Success like most things in life is a fine balance. The story of Devinci's success is one paved with proud Canadian roots, a rich racing heritage, and a stumbling block so big that it nearly brought them to their knees before they could even get going. Félix Gauthier was the man that steered Devinci through rough seas and a potentially deadly course, and onto one that has allowed them to flourish as they tick over 25 years old. The story is best told by the man that experienced it all first hand.
Where did the Devinci story start?
It started with a bike crash, a big accident in 1988. I had to get stitches in the face, and I broke my leg. I was recovering and I was telling my friend I wanted to buy a new aluminium frame. He told me that there was someone making aluminium bikes in Saguenay and that I should look him up. So I met the local guy and bought one from him. Two years later I lost my parents and got a small inheritance. The frame builder came to me, he was looking for a partner. I got involved not really knowing what I was getting into. He had zero employees and zero customers, and I realised that he had several frames waiting on warranty repairs. I asked myself, ‘What should I do?’ Next, I called Alcan (now called Rio Tinto), North America’s largest aluminium producer located here in Saguenay. They had a research centre and they explained exactly what the problem was. It was caused during the heat treatment process—a series of controlled heating and cooling of the metal. We didn't have the proper oven to make it work. After listening to Alcan’s recommendations, we started looking into buying a new oven. It was crazy expensive, more than my initial investment in the company. So we ended up building one ourselves. To make a long story short, we stabilized the fabrication process. We still had all those frames to fix, though. And with our issues now solved, we replaced every single one. It was the start of our lifetime warranty pledge, and it’s the root of our ongoing investments in R&D.
There seems to be a lot of people that have been in the company for many years, is there a lot of loyalty within company?
Yeah, it’s true. Several of our employees have been here since almost day one. People at Devinci are extremely passionate. They ride during their lunch breaks, they travel for bike trips, and they build bike trails out here in our backyard. The company has a family vibe. We’re all working under the same roof and most of the staff live here in town. We often ride together, which helps solidify the bonds.
Your location in Saguenay seems like a strange place to find a bike manufacturer, how does it work being based here in terms of logistics?
Being located on Canada’s east coast may seem ‘far off,’ but it really isn’t. With aerial transport and new communication technologies the world is getting smaller and smaller. Our center of the world is obviously Saguenay, and we have everything we need in one location to accomplish our R&D and testing efforts, and to bring cutting-edge products to life. Having Alcan as our neighbour doesn’t hurt either. It’s an aluminum-manufacturing advantage that we’ve been able to leverage across the North American market.
Saguenay is heavily involved in the aluminium industry, how useful has that been to your manufacturing over the years?
It’s been hugely beneficial. And it’s one of the main reasons we’re located here. Being in Saguenay gives us access to Canada’s National Aluminium Technology Centre. And it helps connect us to highly qualified staff. All of our testing is done in-house, and all our prototypes, including carbon frames, are first crafted from aluminium. It allows us to create a new bike to exacting standards quickly and efficiently.
Aside from the initial stumbling block of heat treatment and warrantying frames, was there any other significant challenge you found in those early days?
Challenges are part of doing business. And doing good business really hinges on how you deal with those challenges. One of the biggest hurdles we’ve faced over the years has been balancing our continued growth. Since our quality objectives are so high, it’s essential that we never lose sight of what brought us into the business in the first place—creating best-in-class bikes that inspire people to get out and ride.
What was your background before starting at Devinci?
I bounced around. My background’s in administration, and I have a certificate from university. At one time I dabbled in some real estate with my brother. But I’ve always been driven to create. And I’ve always been passionate about working with machinery—finding a problem, and using the right equipment to solve it.
Were you learning a lot through trial and error at first?
Absolutely. Trial and error and the searching for answers to problems is really how it all started. And as we evolved we learned how to limit the error part. How? With great minds and great employees, and by partnering with universities and Alcan to improve the process. All these elements enable us to thoroughly prototype and test products, but with very limited errors because we know what we’re doing. It was fine to be ‘trial and error’ in the 90s, but now it’s so competitive you really need to have your shit figured out.
Did things suddenly take off, or was it gradual over time?
It was gradual over time, until it boomed in 2011. That’s when we introduced our DH team and brought Split Pivot technology into the mainstream. That was an important time for us, and we really broke some ground. It was also a fun time. Being around to see a guy like Stevie Smith take the downhill world by storm. It was good for Devinci. It was also good for mountain biking in Canada in general.
Being a mountain biker, I had no idea about your city bike manufacturing. Could you just give us a little background on that?
In 2007 we participated in a contest to design a new city bike. We used our experience with mountain bikes and poured it into a durable, highly reliable design. We won a contract with Montreal for 5,000 units, and it snowballed from there... London, then Boston and Minneapolis. We’re now established in 30 cities around the world. From Barcelona to Honolulu we have about 65,000 bikes on the street. Not one has had to come back for warranty. Those original bikes in Montreal are still going strong! London asked us for a seven-year warranty. Our bench-testing process allowed us to put 14 years of hard, simulated riding on the prototypes before they showed any signs of failure. We’re very confident in the quality of our product.
