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.
Our first stop on my guided tour was the staff bike parking room. It’s complete with lockers and showers. About half the staff ride to work. Employees get around $2 each way per day that they commute to work by bike. The amount depends upon the distance of their commute. They can also get a credit for using public transport or car sharing. They’re not paid in cash, but in café credits that they can use upstairs in the staff café. The quality of food and coffee on offer here would put most restaurants to shame. Last year Chris paid out $27,000 in café credits through this scheme.
The café doubles as a staff function room, complete with a piano at which Chris will play from time to time. There is a musical thread running through the factory with some of the staff coming from a guitar manufacturing background.
In fact one of their machines that is used to mill head tubes was originally used by Gibson Guitars to make parts for Gibson Les Paul Specials.
In May and September staff can also take up a challenge to commute by bike every working day of that month, in return for up to two extra paid holidays for each month that they commute every day by bike. If they commute half the days they get one day off.
“We have a near zero absentee rate those months!” Dylan said.
“We have a lot of people who come from a machining industry background, who don’t know anything about bikes, but they’re fabulous machinists. When they come to work here, they may not even have a bike. Then they might buy a really entry level bike. Then they put a Chris King headset on it and see what that’s about. Then the next year they might buy a nicer bike, and you can see people evolve through the system and become cyclists. I think that’s one of the most motivating things to see what this incentive program can do.
“But a lot of us have been riding and racing bikes for years.”
Next we visited Cielo Bikes. Despite the hundreds of small frame makers in the market, Cielo has found its niche.
Their bikes are not custom made, like the small builders, but they’re much more hand made, with much smaller production runs than Asian mass produced brands.
All frames are made from steel. Everything is hand painted, even the brand name on the down tube. There are no decals. They aim to produce 300 frames next year.
Because these hand made frames are not readily available in Australia, we quickly moved on to the much larger part of the factory devoted to making Chris King components that are sold worldwide.
We started in the raw materials store. Rows of large, solid round bars were stored in wooden racks. They were aluminium, titanium and steel, of many different sizes and metallurgical specifications. Every part of every product is made on site, with the exception of anodising, which is outsourced, and the ball bearings themselves. But bearing race manufacture and bearing assembly is all done in house.
“There are overriding principals for how Chris has created his business,” Dylan explained. “He wants to create things that are sustainable and long lasting that are made using best practice techniques.”
“All materials must be of the highest quality, then whatever you’re producing will last longer. Chris King makes decisions that are long term throughout all aspects of the business and products.
“He started the company in 1976 and still works here every day. He’s runs the show. There’s no private holders or any other nonsense.”
Next to the raw materials were a range of oil drums and large bins, propped up at an angle.
“This is a process that Chris is continuing to develop,” Kyle explained. “All the metal shavings that come out of the CNC machines are then put into these oil drums. The soy oil that we use as cutting fluid then drains into these collecting bins at the bottom.