Bikes have been the center of my life ever since I can remember. I don’t remember how old I was, but some of my best childhood memories are of me and my brother going to BMX races. I loved bikes so much that if I wasn’t riding one, I would be working on a bike. For most of my life, I’ve used my bike to race or to commute. In 1985, I bought an MTB for commuting and I got hooked. When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I got serious about road racing as well as MTB racing.
In my early 20’s, I moved to Montana and immediately became very involved in regional road bike and MTB racing. At that age, I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else, but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do. The only thing I was interested in was riding and working on bikes, so it made sense to explore frame-building.
Thanks to great shop classes in school, I learned quite a lot about general metalwork, fabrication, machining, welding and mechanics. In the metal shop in junior high, I built a mini-bike from scratch. Mr. Earl was my teacher then and he was pivotal in setting me on the path that I am on today. I always did my own mechanical repairs and fabricated parts that were not available or which I could not afford. Because of shop class and numerous hours working on my own, I developed a very broad skill-set such that it wasn’t so much of a stretch to imagine that I could build my own bike frame.
As a poor college student, I couldn’t afford a really nice frame so I decided to build my next road frame. I bought a Columbus tubeset and got started. I hand-mitered the tubes, fixtured, aligned and tacked the frameset on a plywood workbench and TIG welded it. I used that frame for racing over several years; eventually, I also built an MTB frame. I really loved the process of building my own frame and wanted to keep building, so I started building for anyone and everyone who would pay for material.
Pretty soon, requests came in droves and I had enough experience to start charging an honest fee. After that, the rest is history. I built and built and built. I built for people, companies and racers. I built road and MTB, singles and tandems. I built coupling frames, suspension frames. I built with steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber.
More than 3500 frames later, I am still building frames and still loving every minute of it. I don’t see an end to what I’m doing and I don’t ever plan to retire. If I’m lucky, I’ll be writing new pages for my site and building frames in the next 30 years. To give you an idea of where I’ve been and what I’m about, I put together a little history of Strong Frames. Following is a tour of the shops and the stages of development my frame-building experience over the last 20 years. I hope it gives you a little insight on why I’m building frames. Thanks for reading.
When I started my first shop, I lived in a condo and had no place to set up, so my grandmother let me set up in a corner of her garage. I still had a full-time job, so I built on evenings and weekends. I mitered everything by hand and used a workbench and v-blocks for a jig. I finally purchased a Hank James jig, but had very little else in the way of tools.
While I was very grateful to have the garage, it wasn’t heated and I shared it with a car, so it was crowded. I needed to find a place that I could spread out and work year-round. After about a year, I found a little rental house with a heated, detached garage, so off I went to shop number two.
I don’t really have any pictures of my first shop, but it was pretty short-lived because a place with no heat in Montana isn’t ideal.
Hayes was a good time. The shop was about 300 square feet and worked nicely. I started to build a pretty good collection of tools. I purchased an Enco Drill/Mill for light machining and mitering, as well as a bunch of other tools that allowed me to be more accurate and efficient. I still had a full-time job aside from framebuilding, but the business was growing. Between my two jobs, I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
When I moved here, I had sold my condo and hoped to find a little house with a shop. In 1996, I found the perfect little house. I bought it and moved my shop and myself to Lamme St.
I finally quit my day job during the Lamme era. Relying solely on my income from Framebuilding, I couldn’t afford to live in the house. There was, however, a two-level barn in the back so I rented out the house and lived on the top floor of the barn with my shop below. There was no running water or kitchen so I shared those facilities with the guys renting the house. Money was tight, but I really wanted to make this thing fly and was willing to do whatever it takes.
In the summer of ’98, I broke my collar bone so my friend, Tony Smith, started helping around the shop. Tony had so much technical expertise and machining skills that we soon decided to join forces and he became a partner in the business. The internet was just starting to take off and I had set up a site very early. This is the year when I stumbled across an old Waterford alignment table in WI. I traded it for a frame and Tony, along with our friend Eric “The Big Fig” Figura, loaded up our buddy Jon Christopher’s old pickup and brought it to our shop. We completely restored the alignment table and it is easily my most prized Framebuilding tool.
