When Esker Cycles first opened its Columbia Falls warehouse in 2019, it became the only bike manufacturer in the Flathead Valley, assembling made-in-Montana bikes that can be spotted on trails all over the world.
The build-to-order bike features a durable Elkat frame that is proprietary to Esker Cycles, as well as tires from the mountain biking brand, Terrene Tires. As a bike built for the backcountry, Esker’s Elkat frame features a patented dual link Orion Suspension Platform, designed by Dave Weagle, so that bikers can climb up and rip down confidently. Handpicked parts and other accessories are sourced from 12 separate manufacturers around the world and then assembled at the warehouse in Columbia Falls.
Recently, the company relocated to a nearby warehouse that is double its previous size to accommodate its growing demand. It seems everyone wanted to buy a bike during the pandemic, as Esker doubled its sales within the past year.
That should be welcome news, but worldwide factory shutdowns and shipping delays have slowed down the global supply chain, making it almost impossible for Esker to keep up with demand. Front and rear suspensions that once took 45 days to deliver out of Taiwan now take up to 180 days or longer. With wholesale frequently out of stock, inventory must be ordered up to two years in advance. Delays are so bad that orders must be placed now for the 2023 selling season.
Operations and Warehouse Manager Ron Brandt says he has been on a waiting list for build and repair stands, on which bikes are assembled, for the past nine months.
“If I wasn’t waiting for more stands, I could build bikes in the warehouse a little faster,” Brandt said.
But the wheels manage to keep turning in the warehouse, where the Esker team is switching gears to find novel solutions to get their customers onto the trails.
“For the most part, every box we have inside the shop is sold directly to the consumer,” or to the Great Northern Cycle & Ski, Esker Cycle’s only dealer in the valley, Brandt said.
Traditionally, customers and dealers could request an Esker Bike through the company’s website and wait only two weeks for their new bike to be delivered.
“That is no more,” said Anders Broste, who helped launch the company with Esker Cycles CEO Tim Kreuger and is now the product manager and engineer at Esker Cycles. “When 2020 happened, everything completely changed.”
Broste believes the pandemic-related interruption will continue to overwhelm businesses like his in the years to come. The company is learning on the spot to survive the rocky commerce of soaring costs and supply shortages.
To sustain capital amid these challenges, the company readapted its business model. Brainstorming financing was not what Broste had in mind when he became Esker’s engineer two-and-a-half years ago, but Broste is learning the numbers game as well and spearheading the company’s pre-order system.
Inventory’s unreliable lead times make Esker’s pre-order service the only way to guarantee clients an Esker bike within a reasonable timeframe. To reserve any incoming frame or complete bicycle, customers pay a $100 non-refundable deposit. Once the bike is in transit to the warehouse, Esker notifies customers with an invoice of the balance due. After the parts arrive and the balance is paid, customers can then expect their new bike in four to six weeks.
As a newer business, the company has also resorted to alternative financing such as high-interest loans and taking on personal debts. Friends and family, too, have invested in Esker and its committed crew, but despite the financial hardships, Esker has managed to keep the company true to its grassroots character as a “rider-owned” business.
But exacerbated delays in manufacturing and shipping have stalled sales, preventing Esker from making much profit and more often suffering a profit margin loss.
“I’m selling a complete bike,” Broste said. “So only receiving part of the order doesn’t do me any good. And that’s challenging. What’s worse, paying interest on something or losing the product? I don’t know. I guess we’re still trying to figure some of that out.”
Bike retailers throughout the valley are navigating similar difficulties, along with the nationwide employee shortage, and more often than not they can’t sell a product to a customer directly in store.
Esker is counting on its customers’ patience while it works to get people on bikes. And although some members of its crew are spread throughout the country, workers are so dedicated to meeting customer demand that they are flying into the valley and camping outside the warehouse, where they then go into work every day to help assemble bikes from the huge amount of preorders from 2020.
“We are literally surviving for the size of our company, but as long as we can get through this year, I think business wise, we have set ourselves up for future success,” Broste said.
As the team continues to build bikes, they will not lose track of their mission: a bicycle company made by riders for riders. So as he builds bikes with the other technicians, Broste also looks forward to setting out to do what brought him to establish Esker in the first place: advocacy.
“What keeps me going is creating something in the valley,” Broste said.
When Esker moved to Montana two years ago, the company auctioned off a complete bike, with all proceeds going to local, nonprofit trail organizations in the valley. Raising funds and providing product that will help benefit and grow the sport of mountain biking is one of the company’s missions. With the Ride Scholarship and the Montana Trail Fundraiser, Esker Cycles seeks to create better mountain biking access for everyone.
“I love this place, I think it’s awesome, I think a lot of people would agree with that, but also, providing a good job and then giving back to the community,” Broste said. “That’s a big part of who we are.”
To learn more about Esker Cycles, visit eskercycles.com or contact an Esker rep at (218) 600-6269.
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