Monday, July 25, 2016

Don’t forget the Motor City. (Zak Pashak doesn’t.)

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who took Econ 101, and/or American Post-War History, that the mass-employment manufacturing jobs that flourished in the US in the 1950’s and 1960’s aren’t coming back again. Ever. Despite what He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak keeps saying, and despite the attempts of the daughter of He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak to bring back some of the manufacture of her eponymous clothing line from China and Vietnam.

There’s globalization. There’s automation. There’s a lot of things.

And they’re getting in the way of the three-shifts-a-day, millions of decently paying semi-skilled jobs that were available for the asking for those with little education and few career ambitions beyond holding onto a job that would help them support their family.

Our job as a society, of course, is to figure out just what all those displaced workers and their kids and grandkids are going to do. But that’s a discussion for another day, and one that involves a more rational approach than the one we’re hearing from He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak.

While those lunch pail, factory whistle jobs – and I grew up in  a place where we could actually hear factory whistles blow off at noon – aren’t going to be “reshored” in any great number, I am always heartened to hear about manufacturing success, on however small a scale, occurring in old Rust Belt cities. Like Detroit.

In this spirit, I give you the Detroit Bikes factory, which is producing wheeled vehicles of the two-wheel variety, where the pistons doing the pumping are your legs.

When founder Zak Pashak got into the bike biz, he envisioned that his outfit would one day have tractor trailers backing up to pick up and deliver the goods.

“This was my dream when we got the factory—watching semis drive away at the end of the day,” Pashak says. (Source: Bloomberg)

The bikes he was watching being driven off were heading to Brooklyn, where they’ll become part of the city’s Citi Bike fleet. Citi Bike is one of the many urban bike-sharing systems springing up. In Boston, it’s Hubway, and, if I were so inclined, I could pick one up across the street from my house.

When his factory opened in 2013, bicycle manufacturing in the U.S. had all but disappeared. The long, downward spiral began in the 1980s, when industry-giant Schwinn shifted work to Asia, a cost-saving move that other manufacturers such as Huffy soon copied. In 2015 only 2.5 percent of the estimated 12.6 million bikes sold in the U.S. (not including those for children) were made here, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. “A lot of people thought it was really goofy when I first started this,” says the bearded Pashak, who describes Detroit as “a good spot for urban revitalization to take hold” and is prone to similarly grandiose talk about changing the world. If his technology weren’t 200 years old, he could pass for a startup founder.

Well, actually he is a startup founder. Except his startup doesn’t appear to be looking for a ton of VC $, or to become one of the vaunted, billionaires-based-on-nothing unicorns. Pashak is actually producing something tangible. Easily understandable. Definitely useful. Climate friendly. And a lot of other good things. Of course, it helps if you’re gong to start up a manufacturing startup to come from a well-to-do background.

Pashak, whose former stepfather was an oilman and co-owner of the Calgary Flames, had millions to spend on risky endeavors when he relocated to Detroit from Calgary five years ago.

Hey, at least Pashak is doing something with it, rather than posing on Rich Kids of Instagram.

Pashak’s is not the only bike company setting up shop in Detroit. Shinola also does bikes (among other goods). But Detroit Bikes is a serious bike-manufacturing endeavor, and is looking to produce 10,000 bikes this year, based largely on his deal with Motivate, “the company that runs bike-sharing programs in 12 metro areas.” One of the programs Motivate runs is Hubway. So I’m probably seeing some of Detroit Bikes’ wares just outside of my front door. (Not just across the street. Sometimes Hubway users are tootling along on the sidewalks at the foot of my steps. When they should be tooling along on the street. It’s only a few of them. But still… In any case, it’s better than having a Segway tootling along on my sidewalk.)

Why Detroit? For one thing, he was drawn to the city because some of his action heroes – Magnum PI, RoboCop, Beverly Hills Cop – had ties to the Motor City. Plus,

“It’s got a history of manufacturing; there are a lot of people who’ve got skills who haven’t been able to use them in a long, long time,” he says.

Well, there’s that. And a mighty good “that” it is at that. He’s got 50 workers. Not exactly River Rouge, but that’s okay.

After walking through the factory, Pashak looks for a quiet moment away from the banging of metal and lingering smell of welded steel. Outside, the street is calm and empty. “Having a factory that impacts the community directly is very cool,” he says. Some of his workers even walk to work: “As an urbanist, idealist kind of guy, that’s the coolest thing.”

Gotta love this guy.Wheel on, Detroit Bikes, wheel on!

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