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

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.”

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Of course, Fortune isn’t done swimming against the tide. In a world where product distribution is undergoing its own sea change, Fortune has decided to cut ties with the biggest player in the biz.

“We currently do not do business with Amazon directly,” said Fortune. “We chose not to. We decided to move away from that two years ago because they wouldn’t maintain our pricing policies. And so that was a big lift because the dealers appreciate that we need to have a level playing field out there, and we needed to show the dealers through our actions that we value them as a partner. We’re going to maintain pricing in the marketplace.”

Pedaling forward

Fortune notes that when he and his wife bought Graber in 1989, he worked about 60 hours a week building the business and the Saris brand. Today, he still works roughly the same hours, but about half that time is now devoted to bicycle advocacy.

Fortune has helped cultivate a workforce that’s passionate about bicycling, and he’s worked hard to promote cycling throughout the state. The company’s Saris Gala has raised around $700,000 for the Wisconsin Bike Fed over the past 10 years, and Fortune has had leadership roles in organizations such as Bikes Belong and the Governor’s Bicycling Coordinating Council.

To Fortune, his advocacy efforts are simply a natural offshoot of his successful work in the bicycling industry.

“When we started the business 25 years ago, we weren’t the cycling advocates that we are today,” said Fortune. “In building the business and learning about the positive impact it has on so many different touchpoints of life, it was just natural to become advocates for cycling and do what we could to advance cycling in Madison, Wis., and nationally.”

Thanks in part to that advocacy work, what started as a passion for manufacturing as a whole has turned into a passion for cycling, and that’s benefited Saris, its Madison-area employees, and the bicycling culture.

“I’m just fortunate to be in a business I love and a great industry,” said Fortune. “Not everyone has that luxury. And so it’s finding your passion in whatever you do, because it’s not work to me. I love what I do. But for us to give back to cycling is part of our DNA as people and families. It’s what we do.”

If you would like to see Fortune speak at the Sept. 18 Icons in Business event, click here for information on registration and event details.

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