Saris bike rack company going strong, manufacturing in Madison

When Chris Fortune and his wife, Sara, bought the Madison-based Graber bike rack company nearly 30 years ago, they vowed to keep making the products in Dane County.

The Fortunes, who several years later changed the the name of the firm to Saris — a combination of their first names — have stuck to their word, even though they could have cut costs by moving production to Mexico or Asia.

“One of the missions we had when we bought this company was to manufacture here in the United States and ship globally,” explained Chris, a native of Chicago.

“We figured with innovative designs and smart manufacturing, we’d be able to do that, and we’re still at it here in Madison,” added Fortune, whose 200-employee company makes rear-mounted bicycle carriers, CycleOps trainers, PowerTap power meters and other cycling accessories.

Not that the Fortunes haven’t looked at production costs south of the border or in Asia.

“But that’s been more from a competitive standpoint to see how inexpensively things can be made,” he said. “It only makes sense to keep up to date on that sort of thing. We’re always looking at stuff like that. But some of the things we produce here cost us the same as if we made them in Mexico or China.”

Shortly after he and his wife, who grew up in a family that manufactured metal furniture, bought the company, they connected with a UW-Stout technology transfer program.

“They were able to come in here and help us reconfigure our manufacturing facility to improve our workflow and focus in on taking labor out of the process,” he said. “They rerouted our plant, helped us with a new information system and gave us the foundation to do what we have done over the last 28 years.

“With that help and some of the tools that they provided, it became added-value manufacturing. If you touched it, you needed to add value. We’ve worked with different folks over the years, but it was the UW-Stout program was really the catalyst to figure out how we could stay here, build something competitive and be profitable at the same time.

“It’s a challenge because of the product that is coming in from outside the United States and the price at which other companies can build it. It’s tough for a U.S. manufacturer to compete globally with all the laws and regulations we have to deal with that others don’t. We are somewhat handicapped because of that.”

Saris’ main competitors in the bicycle carrier field are Yakima and Thule, both of which manufacture abroad. Saris focuses on rear hitch-mounted and trunk racks, which are easier to use.

Though the privately held company doesn’t release sales figures, Fortune said the firm is doing well. And while Saris currently has no unfilled positions, he worries about finding and keeping skilled workers.

“The overall problem right now is the humongous shortage of labor here in Wisconsin and throughout the United States,” he said. “I’m especially concerned about who is going to build things here, especially with the negative rhetoric going on in Washington, D.C. about our border to the south.

“We’re not being smart about how to manage the massive labor force of able and dedicated people that wants to come here and work. I think it is a big mistake how we are dealing with that.”

Fortune said 80 percent of the materials that go into Saris’ products come from within 200 miles of Madison.

“Some really small parts come from farther away,” he said. “But by and large, we are looking at sourcing locally, whether it is the aluminum extrusions or the tubing that we use in our products. We have one injection molder in Oconomowoc that has done an amazing job for us for more than 20 years. We try to keep our supply network has close to us as we can.”

Fortune describes himself as “slow-rolling” cyclist who tries to ride his bike several times a week when the weather is good. He said he and his wife both remain “in love with bicycling.”

“We see all the benefits of what it can do for the community and people at large,” he said. “I’m going on a trip to Africa through a company called World Bicycle Relief, which raises money to donate special bikes to a communities to provide transportation and move commerce there.”

In Dane County, Saris employees serve on bike advocacy boards. In addition, the company co-sponsors the Ride2Recovery, Bike to Work Week, Bike MS and Bratfest.

The Fortunes also have given bicycles to workers who did not have them and promote cycling on local trails and on a mountain bike course in back of the company offices, which were once a farmhouse.

Ryan Birkicht, a Saris spokesman who has worked at Saris for three years, said Saris added CycleOps and PowerTap meters to its fold to keep manufacturing levels steady throughout the year. Bike racks sell well in the spring and summer, while most of Saris’ indoor trainers — which cost as much as $1,200 and can be linked to electronic games and simulated courses — are sold during the fall and winter, when it’s tough for cyclists to get outside in cold climates.

Birkicht called Saris an “employee-centric company that goes above and beyond to make people who work here feel like part of family.

“The Fortunes have also created a bike-friendly commuter culture here with showers and lockers,” he said. “We also have noon-hour lunch rides in good weather; they subsidize costs for yoga classes and in-house massages to make sure that employees are mentally and physically happy. That helps make this place a great place to work.”

–By Brian E. Clark