The Business Cycle, Part 2

Illustration by Nate Otto

In 2010, as Worksman Cycles was emerging from the recession and ready to grow again, the maker of heavy-duty cycles saw an exciting opportunity to supply the bikes for New York City’s bike share program. But the city rejected Worksman’s proposal, and that disappointment lay the groundwork for the company to relocate to South Carolina, leaving behind the city it had been in since its founding in 1898.

This is the second part of our story on Worksman Cycles. If you missed the first episode, which explores the company’s history and commitment to keep manufacturing bikes in the U.S., be sure to catch up!


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: Hi everyone, it’s Wailin. This is the second episode in our two-parter about Worksman Cycles, so you should go back and listen to the previous episode if you haven’t already. It’s about how Worksman found its niche making industrial cycles and kept its manufacturing in the U.S. even as the rest of the American cycle industry moved overseas. And now here’s the second part.

Worksman Cycles was founded in 1898 in New York. Its first factory stood where the original World Trade Center would later be built. The company’s industrial tricycles and bicycles are used in factories worldwide, but they’re also a constant presence on New York city streets as delivery vehicles. The vending division at Worksman invented the stainless steel hot dog cart. It doesn’t get much more New York than that. Wayne Sosin, the company’s president, grew up in Queens. But in 2015, Worksman decided to migrate south.

WAYNE SOSIN: So how does a company that’s been in New York City for 118 years end up in Conway, South Carolina? Now that’s a good question.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how Worksman Cycles’ desire to stay and grow in America meant leaving the only city it’s ever known.

JANICE: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Janice, a customer support rep at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

WAILIN: We’re in the company’s factory in Ozone Park, Queens, It’s a century-old building that once made hats, and later birthday candles. Worksman has been there since 1979. At the time I visited, in late March, they were still making some wheels at this factory while they gradually shifted those operations to South Carolina. Here’s Bruce Weinreb, who handles sales and marketing at Worksman.

BRUCE WEINREB: We’re making bikes in such a traditional way that if you walked into this building in 1979, or if it was a bicycle factory, 1940, it would have been very much exactly how we’re doing it today. So you can see we’re lacing wheels by hand.

Truing is when you make a wheel so it doesn’t wobble side to side. Every one of our wheels gets trued by hand. We’re talking many, many thousands of wheels every year.

WAILIN: At the new factory in Conway, South Carolina, the work of making wheels and balancing them is done largely on modern equipment.

WAYNE: The first machine places the spoke into the rim so that the nipple of the spoke gets tightened onto the rim to a certain tolerance, such a good tolerance that it can go through this robot over here and this robot will do the balancing of the wheel robotically, so if you watch, you see the wheel is being measured right now for its true-ness.

Once we have the automated system working, it’s probably about 40 percent more efficient, which is a huge amount, I don’t have to tell you that, but we make so many unusual wheels and we do a lot of small runs that sometimes re-setting up a machine to run 20 wheels, it doesn’t pay. The setup time is so lengthy that by the time you set it up, you could have done it by hand. So we’re doing a combination of old and new.

WAILIN: It’s not like Wayne just decided one day to go shopping for a more modern manufacturing facility and decided on Conway. The story of why Worksman left New York actually starts in Dallas, Texas, in 2010. Wayne was in town for the red carpet launch of that year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, the department store’s annual catalog of over-the-top, outrageously expensive holiday gifts. Worksman had a $4,500 adult tricycle in the catalog that year, featuring fabric by fashion designer Tory Burch. While Wayne was in Dallas, he called aerospace company Lockheed Martin, one of his customers, and asked if he could visit their facility.

