Hans Heim is best known for re-establishing Ibis Cycles in 2004, but his career in the cycling industry dates back to early '80s, where he worked his way up from a bike shop rat to the CEO of some of the sport's most notable brands. Hans was on the ground as mountain bikes progressed from steel hardtails through carbon dual-suspension bikes, but you'll rarely hear him revel in the past. His inquisitive mind is most often consumed by what's happening at the moment, or puzzling the details of some future project. Hans is a good listener, and a vociferous reader and researcher who conveys his ideas in simple, understandable language, all of which has earned him much respect from those who have worked alongside him.
Ibis Cycles' modest headquarters is a quarter-mile from some of the best surf breaks in Santa Cruz, California. - Saris Mercanti photoAt present, Hans is 56 years old and the CEO of Ibis, which is co-owned by Hans and four others, including the company's founder, Scot Nicol. He lives near the Ibis factory in Aptos, California, with his wife, Carol (they met in a bike shop) and 17-year-old twins, Lili and Cole. Lili is a local shredder and a prominent NICA High-School racer, while Cole is a cross-country runner. According to Hans, who is a force to be reckoned with on and off the bike, both have begun to eclipse his abilities. But, after interviewing the man and spending time with the people at Ibis, that comes as no surprise.
Where did you enter the bike business?
When I was in high school, I worked in a bike shop, helping to assemble bikes for a while, but when it really happened, I was 20 and I needed a job. My friend Wade managed a bike shop in San Jose and he was dealing with Specialized in the early days. Mike Sinyard was making sales calls and he asked Wade if he knew anybody who needed a job.
I got a call from Mike and he asked me, “Hey, do you know anything about bikes?” I told him I had an MKM six days bike that I converted into a road racer and he said: “You’re hired!” That was, I think, 1980 and Specialized had 12 people.
As a youth, Hans was an avid road racer.
What did you do at Specialized?
I started at the bottom of the food chain, working in the warehouse. I first learned how to pull orders and then moved up to packing orders. I was the shipping guy after that, and was briefly in charge of the warehouse. Then I went into sales and just kept doing all the different jobs there.
I’d get freaked out after a couple of months (it was incredibly boring) then I’d walk into Mike’s office and say, “Come on, let me do something else. I’m going to lose it.” So, I got to do all kinds of jobs. It was what I call, “my adult education.”
How did you get from working at Specialized to making mountain bikes?
I always worked in the bike industry. I raced, and I was always trying to mess with things on my bikes. I worked at Specialized twice. And, (this is funny), I lived in a room in a house, so my expenses were really low. I saved my money working at Specialized and paid off my rent a year in advance. And then I took a year off, and I just was training, practicing music and reading. I realized that there was still most of the day left after I was done doing those things. So, the whole premise of getting a bunch of money, winning the lottery, getting an inheritance, or getting rich, and being able to have this life of leisure – that whole bubble got burst when I was 21 or 22, because I tried it and it really wasn’t all that great. I learned that I really enjoyed working. (Which explains a bunch of stuff that came afterwards.)
I really wanted to start my own business, so I tried working at Vigorelli, who used to make cycling clothing. I worked for them for a couple of months, because I was thinking of investing in it. I soon realized that it was an incredibly difficult business and I wasn’t confident that I could make it work. I went back into the regular job thing.
I always thought that Kestrel was the ideal. They had this incredibly beautiful product that was made in the most high-tech way possible. They were like 20 years ahead of their time. I wanted to work there, so I did. That's how I got into making bikes.
Keith Bontrager was working at Kestrel, and I started having some interaction with him, because I was asking him to make custom parts for my bike. He made me this aerodynamic stem with the cables all routed inside so everything was super clean.
Wait a second. Keith Bontrager is known to be one of the angriest men in the world when it comes to people asking him for favors…
That’s true. He has that reputation, but, he was really cool and he helped me with my bike. He was fun to talk to. He was really intelligent. He figured out how to make nice, lightweight steel frames that didn’t break. He had figured out a bunch of stuff that I thought should have been brought to the world. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, do you want to go into business together and make Bontrager cycles a bigger thing?"