I guess in some ways Devinci has grown with the sport of MTB with all the different trends and disciplines that have come. How hard has it been to keep up with an ever adapting MTB world?
Well, we can never sleep because it's always changing. But we’re well positioned because we have a great, forward-thinking team. This includes our passionate in-house staff, but it also extends to our athletes and ambassadors around the world. These guys are out there racing and riding every day. They’re really tuned in to the latest trends, and the feedback they provide keeps us in-step, or even a step ahead of what’s happening.
From your point of view how has the market evolved and developed?
We've seen a lot of trends come and go. The evolution of each platform and some specific segments like wheel diameter preferences can change quickly. As far as how the market is evolving, we’re seeing a lot of positives there. Mountain biking is more accessible than it’s ever been. From parks to backyard trails, the opportunities to get out and ride are endless. We’re seeing more and more women in the sport, which is also great. And the rise of the weekend warrior is something we’re all excited about.
With bikes becoming so capable the gaps between the disciplines has shrunk somewhat, will this see a shrinking in bike brands portfolios of what they offer to the market? For example, the rise of the enduro bike has shrunk the demand for downhill bikes...
It’s an interesting point. I see two sides to it. The demand for MTB in general, the trails and the type of use, has grown so much that we see more segmentation in brands' portfolios. It feels like now there’s a bike for every single type of riding. On the other hand, the bikes being made now are so capable that maybe this is what’s cannibalizing some of the DH sales. You can buy an enduro or even an all-mountain bike like the Troy that can be used on DH trails, and they can be better than your DH bike from 6 or 7 years ago. Better geometry, better suspension. So to answer the question, I think the gap between the bikes has shrunk, but they all have their individual advantages. I think it’s great that the consumer has such a wide variety of options to fulfill their needs.
What’s your best seller?
It depends on the region. Some bikes are better fits for the kind of terrain you find on the West Coast. Other bikes do better in the East. Then there’s Europe. We sell different bikes for different realities.
You guys have a pretty rich racing heritage is that something you guys use for both R&D and marketing?
Yeah, racing helps us design better products. It all fits nicely into the R&D process. We have close relationships with our professional athletes, who give us important insights that help us fine-tune our products for the end consumers. Those riders are heavily involved in development. On the marketing side... when they do well it shines a positive light on the bike.
Is racing something you have personal interest in as well?
Personally, I don’t race. But I’m a huge fan and supporter. I’ve been following all the guys this season, and the World Cup stop at Mont Sainte-Anne is always a highlight. This year I got to hang out with Dakotah’s family and all the crew, which was a blast. And to this day, I still get goosebumps thinking back to Stevie’s MSA win in 2013. What an amazing day.
You have been involved with the EWS since it started, it gave the “All mountain bike’’ the centre stage for the first time and really drove on its development. How useful did you find that for developing the likes of the Spartan?
For sure it helps a lot. Our athletes are full-time on their bikes. Considering that an EWS event lasts a week, that’s several days of gruelling product testing. The end result is a higher performance, more reliable bike. A bike built to win races.
You guys are pretty patriotic Canadians with the bikes made here stamped 'Made in Canada', were you ever tempted to completely outsource to Asia?
No, we’ve never wanted to completely outsource to Asia. Again, it all goes back to the value we place in our in-house R&D efforts and our aluminium prototyping programs. These are the systems we use daily to ensure absolute quality across the line. Our carbon frames are made in Asia, and always with best-in-class partners. They may not be stamped “Made in Canada” but their high-calibre performance is a testament to our Canadian heritage.
When people think of Devinci they think of Stevie, myself included. How did his passing affect the company?
When Stevie died we lost more than a superstar athlete, we lost a family member. We took a break from the DH race world to mourn. He was a hero to all of us and he remains an inspiration.
What were the thoughts behind putting the downhill racing on hold?
It was all about Stevie. He was our main rider. We needed to take a break in order to reassess the future.
You've now returned to downhill in a different setup with the Unior guys. How has that played out so far?
It’s been a great partnership. We now have a better presence and infrastructure in Europe, with Unior being based there. They have an amazing setup, they’re extraordinary people to work with, and we all share similar objectives.
What is your market split across the World?
Our primary focus is on Canada, the U.S., and Europe. We also have secondary distributors around the world.
Talking about Europe, a lot of the European brands have gone direct sale. Is that of no interest to you?
No interest, we prefer to work with our passionate dealers. Personally, if I want to go buy a bike I'd rather go through a shop.
And finally, what do the next few years hold for Devinci?
More great bikes are what the next few years hold for Devinci. Ultimately, we aspire to inspire. When we circle in on something that gets us excited we have the tools in our kit, and the skilled, passionate employees in our ranks to bring it to life.