Colorful bikes big hit at Google
DANIA BEACH, Fla. — Avery Pack was in his late 20s and getting scattered media attention for the stylish bikes the Columbia arts graduate was assembling in a 5,000-square-foot workshop in Pompano Beach. One afternoon in 2008, the phone rang. Pack answered and heard the kind of greeting that would make any start-up jealous.
“Hi,” the voice on the other end said, “this is Google.”
The voice belonged to the head of Google’s transportation department, an arm of the tech giant charged with getting employees from one spot to another.
Soon after, Pack’s Republic Bike was selling Google a fleet of two-wheelers painted in the Web giant’s famously bright and basic color scheme. A yellow frame, green-and-blue tires, red fenders.
Google wanted about a thousand of them to make transportation easier at its sprawling campus in Mountain View, Calif. They’re still an integral part of the cushy daily life of Google workers, who can pick up any bike and pedal off to meetings or lunch at one of the campus’ free restaurants and cafes.
“It’s a quite a joyful thing to see,” Pack, now 35, said of touring the “Googleplex” and seeing dozens of his bikes at every turn. “It’s a pretty unique environment that they’ve created. A lot of it has to do with all of these multi-colored bicycles zipping around. When you visit, you’re kind of struck immediately with the whimsy of it.”
San Francisco’s Museum of the Computer Age added an early model of the “Gbike” into its permanent collection on Silicon Valley. A newer model played a cameo role in the recent Vince Vaughn movie about middle-aged Google interns.
But while the Google Bike easily qualifies as the most celebrated of Republic’s creations, Pack enjoys sales success throughout the Fortune 500.
From his new 50,000-square-foot distribution center and workshop in Dania Beach, Pack presides over a small team of bike mechanics churning out customized two-wheelers for some of the biggest brands in America. The companies pay a premium to deliver employees stylized bikes clad in their corporate colors, a well-timed perk amid the push for more daily exercise and fuel conservation.
U-Haul bought foldable orange-and-white bikes so its workers could make quick rides back after parking a truck in the far reaches of a depot. Evernote, another Silicon Valley star, keeps a collection of black-and-green Republic bikes at its Redwood, Calif., headquarters that employees can use for running errands or commuting the train station. Nike and Intuit have Republic bikes on their campuses, and 30 Rock bought 200 branded bikes as wrap gifts for its cast and crew for their final episode of the NBC comedy.
Small companies from around the country order mini Republic fleets, too. In Tampa, the Cigar City Brewery uses a pair of stout Republic bikes with a reinforced basket holder to haul bags of barely and hops from one end of the brew house to another.
“We ordered them in our colors, which are red and yellow,” founder Joey Redner said. “When you’re talking about a thing that weighs 50-plus pounds, walking it is long enough to be annoying.”
Pack’s Fortune 500 clients and his bikes’ mentions in Vogue, Newsweek and Wired contrast with the company’s low profile in Broward County.
The muted yellow warehouse Pack paid $2.6 million for in March has no sign outside (and no bike rack, though one is coming). Online buyers sometimes find their way to the Stirling Road warehouse to pick up their bikes, but the company has no retail operation inside. Pack employs no publicist, no marketing team or, he says, even a sales staff.
“We’re kind of under-the-radar,” said Pack, a graduate of Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School and married father of two. “We’re pretty much invisible locally.”
Last summer David Coddington, a top executive from Broward’s economic development agency, traveled with a local delegation of college leaders to Google, which owns a Motorola plant in Plantation. The bikes caught his eye, but he wasn’t aware of the local connection.
“Those Google bikes were everywhere,” said Coddington, vice president of business development for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. “Nobody out there told us the Google Bikes came from here.”
Google remains Republic’s top single buyer of bikes. Republic also sells to other major corporations, including CBS, Nestle and Urban Outfitters, which sells a version of Republic bikes online.
Pack won’t discuss financials, or even say how many people work for him. On a recent visit, about a dozen people were assembling bikes in work rooms with polished wood floors and surrounded by hundreds of bikes awaiting shipment. (Name.com, a domain registration firm in Denver, credited the “hipster gnomes at the Republic Bike factory” in a blog post about its new office two wheelers.)
