U.S. Firm Keeps Toehold in Bike Basket Business
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Coming up, what a new movie about a really dirty joke reveals about the behind-the-scenes business of being funny.
First, though, a look at another kind of business, one that's succeeding against all odds.
(Soundbite of machinery)
BRAND: At a factory in Maysville, Kentucky, workers are manufacturing an everyday product: wire baskets for bicycles; an everyday product, but still unusual because these days almost every part of every bicycle sold in America is made in China. So how is this little company in the Ohio River Valley competing? Well, NPR's Noah Adams traveled to Maysville to find out how, and he joins us now.
So, Noah, how does it work?
NOAH ADAMS reporting:
Well, here's the deal. This is company, Madeleine, called Wald, W-A-L-D. The president's name is Ralph Pawsat. He's a serious guy, a conservative company. This is their 100th year in business. He has this operating credo; it's two items.
Mr. RALPH PAWSAT (President, Wald): Number one is quality and number two is customer service, and just repeat that three times.
ADAMS: And as you can hear, Madeleine, he's serious about this. The Wald name is important to him. They do not advertise. And these are mostly 20-dollar retail bike baskets. And you go in some places, you can see them stacked up to the ceiling, white and black and silver.
BRAND: So, Noah, this sounds all very old-fashioned. Is it, indeed, a family owned business?
ADAMS: A family owned, 1905, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Imagine this: Ewald Pawsat and his brother, Herman(ph)--they came as young men from Germany, started a bike repair shop, started making products. To get the company's name, they dropped the E from Ewald, hence Wald. In 1924, they had a fire in the shop and they decided to move closer to the bike manufacturers. They got on a train, and here's how Ralph Pawsat, who's Ewald's grandson, tells it.
Mr. R. PAWSAT: When they got to Maysville, they just got off here and decided, `This is good. We got river transportation, rail transportation.' And then, you know, if you asked them anything further, they always started talking in German. You never could understand them good. So...
(Soundbite of machinery)
ADAMS: Madeleine, let's go out to where they make the stuff. Most things here make noise. It's just a huge machine shop and grand scale, big machines. I love the sounds these things make. And I talked with another Pawsat--this is Keith Pawsat; he's a vice president--in front of a ribbon press.
Mr. KEITH PAWSAT (Vice President, Wald): This is what we call an automatic feed press. You have a coil of steel that comes in, it's put in a coil cradle and then automatically fed into the press.
ADAMS: This is just a ribbon of steel. It's about how wide, an inch and half wide?
Mr. K. PAWSAT: It's about an inch and a half, yes.
ADAMS: OK. And it's just being uncoiled and running--and run through the machine.
Mr. K. PAWSAT: That's correct. This is for an important automotive part. It's called a bolt retainer assembly. It goes in all the GM truck steering columns.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Mr. K. PAWSAT: We manufacture about three million a year.
BRAND: Noah, did I hear the correctly, he's talking about parts for General Motors' trucks? What about the bike basket?
ADAMS: Well, this is the way they survive the challenge of China. They have to adapt. Ten years ago, they made only bike parts. Sixty percent of their work now is for automotive, appliance companies, parts for conveyor belt companies. Wald has 120 employees now. Back in the American bicycle boom years, 300 people worked here working to build parts for Huffy, Roadmaster, Schwinn. Ten million bikes a year were made in this country; almost all of them had parts from this plant. And then the bike business went offshore, as they say, and Wald's business goes down. Now they're making replacement parts: fenders, chain guards, training wheels, kickstands, seat posts and the baskets.
BRAND: So they're still selling the baskets. How many do they sell?
ADAMS: Well, Mr. Ralph Pawsat said that one the advantage of being a private family company is that nobody gets to know your family business. But they did say 250,000 bike baskets every year; 25 models, including number 133.
Ms. EVA WHITE(ph) (Wald Employee): The basket right here is the best-seller.
ADAMS: This is Eva White, and she's showing me this model. It goes on the front. And it's got a handle, so you lift it off. And when you go into the grocery store or into work, you can take it inside.
Ms. WHITE: I bought two or three of these, I have, for different kids in town.
ADAMS: How many of these will you see a year here?
Ms. WHITE: Oh, my gosh. A hundred thousand?
BRAND: So, Noah, this is sort of a nice and rare opportunity to actually meet people who make things that we use.
ADAMS: Yeah, it was great to go there. My wife's bike has a Wald basket on the front, and it's hard to find anything more absolutely useful than a bike basket these days. And it's good to meet the workers. Wald has a lot of longtime employees. Eva White we just heard; she's been there 16 years. I talked to a man who's been there 44 and a half years; the longest is 50 years. And, Madeleine, there's one more reason why Wald competes so well with China.
BRAND: And what's that?
ADAMS: Well, wire baskets are hard to ship. You can't really stack too many inside each other; they bend out of shape. So if you filled up one of those cargo containers in China, you'd be paying to ship mostly air.
BRAND: Hmm. NPR's Noah Adams. Thank you, Noah, for our visit to the Wald company there in Kentucky.
ADAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.
BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.