WAYNE: They put me on the back of a golf cart—not a tricycle, but the back of a golf cart—and they gave me an official tour that took an hour and a half and they were showing me amazing things, the most modern factory I’d ever been in in my life. And the day I was there, the Kuwaiti airforce was being trained and flying F16s and I was outside watching them do touch and gos. It was amazing. So you go through this incredibly ultra-modern robotic plant and we saw our tricycles all over the place and when I’m done, a naval official is waiting for me. He says, “Are you Mr. Sosin? How’d you like the tour?” I said, “Well, to be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting this kind of VIP treatment. I can’t thank you enough.” He goes, “Well, do you want to know why we gave you that VIP tour, as you call it? We couldn’t run this plant as well as we do without Worksman tricycles.” And that reinvigorated me so because over the years, we’ve always been told oh you know, your technology, it’s so old-fashioned, who’s going to use this? There’s all sorts of modern things. Segway came out, oh they’re gonna cook your clock and you’re not gonna have tricycles anymore. And then I have the most modern facility at the time in the country tell me they can’t run the plant without Worksman tricycles? It just got me so motivated, and that’s one of the reasons that we knew we had to take the next step to grow the company.

WAILIN: By then, 2010, Worksman was coming out of the recession and seeing business pick up again. Wayne felt like the company was bumping up against its production capacity and other constraints in New York.

WAYNE: Taxes are high, getting trucks in and out of our facility was never easy, and we said, “Well, maybe we should be looking at something else one day.” But that’s a very big decision to make. Well, at the same time or shortly thereafter, New York City announced that they were looking for a company to run their bike share program. And we said, “Bingo, this is it.”

WAILIN: Worksman had already supplied the cycles for bike sharing programs in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as on college campuses. Bike share was a good fit for Worksman because it makes industrial strength cycles. One of their bicycles can hold up to 500 pounds. Wayne sells bikes to overweight riders who need something stronger than what other companies make, and upgraded tires on Worksman tricycles can roll over metal debris on factory floors without popping.

WAYNE: We make heavy duty bikes and that’s what bike share is all about. New York City at the time said they were looking to deploy 50,000 bicycles within 6 years, which would just be an incredible growth opportunity for our company and we really wanted it in the worst way. We went ahead and put the proposal together and immediately, within three weeks, got a letter of rejection, which we did not deserve. But it was a huge, huge turnoff to us. The city we’d been in for 114 years at the time really shunned us. We weren’t shy about telling the press it didn’t happen and that we were treated pretty disrespectfully, in our opinion and I came out with a quote, something to the effect of, “Well, I guess New York City doesn’t appreciate our 60 manufacturing jobs. Maybe one day they’ll lose them.” It was sort of just an idle rant, if you will, but it was from the heart. I was, we were really hurt by this. So anyway, we started getting contacted by some states saying, “Gee, we heard you’re not so happy in New York. We’d love to have Worksman Cycles in Virginia, in Tennessee, in Kentucky.” If you can bring jobs to a state, they would do a lot of things to help you to make that happen. Well, we became very open-minded at this point. We looked within New York City. There was— Real estate was unavailable or unaffordable, I should say. And then you start looking at real estate that’s one-tenth the price in these states. In fact, the state of Kentucky literally offered us a building for a dollar. If we employed x amount of people, we could lease the building for a dollar a year and buy it for a dollar at the end. Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development called one day and said, “Gee, we’d love to meet with you guys. We think it’s a great place to manufacture product.” And I’d been to Myrtle Beach so many times on golf trips and vacations and just didn’t see that as being a place that had a manufacturing base, but I was certainly open-minded.

WAILIN: Conway, South Carolina is about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach, in the same county. And if Wayne thought he had gotten the VIP treatment at the Lockheed Martin plant in Dallas back in 2010, he really got courted in Myrtle Beach. There was a technical college in the area and local officials said they would help train welders and machinists for Worksman. They offered tax incentives. And real estate costs were a fraction of what they were in New York. Wayne found a building in Conway that used to be a tobacco drying warehouse and a printing facility for a t-shirt company. It had a concrete floor and high ceilings and the right amount of square footage.

