Growing up, my idea of factory work was largely influenced by the opening montage from the ABC sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Hopefully, you’re old enough to remember that endless progression of bottles through the bottling plant. The message I took from that was that the plant operated on its own and the workers were there just to get things back on track if there was a screw-up. The workers weren’t particularly skilled, or engaged, hence Laverne and Shirley’s boredom.
I often suspect that the average cyclist has a similar view of bike factories in Asia. I’ve certainly read comments here and had conversations on rides with people who believe that carbon fiber frames are punched out of dies by the dozen. Such a perception is easily enough corrected. What surprised me as I visited some of those factories was just how skilled the workforce was.
The single biggest saddle manufacturer in the world is Velo. They make saddles for … well, everyone. From Fabric to Specialized to Selle This or Selle That, they make more saddles than anyone else. The company is also owned by a force of nature named Stella Wu. I’ve been hearing stories about Stella and her influence for the last 10 years or more and this was the first time I got a chance to meet her. More on that in a minute.
There can be no denying that factory work is repetitive, labor-intensive and often uncomfortable. The only way a factory can achieve any kind of efficiency is to pump out thousands of a product before shifting production to another product, of which they’ll pump out thousands more.
At Velo, we saw a largely female workforce producing the saddles. Not only did they have to work quickly, they needed terrific eye-hand coordination and a very sharp eye for precision alignment to make sure that the graphics and other details were printed correctly on the cover and that the cover was properly aligned on the saddle itself. Many of the operations I saw required alignment to within a millimeter. Doing that work correctly took a fair amount of skill. Doing that work quickly and doing it correctly hundreds of times per day took an extraordinary amount of skill.
When asked about building additional factories, particularly one in Portugal where some production has moved in an effort to shorten lead times and avoid foreign duties for the Euro market, Stella said she wasn’t so sure. Her hesitation, she said, was rooted in culture; she wasn’t sure if that was a workforce she could manage. She told us she knows how to manage her workforce in Taiwan, that she understand the source of her strength and authority, which is why her factory in Taiwan is so productive. When asked if she might do more in China, she told us it seemed unlikely. She observed that although labor costs were lower in China, the workforce isn’t as efficient, and she needs five workers there to do the work of three workers in Taiwan. Nodding, she said another factory in Taiwan was probably more likely.
It would be easy to devote a whole post to Stella and her reach in the bike industry. Unlike every other woman at the top of a company in the bike industry there, she didn’t inherit the company from her father or husband. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, as each of those companies is successful by any measure, but Stella started Velo on her own and did so after a careful examination of the bike industry and where she thought the greatest opportunity was. Shrewd doesn’t seem to get to the at the wisdom of her judgment. But Stella’s reach goes much further than saddles, and that’s another important ingredient in her reach within Taiwan; she has invested millions in real estate, well beyond just the land her factories are on. Doing business with Stella can mean more than buying saddles from her, it can mean leasing a better or larger building.
The factories we saw varied pretty widely in the amount of automation they used. Early on, I assumed that as automation went up, worker knowledge and skill would drop. While it’s true that on highly automated lines workers didn’t need the same level of physical skill and strength necessary on the more labor-intensive lines, their knowledge base had to be higher. They needed to monitor some very technical machines and be able to diagnose a problem and correct it if something went wrong. And these machines were a good bit more technical than those found in a beer-bottling plant.