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Updated: April 9, 2020 @ 9:27 am
Carl Strong, owner of custom bicycle frame manufacturer Strong Frames, has been building frames for 20 years and recently began building custom frames out of his garage in Bozeman.
Bozeman’s historic Bon Ton neighborhood is quiet when Carl Strong walks across his yard around 7 a.m. to clock in at his backyard bicycle manufacturing shop, Strong Frames.
The short walk, usually made with coffee in hand, returns Strong to where he began making bicycles 20 years ago. Strong’s grandmother used to live in the house and let him set up a small shop in the corner of the garage while he raced competitively and attended Montana State University.
The years between then and now saw Strong and his wife, Loretta, with whom he runs the company, steadily build their business. But as it grew, the company pulled Strong across the spectrum from craftsman to businessman.
It was that slide that led the husband and wife to shrink their business and move it back to Strong’s family home on South Willson Avenue.
“We just decided, ‘you know what? It’s just not worth it.’ Because in the long run, we just want to be happy and I don’t think that would’ve made us happy,” Loretta said. “It was just too much. It was way too much.”
After the short walk across the lawn, Strong typically settles into a chair by the door to the small, but tidy, backyard workshop. He responds to emails, checks his inventory and prepares purchase orders for various parts. Loretta comes in about an hour later. They talk about their day’s schedule and what orders will be worked on.
Strong then begins building bike frames. He walks along the U-shaped workshop to a box with files on each customer, filled with measurements gathered through a series of interviews. Strong picks one of the files and gathers tubes before cutting them so they’ll fit together. Then they’re taken over to another station where the tubes are de-burred, polished and cleaned.
The tubes are arranged together and welded into a frame on a big table from an old Schwinn factory in Connecticut. Loretta takes the frames and sandblasts them in a dusty area of the garage, away from the main workshop. Strong attaches all the other bike parts to the frame when Loretta brings it back. The bike then gets wrapped up, shipped off to a painter in Colorado and off to the customer.
All in all, it takes about four hours to build a steel-frame bike and between six and eight for a titanium frame, Strong said.
“We never work past five and we never work on weekends,” Strong said.
It didn’t always take Strong less than a day to construct a bike. He perfected the technique over his 20-year building career that began when Strong was a “rabid bicycle racer,” but couldn’t afford to buy a new bike frame.
A friend at Summit Bike & Ski bought Strong a bike tube set at wholesale for him to put together. It launched him down the path to owning his own business — something Strong had wanted to do for as long as he can remember — even though “at first the frames were horrible and took forever to make.”
All he had at the time was a business license, a brand name, a logo and a space in his grandmother’s garage. After a year of that, Strong made the first of several moves as the company grew.
First he moved into the garage at a rental house on West Hayes Street in 1994. Then Strong Frames migrated to Lamme Street when Strong bought a house with a barn in the backyard. After two years, the business moved into its first commercial location on North Wallace Avenue in 1997.
Strong Frames spent another two years at its North Wallace building, before moving to a still larger facility. The company began taking on contract work from Ibis Cycles, a larger, more established bike manufacturer. It kept growing and soon moved into an even larger shop on Story Mill Road in 2000.
Strong Frames ended up building 1,000 bikes one year at Story Mill. But Ibis came under different ownership and went bankrupt, leaving Strong Frames with an outsized facility — and an established name in the industry.
“We took that opportunity (in 2002) to build a shop on Mendenhall, which we built ourselves,” Strong said.
The combination retail store, called Stark Raven Cycles, and manufacturing shop was a mistake, Loretta said. It got away from the company’s original goal of selling a small number of expensive, high-end custom bikes. Instead, the new store began selling low-end bikes, getting into ski tuning — even though the Strongs don’t ski.
“We just completely lost focus,” Strong said.
“It was very frustrating because when you’ve got $7,000 to $15,000 bikes shipping out the door, and then you have them sitting next to a $300 bike that’s just there for a tune up,” Loretta added. “The way you have to handle them is different.”
Oddly enough, the Strongs began a string of good luck just as it seemed they were on the brink of failure.
A closing sale cleared the retail store of almost all its products in one weekend in 2005. Most of the shop employees ventured off on their own. Then the couple put their collective “head down, made sure all (the) bills were paid” and used their stature within the bike frame industry to weather the recession.
In 2011, with the economy beginning to turn, the company started working with the city to move their shop back into the garage at the house of Strong’s grandmother. He and his wife had moved into the house. The city gave Strong Frames the OK at the end of 2012 to start working in the garage — which has since been converted into a full workshop — not long after the Strongs were able to sell their building on Mendenhall.
“Just like perfect timing across the board,” Strong said. “I can’t tell you how lucky we’ve been at every turn.”
It seems the constant moving around and trying to scale the business up is behind Strong Frames. Chasing the idea of a large successful business led Strong and his wife to realize what they wanted of their business. While it took a lot of effort and, in hindsight, they made mistakes, the two are happy to be back where the business started and have the know-how to keep it there.
“It ultimately was a lifestyle choice,” Strong said. “We’ve never been motivated by making a ton of money, getting rich. We just want to live a comfortable life and do something that we really enjoy and feel good about.”
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