WAYNE: And all the city officials for this little company, Worksman Cycles, came to visit me and wanted to meet with me and invited me to see their operations. And it was the warmest feeling that you ever got of people who really wanted you to come even though, to be honest, we’re a small company. We only promised 40-some odd jobs and they made me feel like we were General Motors trying to come down here. That’s how they treated us. When we were able to locate this building, everything else fell into place. Hey, if it means moving out of New York to lower some of your real estate costs and get some tax incentives, you do what you need to do to keep the company going on the right path.

WAILIN: The Worksman factory in New York is just under 100,000 square feet, but that’s split into three stories with the kind of odd corners and columns that come with a 100-year-old building. In Conway, the building is just one story.

WAYNE: Our analysis is you get about 20 percent more space out of the one story building and you save a lot of time in material movement. We spent an awful lot of time moving things in elevators and it’s very wasteful, especially when you’re dealing with steel, which is very heavy, so always the logistics of doing the manufacturing in a three-story building was challenging, to say the least. For all the years I’ve been in the business, we’ve had a three-story building and we’re telling companies around the world, “You should use our tricycles to get around. It’s more efficient than walking.” Well, in a three-story building, it’s not really practical to ride a tricycle, as you can imagine. But here, we use them constantly. We have five tricycles assigned to different people who have mobile tasks. There are Worksman tricycles for the first time in our own factory. We used to tell companies, “If your building’s about 200,000 square feet, you really need a tricycle. If it’s a million square feet, you need lots of tricycles.” But we never realized that in a 100,000-square foot building, you could really use a tricycle in a much smaller space than we ever really had marketed as such because like I said, the five tricycles we have here, we use constantly. When we tell companies now that they should use trikes, we can say it firsthand.

WAILIN: In Conway, Worksman had the ability to design a factory that would address the shortcomings of the New York space and give the company room to grow. In New York, Worksman made its cycles to order because it had neither excess production capacity nor space to put them. In Conway, the company can actually build up an inventory of finished cycles. And the manufacturing processes got an update, with robotic welding equipment and a new powder coat system for painting the cycles. Many of the workers are also new.

WAYNE: We’re up and running for less than a year, well under a year, as far as what you’re seeing now. We’re probably at this capacity only for about 3 months, the capacity you’re seeing now, and virtually everybody here is new. We’ve had to train an entire staff who had never worked in a bicycle factory before because let’s face it, there are no bicycle factories in the U.S., so we had to train everybody from wheel builders to powder coaters. But it’s been great because in a way, everybody who came here started out “Let’s see what you can do.” And now the person running our powder coat system was the person we first hired to unload trucks and he’s doing a marvelous job at that. The young man who’s running our wheel-building equipment, we got him at a vocational school, didn’t know that he’d have this skill level. We just thought he’d be somebody putting tires onto bicycles, and he’s doing a wonderful job of working our most complicated machine. It’s a really eclectic, interesting mix of people, men and women from all over the country. And not everybody’s southern but the ones that are have taught me that the plural of “y’all” is “all y’all,” and they’ve taught me that “a piece down the road” is a lot further than you might think. They’ve taught me where yonder is, it’s somewhere over there. So we have the Southern influence, but it’s actually interesting because I would not say that it’s a very Southern oriented overall staff, it’s probably 50–50.

WAILIN: Worksman gave all of its employees in New York the opportunity to relocate to South Carolina. Several workers did move to Myrtle Beach, although fewer than Wayne hoped. Other Worksman employees found jobs elsewhere or will be leaving as New York cycle manufacturing operations wind down over the next year. Still others were reassigned to Worksman’s vending division, the part of the business that makes stainless steel hot dog carts and outfits food trucks with professional kitchens. That division will stay in the old building in Queens. But most of the facility will be emptied out, and Wayne didn’t just want to leave an abandoned shell.

