Inside the Chris King Factory
During a recent visit to Portland, in the north-western state of Oregon, I was invited to tour one of America’s most famous bicycle component manufacturers.
Since 1976, Chris King has steadily built a reputation for making headsets, hubs and bottom brackets that will last for decades.
Chris started in the bike industry making road bike headsets. But when the mountain bike was being born, he found a new market eager for his products. Head sets that had been good enough for road bikes for years were not standing up to the punishment of dirt trails. They were getting pitted and coming loose. Something better was needed.
He had come from a medical toolmaking background. When you’re developing a saw for cutting human skulls, it’s important to have the highest quality materials and design. After all, how many of us, if having to undergo brain surgery, would opt for a lower cost operation using cheaper tools?
Although I was not able to meet Chris King in person during my visit, every aspect of the factory and products made there gives a consistent picture of a man of strong convictions, who is willing to go against the flow of industry norms in any aspect of his business where he thinks there’s a better way.
Without good directions, the Chris King factory would be hard to find. Not only is it tucked away on a back block of an old industrial suburb of Portland, but there is absolutely no signage on the building at all. My only clue was a truck in the car park with the Chris King logo on its side.
As I would see in everything from the building to product packaging, Chris’s philosophy is to spend money where it will improve product quality, but not a cent on anything he sees as wasteful.
Being a relatively small, high end brand, you might imagine a small, backyard workshop. But the factory is substantial, with 94 employees and many large CNC (computer numeric controlled) milling machines.
My hosts were Dylan Van Weelden, Marketing Director and Kyle von Hoetzendorff, Communications Specialist. Chris King spends minimal money on marketing. They rarely advertise and their race team sponsorship program is relatively small, low key and largely used for product development and testing. Until recently, no journalists were allowed to tour the factory at all. In fact they had a strict ‘closed door’ policy for the first 35 years of their 36 year history. Chris changed his mind, in part to help promote American manufacturing.
“We’ve been working hard at the political level, on the education of trade inAmericaand some of those changes that need to happen if we want to start producing products again as a country,” Dylan explained. “You can’t just say, ‘We want it!’, you have to create the school system that teaches people how to create things out of metal or wood, or whatever you’re producing. It doesn’t just happen.”
You can’t buy a cheaper, made in China model, of any Chris King product. He only makes one quality level of each product, which will be almost 100% made in their Portland factory, to the highest possible quality and typically at a higher price than the top of the range Shimano or SRAM top of the range offerings.
Although they started life as a headset manufacturer, and headsets are still their biggest seller by volume. Hubs are now the biggest part of their business by sales dollars, due to their higher value. Bottom brackets round out their product offering.
You can also buy Chris King coffee and coffee tampers.