Young man runs bike shop like old pro

Mountain (bike) man: Jeremy Smith  Credit: Jeremy Smith
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Nobody who visits Franks Bicycles ever gets to talk to Frank. He cant seem to be reached by phone, either. Mail addressed to him gets summarily discarded. Why the impenetrable wall of security?

Well, it turns out there is no Frank. There never has been. Franks Bicycles, based in Provo, Utah, is owned by Jeremy Smith. Smith, age 23, says he didnt want to name the shop after himself because that would be way too vain. So why Frank? Theres a popular local trail called Frank; naming a bike shop after a great ride just sounded right.

The shop name isnt the only unusual thing about Franks. At 23, Smith is very young to be a bike shop owner. What he lacks in age, however, Smith makes up for in shop experience. Having worked in bike shops continuously for nine years, in most every positionsalesman, mechanic, and most recently, manager, Smith has literally grown up in the bike business. Owning my own shop was the next logical step, says Smith.

Along the way, Smith has developed a fiercely loyal clientele. Ive followed Jeremy to three different bike shops, says Rick Maddox, a marketing executive at a software company. He takes care of my bike better than he does his own, and he gives me a fair price for everythingI dont even bother to shop around anymore.

Doug Anderson, a writer and editor for the same software company, concurs. Ive personally bought five bikes from Jeremy, and have recommended him to several neighbors. You buy a bike from Jeremy and he takes care of it forever.

Adds Maddox, Its not like hes this way just during shop hours, either. If Jeremys riding in a group and somebody flats or has a mechanical, Jeremys right there, working on it. He just likes to help people.

This rabid loyalty paid off for Smith when it came time for him to open his shop. Rick probably spent fifty, maybe sixty hours working with me on my business plan, says Smith. And he wouldnt take a dime for it. Doug proofread the plan at no charge, too. Ive got another guy building me a web site now; he says hes doing it just because he thinks I ought to be on the Internet.

Where everybody knows your name
Of course, to make a successful business, Smith realizes hes going to need more than his existing clients. Smith hopes to do this by focusing on customer service and selling the biking lifestyle. Says Smith, I wanted to create a business where people could be comfortable. Bikings more about camaraderie than just purchasing the items. If you can extend that into your business, you can make money.

With that in mind, Smith built a lounge, a changing room and a shower into his shop. Now, people dont just come here to buy bikes, says Smith. They meet here as a start- and end-point for rides.

Smith points out that the lounge serves a second purpose. By setting up an area for the riders, Ive provided a space for my core clientele, but keep the retail space available so regular customers dont feel like theyve stepped into a boys club.

Hard Times
As any bike shop owner can tell you, keeping a shop in business can be a tough job. Smith says he now realizes that even with all his experience in bike shops, he still wasnt prepared for the degree of commitmentnor the financial juggling actit would require.

I learned more in the month I put together my business plan than I had in nine years of working in shops, says Smith. When you own the business, it all comes down to you. Taxes especially surprise you, I didnt realize what a hit they are. And, bike shop margins are so slimsometimes its a trick to make the margins happen at all.

There are surprises, too. I had a lawsuit early in the business that ate up a third of my startup capital. It hasnt been easy to come back from that.

The biggest frustration, though, is coping with winter. I knew things would be slow, so the money part of winter isnt a big deal, says Smith. But I didnt think much about how hard it would be to maintain my enthusiasm for running a shop during the winter. You go to work every day and sell maybe $300 worth of stuff. Its easy to just sit and read a book instead of doing busywork.

Does Smith ever consider leaving the shop behind? No, says Smith, I love it. When it feels like work, maybe then Ill quit. But right now, its not a job. Its my life.

Unusual Solutions
The challenges Smith encounters are not too different from other small bike shop owners. Smith has, however, come up with some resourceful ways of solving these problems.

Employees: While most bike shops have a very rapid turnover rate, no employee has ever quit Franks. Smith explains that this is because In my shop, I have no ego. I dont play the boss. I get respect by respecting my employees, Im flexible with my employees, more than Ive ever seen in any business.

How flexible? I dont give my employees a schedule. All my employees love riding their bikes. When somebody wants to go on a ride, he does. We work out very well that way. If somebodys not riding, its because he feels lazy.

Amazingly, this arrangement seems to work. Says Smith, We all share the same goal here: to keep the shop in business, make money, and make sure everybody likes and respects Franks.

Cutting Costs: Smith took out a small business loan to open Franks, but didnt want to burn through all the money just to get the doors open. So, rather than hiring carpenters and contractors, Smith says, I completely remodeled the building myself. I paid no labor at all for the whole building. I painted it, tore out the old stuff, built my own displays and shop area. Whenever I could, I bought used tools and equipment. I didnt try to be bigger than I am.

Home Sweet Office: Owning a shop demands a lot of time, with paperwork and bike repairs often keeping Smith at work well into the night. Smith has coped by converting a part of his office into a makeshift bedroom. Ill be down in the shop at midnight working on books, says Smith. And I know that Ive got to be back at the shop in a few hours to open up. So whats the point of going home? I just crash here instead. I keep some extra clothes aroundand Ive got the shower and even a little fridge. What more could a bachelor ask for?

Elden Nelson has been on a group ride that started at Franks, but didnt use the shower, becausewellthe shower floors kind of skanky. Email Elden at eldennelson@hotmail.com.

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