WAYNE: We had an opportunity to sell off the building and most of the interest we got was from self storage buildings, and they offered a lot of money to buy the building and when I realized that in a building our size, they would employ approximately five people, it was a huge turnoff to me and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. We didn’t want to be hypocrites.

WAILIN: Wayne found a company that divides old factory buildings into small spaces and rents them to makers of physical stuff.

WAYNE: You have to produce something or you cannot rent from them. I went to visit one of their facilities. It was so cool. You see everything from furniture makers to artists to small welding operations, but every one of these small, let’s say thousand, 2,000-square foot facilities was making something. And I said okay, that’s pretty cool, so actually in our building, there’s going to be more people employed there than we ever employed there and all the people employed there are making something.

WAILIN: Worksman Cycles depends on people making things. A small welding operation in 2,000 square feet isn’t a customer for a Worksman tricycle, but maybe one day it’ll be a big welding operation in a 200,000-square foot factory.

WAYNE: My son went to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Now the last time I’d been in Bethlehem was probably 15 years earlier, when it was the most vibrant steel plant in the country. It was a city within a city and they must have had 200 Worksman Cycles deployed in the facility in Bethlehem and I remember going there, it was just such a cool place to see, molten steel and it was cool. Well, I went back with my son 15 years later to look at the school and I passed this rusted out nothing. Even telling you now, I get tearful because it was so sobering to see that. You could drive for miles by the old Bethlehem steel plant and it was nothing, it was zero. It was rusted-out structures, not a person there, it was horrible, tumbleweed practically growing if they had tumbleweed in Pennsylvania, that’s what it would look like. It was heartbreaking to me. Well, that’s a customer we’re never getting back. Never. You know, it was replaced by a casino and a hotel. It’s not the same. There were 40,000 people at one point who worked in Bethlehem at Bethlehem Steel and all the supporting companies that supported them, all the suppliers, the ripple effect that we’re talking about. We were just a tiny little cog in that, but you know what? That was a good customer for us. We’ll never get it back. If there’s no manufacturing, yeah, we’ll find other places to sell our tricycles or bicycles for bike share. We’ll reach out to consumers, which we hope to become a much bigger part of our business. But the backbone of our business is American manufacturing. And if they’re not manufacturing, we’re not selling bikes.

WAILIN: Worksman’s role as both a manufacturer and a supplier to manufacturers gives it a unique vantage point on the state of American industry. Like other factories, Worksman will be relying more on automation in years to come. That means fewer humans in the plant, and Worksman needs people riding its cycles. These dynamics are constantly in play, and Wayne watches them carefully.

WAYNE: We have to see American factories successful and if that takes more robotics, well, so be it. Robots can’t ride tricycles, but at least there are other people that are working in the plant. So yeah, I don’t think a lot of jobs are ever coming back. I’m realistic enough to know that, but I’d rather take half a pie than none of the pie.

WAILIN: The story of Worksman is about staying and leaving. It’s worked hard to stay in the U.S., even when doing so didn’t seem to make economic sense, but it had to move away from its hometown to make a long-term bet in a new American city. It turns out it is possible to leave New York, even if you’re a century-old company or a guy from Queens who never imagined himself living in the south.

WAYNE: It’s just a whole different feeling that there’s a support system behind you. It’s really more than the incentives—the real estate costs and the cost of living being so reasonable and a nice facility to have and a pleasant place to live, so it all sort of fell into place. So it was never really the written plan to end up in Conway, South Carolina, but I have to tell you, through that whole series of events, I couldn’t be happier with where we ended up. In the last two years, I’ve traveled back and forth to New York 42 times. I wake up in the morning very often, have to open my eyes and remember, am I in South Carolina or New York? But other than that, it’s pretty cool.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. You can find us all over the Internet. We are on Twitter—actually, we’re not all over the Internet. That’s not true. Because we’re, like, only on Twitter, and we have a website. You can find us on Twitter at @distancemag, that’s @distancemag, and you can also subscribe to our podcast via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you get your podcasts. What else am I missing?

