September 27, 2016
Ibis Cycles is a high-end mountain bike brand, with a global following, that has been designing cutting edge bikes here in Santa Cruz. We met with Tom Morgan, President and Co-owner of Ibis, at their Westside Santa Cruz headquarters to talk about how Ibis began, where the company fits in the mountain bike scene in Santa Cruz and where he sees the business going in the future.
Please introduce yourself and describe what you do:
I am Tom Morgan and I am the President and Co-owner of Ibis Cycles. And, that also means I’m the sales manager, product manager, graphic designer, and the janitor here at Ibis Cycles.
Why was Ibis started?
Ibis has two histories. It was originally founded in 1981 by Scot Nicol who owned and ran it as a small custom frame shop up in Sebastopol, California. He ran it for 20 years, sold the company, and the guys he sold it to went bankrupt pretty rapidly. In 2003, we re-incorporated it and in 2005 we reintroduced the brand to the bicycle market.
The real answer to your question is that Scot Nicol, Hans Heim, and myself, who are the main partners in the company, are bicycle industry lifers. It’s what we do. And, despite all the things we’ve done before, we still felt like there was something we wanted to express about what a mountain bike could be, should be, and then with the addition of Roxy Lo, Ibis became the venue for that.
Why did you decide to have the business here in Santa Cruz?
We had a shared history in Santa Cruz. Hans was living here, and there was this history of both of us working in conjunction with Bontrager Cycles and Hans with Santa Cruz Bicycles, so it was kind of a natural fit.
Is there anything specific about Santa Cruz that helped you decide to start the business here?
Well for us as a mountain bike brand, the combination of having that size of the city where there is business going on here, but also being in close proximity to the forests and the wildlife area where we can live the lifestyle that we are trying to sell to people is an important thing. We have miles and miles of trails and acres of open space just a five minute bike ride from our offices.
It’s also an advantage for us from a lifestyle point of view for our employees and it’s an advantage for us from a product development standpoint. It's kind of a perfect balance of things.
What do you find about Santa Cruz that makes it a unique business environment?
I think that one of the things is that it’s big enough that you’ve got all the resources you need to run a successful business but it’s small enough for you to know all the players. Especially as a small business, being able to have a grasp of what’s going on, how to operate, how to deal with the City, can be a challenge in a bigger city. But, in Santa Cruz it's easy to have access, you know if you need to talk to a City Council member, or the Mayor, or the Economic Development team, you can and you’re not going to wait in a big line.
How often do you get to go out and ride?
It depends, but I try to get out 3 or 4 times a week but depending on the time of year it can once a week or no times a week.
Is there anything specifically about Santa Cruz that keeps the business here?
Well it's where we want to be. There’s a population of people living active lifestyles here who are potential employees and bring with them unique knowledge and skills that are beneficial to our business.
What’s the biggest benefit to have a sports business in Santa cruz?
There’s the potential employees, there's the environment. There's also the advantage of being close to Silicon Valley and that sort of entrepreneurial spirit that makes it possible to even think of starting a business.
You aren’t originally from Santa Cruz, right? Where did you move from?
I grew up over the hill in Saratoga and I moved away for a while because of the business. I lived in Southern California for 6 years and when Hans and I started thinking about relaunching Ibis it was not only an opportunity to own my own business but also to move back to this area of the Central Coast which was important to me.
Why is it important to you?
I think there is a combination of the natural environment that I love but also there's a sense of community among the people here and I am consistently impressed by the people I meet here in Santa Cruz and how civic-minded they are and the time they give to the causes that are important to them but also the pride people take in their work here.
Are there any specific personal or professional opportunities that you see here?
There is this history for the bicycle industry, whether it's companies like Fox, or Giro, or Specialized, or Blackburn, Ibis, Santa Cruz Bicycles that have all come and started here. It's not easy to start a business in a vacuum. If you’re the only one who’s trying to do something somewhere then it's hard to figure out the path or find other people who can give you guidance on how to be successful. Santa Cruz has that and knowing who you’re going to be interacting with at banks, in the City, with employees, that can give you a distinct advantage at least in our industry.
How do people outside of Santa Cruz react to your business being here?
It gives us immediate credibility and relevance. Santa Cruz is the heart of the mountain bike industry at least when people are thinking about the innovative companies. We are not necessarily the biggest company, you know Ibis is definitely a small company, but we have a pretty big global impact on what people perceive a mountain bike to be.
Do people outside of Santa Cruz know Santa Cruz?
For sure. We have our demo program we do here out of the warehouse and we have visitors from all over the world and people are coming to Santa Cruz to learn why the bike world is so focused on this area. You know there are other places that people go specifically for riding, but when it comes to naming one place in the world that is influencing what mountain bikes are today, it’s Santa Cruz.
