I’ve led a very middle-class existence. Since graduating from college (and graduate school), the closest I’ve come to working in a factory has been building and repairing bicycles in a bike shop. And yet, a big part of my career has been concerned with things produced in factories in Southeast Asia. My recent trip to Taiwan was a chance to finally see how some of this stuff is produced and the work that goes into it.
Ideally, I’d have created a list of factories that I wanted to see, which parts of production I wanted to tour, and would have exactly the education I sought. Reality is never ideal, is it? For the trip, I was reporting on behalf of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, and the fact I was there at all was due to the Taiwanese trade organization TAITRA; without them, we wouldn’t have gained admittance to a host of these places.
Our first visit was to Giant’s headquarters outside Taichung. We got a warm greeting followed by a Powerpoint presentation about the company. Our tour didn’t go anywhere near the portion of the factory where they produce carbon fiber anything. What we did see is the bicycle assembly area. In addition to bikes from Giant, we saw bikes from Scott and Colnago being assembled, on a moving assembly line. As someone who always needed bikes to be in a stand, right-side up and facing me in order to assemble them, I couldn’t help but note that frequently the assemblers were reaching around the back of a bike that was upside down on a moving carousel to secure a cable. You can get used to anything, but I did marvel at their efficiency. That we are allowed to talk about what we saw but weren’t allowed to photograph most of what we saw is confusing. We didn’t see anything truly proprietary, and by virtue of the fact that I can say I saw Colnagos there releases the feline from the sack, so why no photos?
The photo issue continued to be a touchy point as we visited other factories. We were always told that they didn’t want any proprietary processes revealed to competitors via detailed photos. So we were usually told we could take shots of anything except details of actual production. For all we were monitored, I can say that some of the photographers present played fast and loose with that request.
Our next visit was to Kenda Rubber. Before arriving, what I knew of Kenda you could fit in a hat box. I knew that they made a number of good training tires and basic replacement tires. I also knew that they had the ability to do high-quality clinchers, but their marketing hadn’t done a good job of conveying that. The one set I’d ridden were perfectly nice. Thanks to the Nevegal, they have a more impressive reputation on the mountain bike side of the world. I also knew they did OEM work for other manufacturers, but not who.
What we learned was that while we were visiting the headquarters for Kenda, that was but one of six factories they have—two on Taiwan, three in China and another in Viet Nam. As we toured the facility, I saw tires being made for Specialized, Giant, Merida and more. Mostly we saw individual tires from the various brands being produced, due to the nature of the production lines, so it’s impossible to say just how much of Specialized’s business Kenda has. What I do know is that everyone sources from multiple suppliers so that they can move production for a product if the need arises. Also, not every factory can do high-end or low-end products.
As we pulled up to King Roof Industrial, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, they are better known as BnB Rack, a maker of roof, trunk and hitch racks. You don’t know the name BnB Rack because of their OEM accounts: Thule, Yakima and Hollywood. Their agreement with Thule and Yakima doesn’t permit them to sell under the BnB Rack name in North America. Never got an answer to why they are incorporated as King Roof Industrial. Did they make roofing materials is it a reference to making roof racks?
The PowerPoint presentations at each company were of a piece. They told us when the company was founded, by whom and how many employees the company had then, as well as charted their growth in people, facilities and dollars over the intervening years. If they held patents, they’d mention those, as well as their support for the Tour of Taiwan or other Taiwanese cycling event. As I’m not a straight business reporter, the presentations simultaneously told me everything and nothing, but it was uniformly what each of these companies believed we needed to know about them. Almost without fail, we wanted to know more about the nature of the products they made, and for whom, which was the last thing they wanted to discuss.
We scratched our heads lots.