SHAUN: We’re a production of Basecamp.

WAILIN: Oh yeah, we are a production of Basecamp. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.

The Business Cycle, Part 1

Illustration by Nate Otto

Worksman Cycles is the oldest American bicycle manufacturer that still makes its products in the U.S. Founded in New York in 1898, Worksman has outlasted the demise of American cycle manufacturing by focusing on a niche category: heavy duty tricycles that factory workers use for hauling equipment and getting around industrial plants. And Worksman’s president is determined to keep the company in the U.S., even as that commitment has been tested through the years.

This is the first of a two-parter about Worksman. The next episode will be out in two weeks, so make sure you’re subscribed to The Distance via Apple Podcasts (nee iTunes Podcasts) or the podcatcher of your choice so you don’t miss it!


Transcript

WAILIN WONG: There are times when a name seems like destiny. Like Thomas Crapper, a famous English plumber from the 19th century, or Usain Bolt, the Olympic sprinter from Jamaica. These names are called aptonyms, and here’s another real-life example, from Queens, New York.

WAYNE SOSIN: The name Worksman is a family name, even though people think we named it because we make work bikes. It’s really a family name.

This is our mover industrial trike. This is the kind of tricycle that you will see in factories like Ford Motor or Michelin Tire, any large, large facility, these are a staple for getting people around. Our industrial trikes and bikes have to be strong. If you’re riding around General Motors carrying a 200-pound tool box on our tricycle, it’s gotta be durable and heavy duty.

Is there a stigma about riding a tricycle? Do you look like grandma? Well, first you can see that a tricycle like this one, that doesn’t look like Grandma’s trike. So in a factory, I think that stigma is going away. It used to be really a negative point that people say I’m not riding that. They want to ride a golf cart or “I’d rather walk than ride a tricycle.” But it’s become more mainstream. So the stigma seems to be disappearing, but it’s been a long uphill battle.

WAILIN: That’s Wayne Sosin, the president of Worksman Cycles, a company that’s faced quite a few uphill battles since it was founded in 1898. It’s the oldest American bicycle manufacturer that’s still making bikes in the U.S. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. We’re going to bring you the story of Worksman Cycles in two parts. On today’s show, how Worksman, a company with deep roots in New York, committed both to a niche product and to the lonely challenge of making that product in America.

TARA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Tara, a designer at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.

BRUCE WEINREB: The original industrial trike was designed to take the place of horse drawn wagons ’cause horses were expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and they left unwanted byproducts. Today, we’re replacing powered carts because they’re expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and leave unwanted byproducts, so it really is circular but the answer is identical — it’s a bicycle, it’s a tricycle.

WAILIN: That’s Bruce Weinreb, who handles sales and marketing for Worksman Cycles. When the company was started in 1898, opening a factory in Manhattan where the original World Trade Center would later be built, the idea was that the three-wheeled cycle was superior to a horse and wagon. Today, the company’s core business is making tricycles for factory workers to haul equipment and get around large plants. If there’s a golf cart being used somewhere, Worksman wants to replace it with a tricycle.

BRUCE: You can imagine a factory that’s building 747s. McDonnell Douglas has a factory outside of Dallas that’s two miles long, a building. So obviously, it would take you a half an hour to walk from one end to the other.

WAILIN: Wayne’s family is also from Queens and was friendly with the Worksmans. In the 1970s, at the behest of his father, who had spotted a Worksman folding bike in a store and wanted to get one for Wayne’s mother, he visited the factory. By then, Worksman had moved from Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

WAYNE: They seemed to have a nice little business over there and they said, “You know, we’re really good at making these bikes. We’re really bad at selling them, and we understand you’re working in sales, you have a good education. Maybe you want to sell bikes?”

WAILIN: But that’s not what Wayne wanted to do. He already had a job he liked in sales for Memorex, the consumer electronics company, and he was going to business school at night.