How do you attract people to work here at Ibis?
It comes from word of mouth. We don’t really have to advertise for employees. I think it’s something specific to the area that I’m proud of. We’ve had a couple of employees who took the bicycle mechanics class in the local high schools and came to us to work in sort of a grom or apprentice role. That’s something we’re really proud to be able to do.
What do you think attracts your employees to live and work here?
I think our employees are attracted to living here for the same reasons that make us want to be here. They want a certain quality of life. I think we are all people who are passionate about riding bikes, passionate about the environment, and passionate about living in a community that is progressive and socially aware.
Can you describe your relationship to the larger Santa Cruz business community?
I think for me personally, it’s a growing relationship. My partner Hans has been doing business here for 25 years, so he has a much more established relationship. For me, it’s not totally new but it’s something that’s growing. We’ve found a good relationship with our bankers, with other businesses in the area, and so we can easily find opportunities for cooperation.
Why did you choose this location?
It’s a long story but one of the things is that light industrial space in Santa Cruz is surprisingly affordable. I think the per square foot lease rates that you see in Santa Cruz are competitive with anywhere in the country. There is a general perception that this area is extremely expensive and there are issues related to the cost of living here but in terms of actually running your business here and leasing space here, I think it's significantly cheaper than a lot of neighboring communities by a large margin. For us it’s a good useful space. Once again, we are close to trails. We can go out and do product testing sessions in five minutes.
With all the other companies here in town in the mountain bike industry do you ever partner with any of them?
Sure, some of the companies are friendly rivals, I should say, so there are limitations there but there are companies like X Fusion, which is a suspension brand that we work together with as far as our racing team.
Are there ways that Ibis give back to the community?
We are consistently involved with trail advocacy. Trail advocacy throughout the US is bringing life back to towns that have been almost decimated by the loss of mining and lumber industries and outdoor recreation is becoming an alternative industry that is helping these towns survive. There are really amazing people who are not only building a business but they have to literally build the trails and attract people to go there. We have been involved in many projects both locally and around the country to help support trail building.
How is business?
Business is great for us. The overall bicycle industry is currently flat but in certain segments, particularly high-end mountain bikes, I think the industry is growing rapidly and we are a part of that.
Why do you think that is?
One of the biggest things is that people are choosing staycations instead of vacations. A lot of communities around the country and around the world are developing trail networks around their cities and so with inconsistent snow seasons, people are dedicating less of their discretionary income to winter sports and focusing more on something they can do year round and locally. There is some form of mountain biking available to people almost no matter where they are.
How has your overall experience working with the City been?
It’s been really positive. We have found them eager and willing to try to find ways to cooperate with us to help us build our business.
What advice would you give to someone considering opening this kind of business in Santa Cruz?
I would say to start by contacting the City and the Economic Development Department and find out what opportunities are available and in what ways they can help you. There may or may not be something there for you but you don’t know until you ask.
Where do you see the bike industry heading both locally and internationally?
There’s such a long history of innovation in the bike industry from this area, from Santa Cruz. I don’t know what the next thing is going to be but I know there is going to be a next thing. I think overall something that we are seeing is a trend towards onshoaring. I think we will see more hard manufacturing for the bicycle industry moving back to the US. The difference between the costs of manufacturing overseas and domestically is shrinking and eventually it's going to crossover and make it worthwhile to move that back here. It’s already happening to some degree because bicycles are bulky, light-weight objects and they’re expensive to ship around the world so actually moving the production closer to where you tend to sell the bikes is advantageous from a freight standpoint.
Do you make everything here?
We don’t do hard manufacturing here. We do just assembly and QC (Quality Control) and design, marketing and sales.
How do you think Santa Cruz is going to impact that larger global development of the bike industry?
Santa Cruz is kind of the Silicon Valley of the mountain bike world. There’s a density of companies here that are driving innovation in the bike world. I don’t know what the next innovation is going to be per say but it will probably appear here first.
MORE ABOUT IBIS CYCLES:
Ibis was originally founded in 1981 by Scot Nicol in Mendocino California and began as an innovative bicycle company that built road bikes, mountain bikes, cross bikes, tandems, rigid, suspended, titanium, aluminum, steel and carbon. The company was sold after 20 years and quickly went bankrupt by the new owners. In 2002 Ibis was relaunched by founder Scot Nicol, and co-owners and bike industry veterans, Hans Heim and Tom Morgan as well as designer Roxy Lo. Today, they design and build high-end mountain bikes that are known both nationally and internationally.
Learn more at ibiscycles.com