It was also during this period that business really started to pick up. With the internet, we were able to sell our product all over the US. We started building a lot of frames and we were actually making a little money. The barn soon felt quite small and we were able to relocate to a larger shop which was being vacated by a friend of mine for another space. Wallace was the first “real” commercial location Strong Frames occupied which set me off on a path which, in hindsight, I can see was not really well thought out.
Moving to the Wallace shop really made us feel that we were in business. I was a full-time framebuilder with a business partner and our shop was located in a commercial location. I hadn’t realized it, but I had chosen a fork in the road – one way was to stay small, while the other was to grow the business and hire employees. I chose growth. Looking back, it is easy to see that small was more my style, but at the time I wasn’t aware of that. Some people just have to go and find out for themselves which is exactly what I did.
During this time, Tony and I stayed busy, made a little money and really started to dial into our process. Tony was in charge of process engineering and tool making. He also helped with the finishing work on the frames. I marketed, sold and built the frames. We held an open house/BBQ each spring as well as organized spring and fall trips to the “Desert” (Moab and Fruita). This was a really fun time. I have Tony to thank for that because he was a great social organizer. We were a strong (no pun intend) part of the local cycling community. We also promoted races and sponsored teams.
Tony and I decided that we could make more money and control our turn-around if we finished our own frames. We decided on using powder coat because it was environmentally friendly and produced incredibly durable finishes. We decided to obtain a loan to buy a system but we didn’t have room for it in our current shop. Coincidentally, our landlord, who also happened to be my next door neighbor whom I have known all my life, was vacating a 2500 s/f shop. We decided to take the new shop, buy the powder coat system and move. Our new shop was on Lea Avenue and off we went.
On Lea Avenue, we were working more and on a larger scale than at Wallace. We now did in-house powder coating, we bought a CNC machine for full suspension, and we hired a couple of employees. By this time, we started building for other brands. Our overhead was increasing and we soon found out that while contract building wasn’t very profitable, it really helped even out the cash flow so we could pay our bills and our employees.
During this time, Dave Kirk (www.kirkframeworks.com) who just moved into town from Serotta stopped by the shop to introduce himself. We became fast friends and remain so to this day. He started to work for us part-time and, over the years, he eventually became a full-time employee. It was through Dave’s contact with Dave Halstead that we hooked up with Ibis LLC. Scot Nicol, the founder of Ibis, had just sold the company but was still working with the new owners to keep them on track. We started to build all their steel frames in addition to our own and several other brands. We were still having a lot of fun. We had some great employees at the time like Matt “The Head” Calanchini and Isaac “Shop Boy Superstar” Strout. We still had annual open houses and we rode bikes like crazy. It was also really cool to hook up with an industry icon like Ibis.
Growing sales as well as the continuing work from Ibis and other brands meant that we eventually ran out of room and production capacity. The new owners of Ibis LLC, Eric and Roger, decided that there was no point in having an empty shop in Santa Rosa so we figured out a way to move their tools and equipment to Bozeman in order to increase production. Once again, we moved to a shop in an old flour mill that was about 5000 s/f.
Story Mill is a cool old historic landmark that used to produce flour and was owned by Bozeman’s version of the Rockefellers, the Story family. This was when things were really getting crazy. Ibis LLC had moved all their equipment up and we had a serious head of steam going. We were building a lot of frames and powder-coating them. Unfortunately, things were a little shaky at Ibis LLC.
There are two sides to every story, so I won’t belabor the point, but here is how I see things. First, let me say that Scot Nicol is a hero and I have nothing but good things to say about him. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same about the two that bought Ibis LLC. They couldn’t keep us paid for the work we were doing. We stopped building their frames and they started having them built somewhere else rather than pay us. About a year later, they went bankrupt and we split their property with another creditor, but we were stuck in a shop that was much too large and strapped with a bunch of Ibis LLC debt.
So I sold my house, which I had been renting out. I used the money I made to pay off some Ibis LLC bills. I also funded my portion of a down payment on a new building that I, along with two partners, built in 2002. We were lucky to find a site that was centrally located in the downtown area of Bozeman, so I got this idea that I would attach a bike shop to the frame shop and create a cycling community center. Inspired by some of the cool brewpubs I’d been in, the bike shop looked into the frame shop through a large viewing window. In early 2002, we moved to the new building and opened Stark Raven Cycles. Ibis (http://www.ibiscycles.com/) and Scot Nicol, along with new owners, have since been reborn and are doing great!