WAYNE: At the time, I was very young, I was in my 20s, early 20s and I thought I’m gonna be the next big star at Memorex Corporation. They were Fortune 500 company and they were based out in California, and I’d never even been to California. I really wanted to get in their marketing department because I was studying my MBA in marketing and I thought there was a nice little fit there, so for a year every month I typed a report and sent it to the marketing manager at Memorex of my ideas of things that we can do. And I really worked hard at it to try to make a name for myself in the company.

WAILIN: Shortly after his visit to Worksman, Wayne flew out to California for a business trip. It looked like it was going to be his big break.

WAYNE: I’m going to meet the people in top management and I’d just gotten married and I told my wife, I said, “Get ready because I think we’re gonna end up moving to California because when they meet me, this is all gonna happen.” Anyway, I went to this meeting in California and the marketing manager did not even know my name, had never read one of my reports, and there were probably 75 people like me doing the same job I was throughout the country and I really left there kind of down in the dumps and realizing that this wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, to make a name for myself. And I really thought I had good ideas. And I came back and I started thinking about Worksman Cycles and I said, “Gee, if a big company doesn’t even know who I am, maybe a little company, I could put my ideas to work.” I decided to accept the position at Worksman Cycles and walk away from the Fortune 500 company, and I think most people I know thought I was crazy, but I didn’t. I liked what the company was making, I loved the idea of, you know, tricycles being used in factories. I saw opportunities to take it to the consumer, that there were products that can go to a consumer market, and I saw the fact that they were really willing to give a very young person a lot of rope to work with in terms of ideas.

WAILIN: It wouldn’t be the last time Wayne made a decision that caused others around him to scratch their heads. But his move to Worksman set his career in a new, promising direction. He headed up sales and became a part owner of the company in 1987 alongside the founder’s granddaughter and her husband. And he had early success with his idea to push into the consumer market.

WAYNE: We started making adult recreation tricycles. As a matter of fact, at the time, we were able to get into the Sears catalog and that was a big deal, and so the business was growing, slowly but surely at a very conservative path.

WAILIN: As the company grew through the 1980s, Wayne learned of a factory in Brooklyn that made children’s bicycles, which would be a new market for Worksman. The plant was available to lease and had updated equipment like an automated paint system and robotic welding. Wayne jumped at the opportunity.

WAYNE: We started a brand called Spiral USA and these bicycles were 12 inch, 16 inch and 20 inch children’s bicycles. We’d get into the mass business and it was very exciting because all of a sudden, companies like JC Penney and Sears and Montgomery Ward were really interested in who we were and taking meetings with us. And it was exciting; you’re seeing the buyer from Sears and Roebuck, the biggest bike seller in the world at the time, and they’re interested in what you have. Toys R Us, Child World, we met with all of them.

WAILIN: But after the initial excitement wore off, Wayne got worried. Children’s bikes were a commodity and the big retail chains were interested only in getting the lowest price possible. During a business trip to Chicago, one of Wayne’s sales reps told him a story.

WAYNE: He said, I used to be in the plush business and I was a rep, and I used to rep plush for three factories to all the big guys, and we sold a lot of stuffed animals. I made a comfortable living and I had a good life. And one day, one of the factories told me they were looking to retire and they thought I’d be a good fit to buy the factory and be the whole nine yards: Make it, sell it, box it, ship it, you know, have a real company. It became so tempting I decided to do it. And he goes, to the whole world I was this big shot. I was out there, selling product to Sears and trade shows with big booths and I was this big deal. But my wife knew better. I’d come home at night crying, knowing that I was in financial problems, why did I do this, this is more than I can take on. I was making a good living as a rep. What did I need this responsibility for? He said, I sort of feel, Wayne, that that’s what you’re doing with children’s bikes. Do what you’re good at. You don’t have to be the biggest. And that was a really good piece of advice that I got. I knew in his heart he was right. We closed down the children’s bikes factory and got back to what we’re good at, making industrial grade bikes and trikes, making niche products for consumers. It was one of those things where we had to come to the realization that we’re in a market that’s never going to become huge. We understand that. We’re not gonna become the next Apple or IBM. We’re just Worksman Cycles and in our own little world, we do a great job and we have a great reputation, so we don’t have to be the next great thing.