He was a little skeptical, because he’s that way, which is probably good overall. Eventually, he said "Yes." I put money in and we moved to a bigger location, hired more people, and started making production frames. In the past, he had been making his forks and had been rolling down rims and stuff – I think it was a four-person operation. We expanded and eventually we were making 2,000 frames a year. We had 33 people and had licensed out a bunch of his ideas to other companies. So, we had had Titec, Weinmann, and Sella San Marcos, all making products with Keith’s designs. His name became really well known and it became synonymous with his innovative ideas.
Bontrager's Race Lite was one of the most respected steel hardtails when mountain bikes were exploding in the '80s. - Bontrager graphic
Were you there when Bontrager sold to Trek?
No, I had left by then. Keith and I got a divorce (laughs). Basically, I thought that we were doomed as is. Making steel hardtails was not a long-term strategy that was going to work. I wanted us to make full-suspension bikes, and I wanted us to at least add aluminum, and it was such a jarring transition in everyone’s minds there that they just sort of went into denial. Even though I was 45-percent owner of the company, I was not able to get everyone to switch over or even realize that it was something that we had to do. So I left, and I started up with Santa Cruz, who were doing everything that I thought we should have been doing at Bontrager.
Were you one of the founders of Santa Cruz?
No. I went there shortly afterwards. They had gotten the design from a guy [Tom Morris] who was a local motorcycle and cycling enthusiast, and an amateur engineer. He had come up with a design and Santa Cruz had fine-tuned it, and then brought it up to Control Tech to have it made. That was the Tazmon.
So, I came in before they had actually made any bikes. They had prototypes, maybe one or two that they had been riding and taking photographs of, but production hadn’t started yet. There were no sales or anything. After a handful of months into the project, I came in. They had been asking me for like a year to do it, and I kept saying, “I’d love to. I know what you are doing.” But, I was in deep with Bontrager and I wanted to do Bontrager for the rest of my life, but when it became apparent that I was not going to get them to do what I thought was necessary, I went over to the Santa Cruz guys and said, “Okay, I’ll take you up on it.”
Santa Cruz's first bike was the dual-suspension Tazmon, developed in 1992. - Santa Cruz photo
So I got to be one of the partners at Santa Cruz, but I didn’t have any money, so I was able to trade Shimano XT groups [I got as severance payment from Bontrager] as a cash equivalent. So, yeah, it was a very scrappy beginning, but it all worked out. We got it going pretty well. I was CEO and nearly half owner at Santa Cruz for the first ten years.
Let’s back up a little. How did you grow from bike shop rat to become a chief executive? What kind of education did you have to be able to make that transition?
I just had a high school education, and then I went into the Navy as a machinist’s mate on the nuke program, where I learned mechanical engineering skills.
I guess I should qualify CEO as maybe used a little bit loosely, because in these situations, it’s more a matter of, “Hey, do you want to do this” - “No” – “Well, how about you?” – “Well, okay.” So, sometimes it’s just who has the capacity to keep a good overview and juggle all the different stuff.
In the case of Bontrager, I didn’t know much. I was learning on the fly. I didn’t know about accounting or purchasing. I knew about sales and had an intuitional capacity for marketing, I guess. When I was at Bontrager I started filling in some of the other stuff: I knew something about engineering and I learned a lot from Keith too, and I learned from his wife Laura and various people about all the different things that go together to make up a business. So, at Santa Cruz, I already knew how to put together a system to make a small business like that work. Some of the systems I learned at Bontrager and, indeed, some of their employees, as they shed people when they began to wind down, got carried over to Santa Cruz.
With Rob Roskopp, I think pretty early on I asked, “Do you want to be in charge, or should I be?” He said something like, “Oh, you should be in charge, you’ve been doing this longer.” So I was the CEO. I was not so typical. I always tried to find consensus and work with everybody. It was not so much like a top-down thing, we were very collaborative.