Mendenhall was a period of great change. We moved to our brand-new custom building, opened Stark Raven Cycles (SRC), and had a giant open house. Tons of people showed up and we quickly had a good foothold in the market. Surprisingly, SRC exceeded our sales volume forecasts and made money in the first year. Our initial model was to be a very small, lean, pro shop with one or two employees and only cater to the high-end. Unfortunately, we (really just me, Tony, and Loretta hated the idea) got greedy and lost focus. We grew too fast and made a fatal mistake: we took on skis. While we labored under the weight of a failing ski investment, Strong Frames suffered from my lack of attention. All of a sudden, Strong Frames, which originally had enough strength to build the building, fund the bike shop, and pay its staff, was struggling to survive. I had to decide if I wanted to risk it all to save the bike shop or abandon the bike shop and save Strong Frames.
I learned a lot and don’t regret anything, but it was easily the hardest time in my business history. Tony moved to Lewistown to start his own business, “The Freewheeling Tony Smith”. Tony and I are still on good terms, but I miss him around the shop. Things have a funny way of working out and it’s almost like things happened the way they were supposed to. I had several employees leave, a couple more left for college, and we saw an opportunity to close the store. One of my good friends here in town, Pete Hendrickson, owns a really cool brewpub across the street, (http://www.montanaaleworks.
So now we had an empty retail space and a large, underperforming framebuilding shop. I had Nic Schmidt working for me at the time, and his talent and smarts really helped me make some good choices. Loretta, Nic, and I decided to downsize the shop to the smallest space manageable and move back to a one-man operation. I kept Nic for a one-year transition period, which allowed him to look for work and Strong Frames to transition to a one-man shop. Meanwhile, I found tenants for the space I’d vacated.
Remember when I talked about that fork in the road back on the Wallace page? Well this was the beginning of our trip down the other fork. We quickly found that it fits us much better and knowing what I know now, I can see this is the fork I should have taken all along. Thing is, you can’t be told that, you need to learn it. You don’t know what you don’t know and had I not tried, I’d always wonder.
Loretta and I chugged along here for seven more years but what we really wanted was a framebuilding studio at home. We weren’t enjoying being landlords and the commercial environment didn’t lend itself to our creative side. We wanted to surround ourselves with gardens, not asphalt, and work at a mellow pace, paying more attention to our customers and taking time for ourselves. We had been working like dogs for the previous 10 years and now felt we had found a way to balance our creative needs with our business needs.
What we dreamed of was a small building behind our house among our gardens. We called our dream the “10 Year Plan”. It would be a place providing us with privacy, simplicity, and a peaceful environment in which to spend our days working. In 2011 we finally got the nerve to put our building on the market. We were a little worried because of the soft economy, but we finally sold it. As a matter of fact we sold it to another local business in the bicycle industry, (http://www.twenty6products.com/). We couldn’t be happier that the building has stayed in the bicycle family. Now we were able to build our studio and work from home.
Almost 10 years to the day our “10 year plan” is complete. We built what I expect to be our final shop behind our home in the beautiful historic Bon Ton neighborhood, smack dab in the middle of Bozeman. We have a 15 foot commute and best off all the shop doors open into the back yard which Loretta has beautifully landscaped, including flower beds and a water feature. The yard is fenced and our dogs are free to play all day long. It’s just as we imagined it. We’ve simplified our lives and are spending our days doing what we love in a place we are very comfortable.
So now looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. The journey has taught us a lot. We like to kid we have a masters in business, except it cost a lot more than if we had earned it from a university. Many lessons were fun and many pretty harsh, but in the end, lessons none the less and very valuable. We’ve also met and made friends with many great people who still bring value to our lives. So all in all, you can never imagine how things will unfold, but doing what is right and being positive will always serve you well, it has us. We’d like to thank all the wonderful customers, vendors, employees, friends and family that have supported us over the years.
Pictures include Strong Frames Inc’s 20th Anniversary BBQ.