WAILIN: Here was what Worksman was good at: industrial cycles and certain kinds of consumer cycles, like sturdy two-wheel cruisers for adults and tricycles for riders with balance issues. And there was a third niche category, one that linked Worksman with New York and American food history. Here’s Bruce Weinreb.

BRUCE: In the 1930s, a new ice cream company called Good Humor had an idea that they would sell ice cream from tricycles with an insulated cabinet so they went to Schwinn and they said could you make this? And they said no, not really, but there’s a company in New York that can.

WAILIN: At the time, Worksman was still being run by its founder, Morris Worksman.

BRUCE: And he had a very heavy Russian accent and he was a little—he was a little uneasy in communicating with corporate types, so he brought in his young son, who was in high school, but he put him in a suit and said, “This is my vice president.” And they asked for a lot of tricycles, way more than they could make and the son, who was Irving Worksman, was smart enough not to translate it correctly for his father and he said, “No problem, no problem, just give us the contract and we’ll get it done.” and the father was like, don’t worry about it, and they did and that became an iconic American product, the Good Humor ice cream tricycle.

WAILIN: Worksman made the Good Humor carts for several decades, starting in the 1930s. That primed the company for an important expansion in the 1990s. One of Worksman’s customers was a local company called Admar, another long-running business with deep roots in New York.

WAYNE: Back in the day, they were the original stainless steel hot dog cart manufacturer. Virtually every cart you saw in the street in New York in the 50s and 60s was made by that company. And that company is owned by the Beller family. Mr. Beller, the father, senior Beller, he was looking to retire and his son Jack was taking it over and it was a challenging business and then we were talking more and more with Jack and we decided to buy out that company and bring that in. So we expanded our business by getting into that end of the business in the 1990s, so it kind of made us a more well rounded company and also didn’t put all our eggs in one basket, so we’re not just in the bicycle business.

WAILIN: Unlike Worksman’s foray into kids bikes, food vending carts turned out to be a good business. Buying Admar in 1996 put Worksman in a position, years later, to take advantage of New York’s burgeoning food truck scene.

BRUCE: Still to this day, the guy who comes in just to buy a hot dog cart, is usually a newly arrived immigrant. But he knows how to cook and he has the food from his nation. It used to be hot dogs. Now you go on the streets and you see literally every ethnicity selling from carts and the food, the best food, absolutely the best food. The food truck people come in here and they have a 50-page business plan and they’re Columbia MBAs and they have investors and backing and it’s a totally different type of person.

WAILIN: As the mobile food scene’s evolved from ice cream and hot dog carts to fancy trucks, Worksman has also adapted. It can take a van and build a professional kitchen inside, everything from freezers to grills to deep fryers. And the expertise in making vending carts and food trucks translates into other kinds of mobile businesses.

BRUCE: We also just did a truck that’s a rolling barber shop, and what he wanted to do is have a huge picture window on the side so people could see, and it’s brilliant because he’ll go to a busy spot by a subway in the Bronx and he’ll park his truck at 5:30 and people line up to get haircuts.

WAILIN: The new vending division added diversity to a portfolio that was under threat from global economic forces. Chinese-made bicycles entered the U.S. and brands like Schwinn, Huffy, Murray and Roadmaster couldn’t compete with the cheaper imports. During the 80s and 90s, these iconic American bicycle makers packed up and moved to China. Their suppliers relocated overseas too. In Worksman’s factory in Ozone Park, Queens, where it’s been since 1979, you’ll see a bicycle on display that serves as a reminder of what the domestic industry once was.

