
It's a unique business. "We are the only commercial manufacturer of these bikes on the planet," says Barron. "Nobody makes them in the quantity we do." RBR makes 100 to 300 bicycles in a given year.
The company has to manufacture most components itself, a rarity in the modern bicycle industry. "Nobody makes 22-inch spokes," says Barron. "Nobody makes four-foot and bigger rims. I have to do all of that in-house."
The tires are made of solid extruded rubber, "pretty much the way they did it in the 1880s," says Barron. "The tires tend to last between 4,000 and 8,000 miles. That's not too bad."
While it makes most of the bicycles' components, RBR still has an international supply chain. "I still import some hard-to-find replica parts from India, things they started making in India in the 1890s and never stopped," says Barron.
The company also works with some local job shops, but he prefers to keep most production at the company. "It's nice not to depend on anybody else," he says.
Barron and his crew makes small runs of parts and different bicycle models, typically 10 to 50 at a time. That makes for a much more efficient process. "I can do as much time doing one bike as we can doing 10 bikes," he explains.
RBR's base model, the Boneshaker, starts at $1,029 retail. Priced at $3,000, the Superior model is based on the Gormun and Jeffrey American Challenge/Ideal bicycles made in the late 1800s. "It is about 90 percent accurate," says Barron. "That's a custom, hand-built bike. I do those one at a time."
The company has gotten into various niche markets over the years, including paddleboats and arm-powered handcycles. The latter category was overrun by inexpensive Chinese knockoffs, says Barron.
That hasn't happened with penny farthings. "It's too niche of a market," he notes. "It's a disposable income type of thing." Customers don't need it, they just want it.
Barron also works as a scuba guide on cage-diving trips to see great white sharks around the Farallon Islands in the fall.
RBR has had as many as 20 employees, but orders have slowed down in recent years. "It's gone up and down," says Barron. "I would like to build the business back up again, but I'm not sure what to go into. The bike industry these days is really cutthroat and it's really difficult to get into shops."
The rise of e-commerce has blunted the blow. "The Internet's been pretty good for me," says Barron. About 90 percent of sales are now direct, and RBR also sells directly to a few dealers. "There are always shops that want to use them for their own ends . . . mostly for promotional uses," he notes. "The distributors have been cut out."
RBR also has a solid custom business making bicycles and other products that need a vintage look. "I do a lot of stuff for Hollywood, stage shows, and theme parks," says Barron. "We've been sending stuff around the world for Disney for 30 years" -- including trikes for Tokyo Disney and a penny farthing sign on Main Street in Disneyland.
"The city has been paying us more attention the last several years. Boutique manufacturing is something they're trying to encourage."
Challenges: Barron says marketing is his biggest challenge. "The show industry has changed," he explains. "It's back to the drawing board." The Internet has been a key catalyst, but he's looking at dusting off an old tool. "I'm thinking of going back to old-fashioned traveling reps, a guy in a van," says Barron.
The price of raw materials has increased with tariffs. Domestic product is priced based on imports. Barron says the prices he's getting on steel tubing have risen nearly 40 percent since spring 2018. "I'm hoping all this tariff nonsense goes away. It's not helping."
UPS has increased its rates about 15 percent in 2018. That's also cutting into margins, but it's difficult to pass those higher bills on to customers. "Dealing with a niche market, you only have so many customers," he says.
Opportunities: More product lines. "I would like to focus on more niche markets," says Barron. "We're really good at it." It could be boats, bikes, or "something totally different."
Needs: "There's a big difference between a want and a need," says Barron, noting that he wants "new tube benders or stamping equipment or laser cutters so I don't have to stamp parts out anymore."
He adds, "We're in good shape right now. We don't have any debt. All our equipment is paid for."
That said, he has a multi-year plan to move RBR's manufacturing operation into a warehouse he owns down the street, then demolish the existing facilities (which include two small buildings, cargo containers, and sheds) and build a two-level shop. "I'm going to scrape what's here and put up one building and get it under one roof," says Barron.