Continuing our series of interviews with the owners of independent bicycle companies, Marcus Farley catches up with Matthew Bracken, president and one of the employee owners of Independent Fabrication, the company that rose like a phoenix out of the flames of Fat City Cycles.
Independent Fabrication (IF) is unlike most other bicycle companies, because it’s an employee ownership collective, that grows as a company through group decisions and profit sharing. The bikes are designed, tested, and meticulously built in their Somerville, Massachusetts factory. The results? Their frames are a byword for quality across the cycling world and are on the wish list of many riders who are looking for that special bike for life.
BikeRadar: How did IF get started as a company?
IF started in 1995. The original founders lost their jobs when Fat City Cycles was sold to Serotta Competition Bicycle and moved to Glen Falls, New York. Instead of giving up and throwing in the towel they met as a group to strategize on how to create a new brand. They never wanted a boss again since they watched the business they loved go down and lost their jobs to poor management of the business.
They kept harping on freedom and independence, remember Boston is the home of the Boston Tea Party and is the state in which the American Revolution began. Sitting around one of their living rooms they kept coming back to being free and independent. They were about to embark on a new company specializing in manufacturing of bicycles; that is how the Fabrication part came in. Suddenly, ‘Independent Fabrication’ sprung to life.
How lucky can you get that ‘Independent’ and ‘Fabrication’ each has 11 letters and that these 22 letters found on our downtube logo work in symmetry? It seems to be either fate or a simple stroke of dumb luck. Check out the original logo found on most IF bikes: the logo moves up and down like a saw tooth. As an outsider who worked for Merlin Metalworks at the time in Cambridge, I saw this as pure genius.
What remains of Fat City in your ethos– geometry, design, philosophy, business ideas, etc.?
The only traces left of Fat City are some of the methods of production and Chris Chance’s attention to quality and details. As the brand has grown the last 13 years it has attracted men and women who are like minded who’s only thought is doing the best they can to make good bikes. We never say best because we don’t believe in best. When you are the best you have nothing to improve on. When you are good you are typically trying to make things better day to day and year to year. I feel strongly you can see that in our different products and if you ever have the chance to come to IF for a tour and meet they people who make it all happen in person you feel the love for all things bike.
Where do you get your inspirations from?
Our customers! They’re constantly seeking to further their own cycling and it is their wishes and ideas we bring to life every day. We’re simply the conduit for their obsession. Some of the inspirations come from art, nature, but most of it comes from knowing that the tool we create can be used for social reasons, competitive reasons, health reasons, environmental reasons, and financial reasons. There are a million reasons to ride and promote cycling and we like them all…there is no single reason to ride and to pin it down to only one would be unfair.
You publicize yourselves as an employee ownership collective. Can you tell us more about how this started and how it works in principle?
IF started as an employee owned company in 1995 and still is today in 2008. After working at IF for a couple of years the shareholders/owners of IF will issue shares to newer employees who truly want to be part of something bigger than themselves alone. As a shareholder their vote can be used for many issues a business will encounter over its lifespan. This does not mean that every decision that happens on a daily basis is made by a majority, but it does mean that the majority is well informed of what is going on month to month and year to year. The reason why we feel it works are the 13 years of our business growing and improving because the owners of IF being involved.
How important is handmade design to you as a philosophy? And have you ever thought about outsourcing?
Handmade design is the staple of our brand. We have spoken about outsourcing and watched the trend in our industry to have their goods and services manufactured overseas and we have decided to continue doing what we do. What would an IF be if it were outsourced or made offshore? I wouldn’t want to know. Being handmade in America for cyclists who support high quality hand crafted products is IF.
What’s your carbon footprint like?
I’d like to think our carbon footprint is low since most of our products are 100 percent recyclable. But, all businesses have carbon footprints and it is been our goal to minimize the one we have. All of our metals are recycled along with any of our solvents or dried up paints we use. We recycle all paper, plastic, glass, and metals that come into our building. The one thing that does make us feel bad is the amount of electricity needed to TIG weld a frame or the energy used in transport of materials to us or the cost to ship finished goods abroad. Ninety-five percent of the folks that work here ride to work.
Why should we buy an Independent Fabrication bike?
The reasons to purchase an Independent Fabrication are many, but the best two are quality and fit. Our pricing is custom all inclusive for all of the products we make and because we are focused on fit we work hard with our dealers and customers to build a bike they want to ride because its fit is second to none.
Titanium or steel? Which is your preferred frame material, and any plans for an all-carbon bike?
Steel is the preferred material of choice by our customers and based on IF’s history. But, Ti is the best investment a cyclist can make. Over the course of time the Ti frame always stays the same and will never rust. A carbon IF road bike? I thought we were trying to minimize our carbon footprint? Just kidding; never say never. Who knows what the future will show.
Have you a favourite bike that you’ve made over the years?
It would be cliché to say all of the bikes are our favourites, but they are…well, there is one bike we definitely like to see people race and get muddy …that would be our Planet Cross in either steel, Ti or even Reynolds 953 stainless.
What’s the most unusual frame request you’ve had?
The most unusual bike we have ever done? We did a steel Club Racer S&S torque coupler bike several years ago for a young Amish girl that was a step-through bike. It was painted gloss black and sported a silver head tube badge. It was the most expensive pixie style bike you’ve ever seen.
Do you test the bikes on local trails and roads? If so, what are you looking for during these tests?
Our bikes are tested all over the world. With a vast array of sponsored Elite and Grassroots riders we are constantly experimenting with newer ideas and materials which possibly will trickle into other IF products. The most recent example was the new Reynolds 953 tubing. Over three years ago we made two 953 track bikes for a few couriers here in Boston to beat on through our ice, snow and salt filled winters. We also built several prototype Cross frames that several of our racers used for the 2006 season. We’re looking to improve the ride characteristics and still build the frames that are strong, light and long lasting.
The Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race is arguably our toughest challenge this side of the pond. Have any of you guys contemplated having a go at it or entering an Independent Fabrication team for it?
I think it would be a great idea for a group of IF racers to descend on the Three Peaks Cyclo Cross race. All we would be needing to know is the date and time and have Richard Branson comp some plane tickets to get there. No, seriously it sounds like a lot of plain old fashioned fun and please get us the information. In exchange we’d love to invite some Brits to come over and race the most famous of New England Cross races, the Gloucester Gran Prix weekend. The course is up on the ocean. The scenery is beautiful.
Any plans for a full suspension mountain bike?
Years ago we had a proto version four-inch front and rear travel Ti/aluminum dubbed the “Tungsten Electrode”. Very few were made and at the time we neither had the human capital or actual capital to finish the project and bring it to production. We are looking again at the design and starting to put together plans to see if we can get this type of bike off the drawing board and into our customers’ hands. The linkage was a DW-Link design, and Dave Weagle and IF are starting to discuss ways for us to update the design and move forward.
What do you make of singlespeed and 29-inch bikes. Fad or here to stay?
Single Speed 29ers? What’s that? Again, just kidding…over here they are all the rage. Seven years ago I would have told you that it was a trendy thing and now, based on all the ones we design and sell I have to say it is a trend and no longer trendy. The only warning I can give you is that if you want a 29er single speed you had better be ready to pedal hard. All bike design is built around one key word, “Proportion”. Not to steal from Johnny Cochran fame, but if the bike don’t fit, don’t commit. 29ers are still more popular this side of the pond.