WisBiz In-Depth: S&S Cycle builds speed in tranquil setting

By Gregg Hoffmann

VIOLA – Life seems slow and sedate among the hills and valleys near this small southwestern Wisconsin town. That is until you come to 14025 County Highway G.

There you will find S&S Cycle Inc., the leading manufacturer of high performance engines and components for motorcycles in the country, if not the world.

S&S was founded on speed, by world record holder George Smith Sr., in 1958. Now under the leader of Smith’s grandson, Brett, S&S remains devoted to making engines and parts that make motorcycles, ranging from Harleys to custom cycles, go faster.

“My grandfather set his first world speed record in 1954, four years before the company was formed,” said Smith, who became president of the company in 2003. “My grandfather’s philosophy was very simple: ‘make all motorcycles go faster.’ Actually, it was all vehicles.”

Today, S&S employs more than 400 people, ranging from engineers to workers on the assembly line. Smith hopes to add 50 to 75 employees by the end of this year.

The company has opened a 170,000 square foot facility in La Crosse, which will house training and certification programs for dealers and others from around the world, customer service, distribution and other functions once it is completed.

Many of those divisions have already moved there since last August. Manufacturing and related activities will remain at the Viola location.

S&S might be best known in Wisconsin for the development, production, marketing and sales of performance parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But, the company has more than 6,000 domestic and international customers, primarily dealers, distributors and, most recently, American motorcycle manufacturers like Victory Motor Cycles, Indian, Titan and Big Dog. Tens of thousands of riders annually install S&S parts on their bikes.

The company’s line of Super carburetors, with a distinctive chrome teardrop air cleaner cover, has been the industry’s most popular carburetor for years.

S&S products also have won numerous awards in competition. Some recent ones include Hot Bike’s High Tech Product of the Year for its performance motors, American Rider’s Aftermarket Company of the Year, and Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year’s Special Award for “Relentless Research & Development.”

Family History Is S&S History

George Smith Sr. was passionate about his Harley-Davidsons and devoted to making them faster. Riding a bike he called Tramp, Smith raced on dirt tracks outside of Chicago after his return from WWII and eventually set records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Smith set the land speed record in 1954 using homemade pistons, cylinders and Knuckle heads that he modified to take two Riley carburetors. He also developed lightweight push rods that were considered innovative.

In 1958, Smith and a friend, George Stankos, started S&S in Blue Island, Illinois, just south of Chicago. The S&S stood for their last names.

A year later, Smith bought out Stankos. His wife, Marge, whose maiden name also was Smith, became the second S in S&S and played a big role in the development of the company. The couple first ran the business out of the basement of their home.

“My grandmother was an equal partner in the business and knew more technically than most males do nowadays,” Brett Smith said. “She certainly could hold her own. She was a woman pioneer, building a manufacturing business with her husband in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She pretty much worked at this business until she passed.”

Together, the couple built the business. S&S pioneered the stroker motor with flywheels and connecting rods. The company introduced performance carburetors followed by big bore cylinders called Sidewinders with pistons to match.

As Harley grew and changed the images of motorcycles, S&S kept pace as a supplier of performance parts. In fact, at times, the company seemed to be setting the pace.

Smith Sr. always wanted to run a ranch and knew of the Kickapoo Valley because of vacations. In 1969, he and Marge bought a 700-acre farm and moved S&S to that site. In fact, the entrance today reads S&S Ranch.

“The family loved the Driftless area,” Brett said. “Over the years, we have gotten wonderful employees from the area and have been able to provide jobs.”

After Smith Sr. died, George Jr., Brett’s father, took over as president, with Marge remaining very active in decision-making. The company continued growing. Brett joined the company in 2002 and was named president in 2003.

Racing has always been a big part of S&S. In many ways, it has served as on the track R&D for the company. Motorcycles with S&S engines and parts have been setting records and winning championships for a long time. The company sponsors a race team that has had great success in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). George Jr. and George Rice, one of the legendary motorcycle figures in history, run the venture that has the race team.

Taking It To The Next Level

Brett didn’t think the presidency of S&S was in “his stars” when he was going to Richland Center High School. After graduation, he went to the University of Minnesota and then West Point. He served as an officer in the military and later earned a MBA at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business.

Smith went to work for John Deere as a project manager. Then, the family called.

