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Saris Cycling Group’s Fortune finds way to think globally, manufacture locally

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On his way to the top of the business world, apparently no one ever told Chris Fortune that manufacturing was dead in this country, eclipsed forever by IT, finance, and health care as the kinds of sectors you should want to invest your time, energy, and money in.

Twenty-five years ago, Fortune and his wife, Sara, purchased the former Graber Products, determined to make real, tangible products in Wisconsin. It may have seemed like a counterintuitive decision, given the number of once-mighty Midwestern cities that had already hemorrhaged untold thousands of manufacturing jobs and conspired to give the region its dubious nickname, the Rust Belt.

“Back in the ’80s, when the Japanese were taking the auto industry away from us, that really troubled me, and I always wanted to find a way to build products here. That was my goal.” — Chris Fortune, president, Saris

But for Fortune, the decision was an easy one. He wanted to own a manufacturing company, and as a Chicago native who’d married a Wisconsinite, he wanted to live closer to home. So while running a power equipment business for another family in Springfield, Mo., he hired a business broker in the hopes of locating a manufacturer willing to sell.

“As crazy as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to build product here,” said Fortune, who will give a presentation on Sept. 18 at the Madison Concourse Hotel as part of the IB Icons in Business series. “That’s one reason I bought the business. Back in the ’80s, when the Japanese were taking the auto industry away from us, that really troubled me, and I always wanted to find a way to build products here. That was my goal.”

No one could fault Fortune for wanting to buoy America’s slouching manufacturing sector, but there’s political lip service and then there’s putting your money where your mouth is. Fortune was taking the far riskier route. He purchased Graber, rechristened the company Saris Cycling Group (a mashup of the owners’ names, “Sara” and “Chris”), and got to work on growing the small bike rack manufacturing company.

He did that and then some — and 25 years later, Saris’ arrow is still pointing upward.

“When we bought the business in ’89, we had about 23 employees,” said Fortune. “Right now we have about 180, and we build our stuff right here in Madison. So we’re really excited about the future of our categories of product we’re competing in on a global basis. Over 30% of our business is outside the United States, and we’re in 60 countries, and that’s been growing steadily for a long time.”

Finding opportunities

Of course, just because Fortune was taking a bit of a risk by resolving not only to run a manufacturing company but to build and source the vast majority of its products domestically, that didn’t mean he was going in blind. He knew he would be competing with cheaper foreign labor, and he had to have a plan.

As a proud Wisconsin manufacturer, he took full advantage of the Wisconsin Idea, working with UW-Stout through its Manufacturing Technology Transfer Program to find innovative ways to improve productivity and maintain profit margins.

“Through their program and the processes that they put in place, we were able to compete globally with our products,” said Fortune.

The Fortunes also had to find a way to build their brand. Today, the company’s products are both widespread and widely respected among the fervid denizens of the bicycling subculture, but that didn’t happen magically or overnight. The company has found niches in the marketplace through its line of PowerTap products (which appeal to the elite cyclist), CycleOps (which is geared toward cyclists who want to train and improve their conditioning), and Saris (which is for people who want to bike for recreation or transportation).

“It’s just understanding the white space and where the opportunities are,” said Fortune. “Where is the white space in the marketplace, and can you deliver value there?”

Home-grown success

Today, Saris’ website proudly declares that “every Saris rack is made right here in bicycle-crazed Madison, Wisconsin.” The vast majority of the materials the company uses are also sourced within a 500-mile radius of the capital city.

In fact, Saris has turned the usual model on its head. Instead of products being shipped from all over the world to our backyard, the company is designing and manufacturing products in Madison and shipping them worldwide.

Keeping its manufacturing stateside was a tall order, and Saris was well ahead of the current on-shoring trend. But the company did it and managed to thrive. For his part, Fortune would like to see more companies given the kinds of resources that he was afforded through the UW-Stout Manufacturing Technology Transfer initiative.

“We need to have more programs like that,” said Fortune. “We had to advocate to have them come down to Madison to [help us], that was a little bit outside their market that they worked on, but it was really important. It helped position us to be competitive, and we have been.”

(Continued)

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