Co-founder and CEO of Enduro Bearings, Matt Harvey, says specializing in high-performance bearings to solve a variety of customer challenges keeps this high-end cycling component company rolling along.
The modern world rolls on bearings. Without them, everything associated with land transport would grind to a halt. But it’s not just cars, trucks, and trains that need bearings. Their applications are vast, involving everything from aerospace wing actuators to escalators to industrial encoders to medical imaging equipment.
The bearing as we know it today originally had nothing to do with internal combustion engines or electrical devices, explains Harvey.
“They were first developed for high-wheel bicycles in the 1880s” Harvey continues, noting bearings were later applied to the “safety bicycle” that had the basic design retained in modern bikes.
Harvey should know. He spent his childhood in the East Bay, enthusiastically thrashing — and repairing — BMX bikes. Harvey wasn’t destined to labor indefinitely for others, though. He had an entrepreneurial streak — something he shared with Mike Alders, a school pal who also worked at bike shops and shared Harvey’s passion for punk rock. After high school, Harvey went on to San Francisco State University and Alders matriculated at UC Berkeley.
Following graduation, Harvey secured a job at Gary Fisher Bicycles, where he contributed to such seminal designs as the Fisher RS-1, one of the first full-suspension mountain bike systems. He also designed bicycle suspension pivots, hubs, and bottom brackets for White Industries, a Petaluma-based bicycle component manufacturer.
Alders, meanwhile, went into his father’s hydraulic service and repair business, where he excelled at custom machining mast guide bearings for older forklifts that had limited to nonexistent parts availability.
“Mike didn’t have any engineering schematics for the bearings he had to machine, and he knew I could design in AutoCAD, so he called me up for help,” Harvey says.
Forklift mast guide bearings are huge, but Harvey ultimately realized they could be scaled down for smaller mechanisms — i.e., bicycles.
“Bearings for electric motors are high speed and low load. They move at lots of RPMs, but they can’t sustain heavy load demands,” explains Harvey. “Ideally, forklifts — and bikes — should have bearings designed for slow speeds and high loads. Most of the bike bearings available at the time were based on a default high speed/low load design, and they just weren’t very good. We realized we could rework the forklift bearing designs and come up with something for bicycles that was far superior to anything on the market.”
From that epiphany Enduro Bearings was launched. The two men started out in 1996 in the attic of the hydraulic repair shop with minimal assets: a stash of bearing balls and steel bar stock, two Apple II computers, and a single push-button phone.
Fast forward 26 years: Enduro Bearings is headquartered in a 50,000-square-foot complex in Oakland, California, with satellite manufacturing facilities located in nearby Gilroy and overseas in Singapore and Taiwan. The company is also a partner in a joint venture in China that manufactures high-performance bearings for a variety of applications.
“Our basic approach to business hasn’t changed since we started out in the attic at the hydraulic repair shop,” says Harvey. “We listen carefully to our customers — bicycle riders, builders, and mechanics. They tell us what they need, the problems they’re facing. Then we create solutions for their challenges, always endeavoring to exceed their expectations.”
That includes sourcing special materials that dovetail with the specific needs of cycling enthusiasts — such as XD-15 steel.
“It’s a nitrogen-infused steel that absolutely will not corrode or wear out,” says Harvey. “It was difficult to find a source that would sell to us because we don’t require a huge amount. We made a contact with a cyclist at a steel foundry who set us up. It’s perfect for bicycle bearings. We combine our XD-15 races with Nitride Grade 3 ceramic balls to create the ultimate in high-performance bearings. They actually get smoother and faster with use, as opposed to other ceramic-hybrid bearings out there, which typically get slower over time.”
Today, Enduro offers a full line of high-end cycling components and accessories: suspension bearings, headsets and bottom brackets, fork seals, pulleys, and a wide range of specialized mechanics’ tools. The business is prospering — but the point isn’t growth for growth’s sake, emphasizes Harvey. First and foremost, he’s a cyclist. He wants to ride, and he wants to help other people ride. The business grows from that priority.
“Every year, our bearings go on millions of bikes,” Harvey says. “But we take a bespoke approach on everything we make. I recently was on the phone with three bicycle engineers in Belgium. We talked for more than an hour about possible approaches for a single bearing.”
And that’s not unusual, says Harvey.
“We do that with everyone — drill down on their specific solution until we get it exactly right, so they don’t get warranty calls down the road. Most bicyclists don’t think about bearings until there’s a problem. But we think about them all the time, and from every angle. Because everything on the bike depends on them. You’re suspended completely on them. Without them, you don’t move forward.”
Challenges: “Our main challenge isn’t in product development. It’s in getting people to understand the importance of what we do,” Harvey says. “We recently hired Rick Sutton, a veteran cyclist, and an outstanding marketer, to get that message out. We’re starting to face some pressure from competitors who’ve entered the bicycle bearing aftermarket. For us, the worst thing would be to know that we built the train — but we’re not on it because the competition took our seats.”
Opportunities: “Our opportunity lies in sharing the knowledge we’ve developed on bike bearings, in educating consumers,” Harvey says. “The industry has done a great job in educating people about bicycle frames, about the qualities and different advantages of steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon frames. Now we want to do that with bearings. We want to educate people on their importance. Growing that awareness will increase the value of our company.”
Needs: Harvey sums up the company’s needs succinctly: “Staff. We have great facilities, we make great products, but we need to nurture the next generation of associates. We’re in the Bay Area, so we have to compete with tech sector salaries. And frankly, we don’t generate that kind of revenue. So that’s an issue. What we do offer is a balance between emotional fulfillment and financial reward. You can make a ton of your money at your job, but if you aren’t emotionally invested in it, eventually you’ll do crappy work. People who succeed in the bike industry just naturally seek out that emotional connection. Those are the people we need.”