Two companies operate in the space, and both have Pack as the sole shareholder, he said. Republic (republicbike.com) produces traditional bikes, while Citizen Bike (citizenbike.com) creates foldable models that can be quickly broken down to about the size of a small briefcase.
After stabs at film-making and creating websites for area non-profits, Pack, who holds a visual-arts degree from Columbia University, decided to take a stab at selling bikes.
He thought folding bikes had potential, since the product had natural appeal but hadn’t been marketed well to style-seeking sophisticates.
“I’ve always been attracted to bicycles as an art object,” Pack said. “The folding bikes were out there. But they weren’t necessarily cool. And they were expensive. That set up a design opportunity to create something that was stylish and inexpensive.”
Citizen’s folding bikes ended up in Time magazine, being cooed over on The View and mentioned in The Wall Street Journal under the headline: “The Folding Bike Goes Cool.”
Sales were going strong enough that Pack was in the process of moving the operation out of Pompano to a larger spot in Dania when the Google call came in 2008. At the time, Google wanted folding bikes for its employees as a way for them to get from home to the Google Bus, a Wi-Fi enabled coach that the company sends around San Francisco to fetch workers.
With about 20,000 people on its payroll then, Google was a big enough account that Pack bought a ticket to San Francisco. When he met with executives from the transportation team, he noted the cluster of generic blue Huffy beach cruisers then parked outside buildings for Google employees to use on campus.
“We proposed a totally different design,” Pack said.
He keeps an early prototype in the Dania warehouse. Rather than a cruiser, this bike had 20-inch wheels and no hand brakes. A white basket on the handlebars has a mesh narrow enough to keep the thinnest of laptops from falling out (a leading complaint at Google).
Google bought its first non-folding bikes from Republic in 2009, and has purchased “thousands” since, said Brendon Harrington, who heads up Google’s bike program. On any given day, there are about 1,000 on the campus, and Google runs a bike shop nearby just to keep them maintained. It’s a place Wired magazine described as “the nervous system for a remarkable campus-wide bike-sharing program that doubles as a mirror of the search giant’s corporate culture.”
Last year, Google held an employee contest to design a new version of the bike. It’s closer to a cruiser once again, with large wheels and a hand brake. Google orders replacement bikes about once a year, and the order is large enough that Pack has the bikes assembled in China and shipped directly to California.
Most Republic customers receive their bikes from Dania Beach. The bulk of Republic’s sales come online, where customers can design their own bike, down to one color for the front wheel and one for the rear. With 13 colors available for 10 components, Republic’s team needs to be ready to assemble millions of combinations. Prices range from $400 for a basic model to $700 for a cargo bike with a reinforced basket holder.
At 360 Architecture, a Kansas City firm, partners gave about 150 employees Republic gift cards as holiday presents in December, letting the design-oriented workforce pick each bike’s look. “A couple of folks have done a chocolate-brown frame with black wheels and a white chain,” said Mike Hauser, head of graphic design for the firm. “One guy did green wheels with a white frame, purple chain, red grips and a yellow seat.”
For corporate clients, the sale usually includes adding a logo or creating a custom color to match a company palette. Extending a brand onto the bike has been key to Republic’s corporate sales.
An apartment complex in Washington, D.C., offered Republic bikes as incentives for signing leases. Each resident was allowed to pick their colors from a pallette that matched the complex’s own logo, giving the fleet of bikes a common thread as they went out into the neighborhood. Nestle ordered up 500 Willy Wonka bikes as contest prizes.
Arthrex, an orthopedic device maker in Naples, bought a dozen Republic bikes last year as a healthy alternative to the six-seat golf cart it uses to shuttle 1,800 employees around its five-building campus.
“We have our own onsite medical facility, and three full-sized kitchens to provide healthy meals free to our employees,” said David Bumpous, director of operations. “Riding around for exercise and mobility fit in that mold.”
PHOTO: In this June 18, 2013 photo, Avery Pack, owner of Republic Bike, poses for photos on a Google Bike in Dania Beach, Fla.