“Even though I am a Smith, my path to get here was a round-about way,” Smith said. “I was doing my own thing. I had done an internship here, but then went back to work. After being on the job for about six months, I got an email on New Year’s Day, Dec. 31, 2001, suggesting I come here to replace one of my uncles, who supported the move.

“I’ve certainly been blessed by God. I believe the Lord gave me a good mind. He gave me the opportunity to experience the successes and failures and learn from them. I’ve always been taken advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given.

“Certainly, the fact I am a Smith gave me the opportunity to come here, but it wasn’t easy. None of the family members wanted me to come here solely for that reason. In some respects, maybe my hurdle was even greater to jump over than other people. While my family was pleased with what I had done with my life, they wanted to make sure I was a good fit. The first 18 months here were spent evaluating my personality to see if I could lead the company.”

Smith says he “is a very direct, hard-charging individual,” but also is “extremely loyal, and although I am very confident I do very much solicit other people’s input. I believe the best way to get to the best answer is to listen to what everybody has to say.”

Rigorous behavioral interviews for new employees, especially those in management positions, have become trademarks of Smith. Quotes like “S&S wouldn’t be doing it if it were easy; leave the easy stuff for someone else” and “If we can’t do it as a team, it’s probably not worth doing” have become foundations for the working culture at S&S.

Smith says he combines leadership skills he learned in the military with Christian values to set a tone of “honesty and fairness,” which he tried to spread throughout the company.

This approach is intended to keep S&S growing and at the top of its industry, and to develop the company as a leader in Wisconsin and industry business practices.

“When I got here, we already had the best products in the business,” Smith said. “Now, we’re trying to lead in other ways. To work here you have to be honest and fair. To be a manager and leader here you have to show what we call the ethical pillars. You have to be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the whole.

“My goal is not only make sure we are an industry leader in product and innovation, but also an industry leader in business practices. We are on the cutting edge here of business practices 24-7. It’s not just about the company, but the next level for business overall.”

S&S is committed to working with the EPA on adhering to and achieving regulatory standards for both air and noise emissions. “We’ve embarked on our own state of the art engine development program for the 2008 50-state emissions standards,” Smith said.

The company is very involved in the Boys and Girls Club, the Children’s Museum in La Crosse and other community projects. Smith said he considers such involvement very important to ethical business practices.

State Needs Business Leadership

Smith said Wisconsin needs business leaders, especially more in state government. “At one point, we seriously considered moving out of the state because of the business climate here, but as a family we decided to stick it out for other reasons and see if we couldn’t help change things,” Smith said.

S&S was the first company in the Midwest to participate in a new market tax credits program and plans to cooperate in other private-public sector partnerships.

The La Crosse city government has helped a great deal in the company’s expansion in that city. “La Crosse is a great, great city,” Smith said. “It’s a working man’s town, and was a great match for us. La Crosse is the most awesome opportunity that S&S has had in quite some time.”

State government still needs to improve, in Smith’s opinion. “We’ve had too many politicians who don’t know anything about business in place for too long,” he said. “There’s a difference between making laws, and making laws that make sense. The bottom line is if you don’t have business you have difficulties. Anything the government can do to help us do business will be returned many times over.

“You have to have manufacturing. If you don’t have manufacturing, you’re not going to have the tax base to support the school systems. If you don’t support the school systems, you’re not going to properly educate the kids. If the kids aren’t properly educated, you’re not going to have good employees for highly technical positions.

“If you don’t have higher technical positions, all you have is low wage labor. The United States does not have a competitive advantage in the world on low wage labor. So, you have to have a blend.”

Smith feels strongly about maintaining a well-educated workforce, because perhaps the main reason S&S has remained in Wisconsin, and been successful, is its workers.

“The bottom line is our culture is really the most important aspect we have, and our culture is made up of people,” Smith said. “So, if you take it a step further, people are our most important asset. What we have here are the kind of people who is you were in a battle, if you were an alley fight, you’d want them at your back; if you were in a firefight you’d want them in your fox hole.

“Some of the best Americans you can find are right here in the state of Wisconsin. That’s why we are here. I think too many times we take these things for granted. If you take care of your employees, they are going to take care of your customers.

“If they take care of your customers, they are going to buy your product. If people buy your product, you can hire more people. It’s a snowball effect. It just keeps rolling down the hill and getting bigger and bigger.”