BRUCE: We were cleaning up a few years ago and we found these two boxes, three boxes that were buried. And it was new, unused bikes from 1984 and so we decided to keep one. You see there are things here…the famous Hunt Wilde finger grips, they have little grooves for your fingers. The Bendix brake, Bendix Company, so it’s kind of a little museum of things that are no longer available so we decided we’re not gonna sell it, we’re just gonna put it on display.

WAYNE: We had made a decision and it was a hard decision that we believed in making bikes in America. We believed in our workforce, we believed that you could still do it here. We were in a niche market, so it wasn’t a high volume market. We didn’t want our fate controlled in China. And as a result, we made a very difficult and at the time questionable decision that the whole industry kind of laughed at us, and we just said no, we’re staying here, and we’re gonna make it happen here. Well, we did do that, but we had to really expand our import at that point. Otherwise, we’re out of business.

WAILIN: Worksman had a few advantages. Unlike other American cycle companies making commodity products at mass scale, Worksman had found success and sustainability in making a specialty product at a lower volume. But they couldn’t buy all of their components domestically.

WAYNE: The supply chain strategic decisions were difficult. You had to go to Asia to get things. You had no choice. At a certain point, Japan became a real powerhouse in bicycle manufacturing and components. Mr. Worksman, shortly after World War II, started traveling abroad to look for better bicycle parts than he could find in the U.S.

WAILIN: That’s Irving Worksman, the son of the founder.

WAYNE: And he forged a very dear friendship like brothers with a Japanese agent. Now if you think about that, following World War II, and now we’re talking we’re only in the 1960s, so there was not a lot of time separating these events. We were importing certain products pretty early in the game, which helped us down the road because we forged really good relationships in Asia and let’s face it, once the U.S. closed its manufacturing, we needed those relationships.

We do try to support as much domestic as we can, so things like our handlebars, our seat posts we make. Our solid tires are made in the United States. Our cabinets, our platforms are all made here. The frames are welded here. But the tires, the rims, the spokes, the chain, and seats, they’re imported but we hope one day if the American industry does come back, that so will the suppliers that make the product.

WAILIN: Worksman’s stake in the health of American manufacturing goes beyond just bicycles or bicycle parts.

WAYNE: Look, here’s the truth. If there’s no manufacturing in America, we’re out of business. Who are our customers? They’re manufacturers. One of the reasons we didn’t go to China like everybody else is we hoped, and I think it’s come to be true, that the factories that were still here using our tricycles would appreciate the fact that they’re made in America as opposed to being imported from China like every one one of our competitors does, so we felt that that was important. And we’d be hypocritical because we’re counting on the fact that the automotive industry, the steel industry is strong in the U.S. Because the stronger they are, the bigger their factories are. The bigger their factories are, the more tricycles they need. It’s the ripple effect if you’ve ever seen it.

WAILIN: For the last 40 plus years, since Wayne joined Worksman, he’s taken the necessary steps to ensure the company’s growth and stability. He pushed into consumer cycles, got out of making kids bikes and become the supplier of the food cart, a staple of New York life. And in 2015, he made one of his biggest moves yet to secure the future of a company that’s been in New York since its founding in 1898.

WAYNE: So here we are, um, at the Worksman Cycles company in South Carolina.

WAILIN: Worksman moved to a town called Conway in South Carolina, 650 miles away from Queens. On the next episode of The Distance, you’ll hear about the event that drove a wedge between Worksman and its hometown, and what the new factory means for the company’s future. That’s coming up in two weeks.

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. Make sure you are subscribed to The Distance on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, so that you don’t miss the second part of our story on Worksman Cycles. And special thanks to listener Jared Chadwick for suggesting Worksman as a subject for The Distance. If you know of a business we should cover on the show, email me at tips@thedistance.com or tweet at me @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.