Then, as Santa Cruz got bigger, I kept bringing in people who knew what they were doing and they would do each thing better than I was doing it. I’d hand it off and just keep in touch: “How’s it going. How are you doing?” Maybe it was a little different than bringing in someone who had a formal education, but the thing was, I had done every single job in the business. So, when somebody new came, I could show them how to do it.
The Santa Cruz Blur, with its VPP suspension was a big success for the brand. Hans said orders wildly outstripped Santa Cruz's production. - Santa Cruz photo
There is something really cool about that. You have a sense of the entire system. You know if you change something over here, it’s going to mess that guy up over there. You gotta go talk with him first. It works pretty well to come up having done all the front line duties, because you can relate to everyone and there’s a mutual respect. You don’t make decisions that wreck somebody’s life because you didn’t know that was going to make things harder for them – because you do know.
So, now Santa Cruz has matured somewhat, the company is enjoying massive growth and popularity, and suddenly, you leave the company. Can you shed some light on that?
Everything was going fantastic. There were no serious problems outwardly and so I don’t really have an explanation as to why we split, other than the two other partners decided that they wanted to be in control and wanted me to leave. At that moment, were growing really well. We had really good profits. Everyone was getting along well – we had good attitudes and a functional team. The reputation of the company was good. I felt we were on a really nice path. So, without explanation, they told me they wanted me to split and Rob was going to run the company.
So, I said, “Okay. Are you going to buy me out?” And, they said “No.” Then I said, “Okay. So, I can see you wouldn’t want to buy me out, so I would still have my shares and I would have a portion of the profits?” “No.”
This isn’t looking good so far…
No, it was horrible. You have to, at some point, change attitudes from being teammates to, “Okay, I have to look out for my own interests here and not get totally screwed over.” I had to play that part for a couple of months and hire attorneys, and I got them to buy me out for what I would say was a “modest valuation.” Then, I basically went on with my work.
What exactly was “my work?”
I was kind of in the middle of stuff. I wanted to develop a carbon suspension bike that was more free-form, and I was going to do that with the Blur at the time. Nobody knew that – it was all in my head at the moment, but basically, the split happened. I have a compulsion to complete these projects, you know, so I still wanted to do the same thing and finish this bike.
I needed a company to do it with, and I didn’t have one. I started thinking about Ibis. I hadn’t heard what was going on with them lately, so I called Scot Nicol and Scot told me this story that was gruesome.
He had the company for 20 years and decided that was long enough. He wanted to do some other things. So, he sold the company to an investor and one of the managers and they pretty much immediately ran Ibis out of business by moving the production and having it fail. Evidently, they got quotes to do the bikes and then the guys who were building the bikes said, “We can’t do it.” So, within 18 months, they had no production and basically, no company.
Ibis Founder Scot Nicol - Ibis Archive
The really bad punch line is that Scot never got paid for the company. Basically, he gave these guys Ibis. They crashed the car and he never got paid.
So, I told Scot that we needed to come up with a better end to this movie than that. Ibis was such a cool company. It had this sense of humor and interesting products, and that’s not an okay end. At first, he was burnt on the whole thing. It was such a bad experience and he was reluctant. I kept calling him and he agreed to do it. He’s like the DNA of the company, being the founder that first 20 years. I chased down the remnants of Ibis, which was basically the trademark. It was owned by these attorneys and I wrangled with them for a little bit and I bought it.
I got Scot involved and then I got Tom Morgan who is the president currently. He is a smart guy who has been in the business for a long time. Tom came from Giant, and Answer before that, and Titec was where I first knew him from. I thought he could definitely help us relaunch the company.
How did Roxy Lo fit in?
I crossed paths with Roxy at Santa Cruz and I saw her industrial designs. I always revered good industrial design and architecture, but kind of from a distance, because that kind of stuff is an exclusive realm. Everything really nice like that costs a lot of money and the people who are involved in it – you really don’t get a chance to talk to a top architect or industrial designer as a regular civilian.
I ran across Roxy because one of the guys at Santa Cruz was dating her. She did all kinds of things, from ceramics to cabinets and computer related stuff, but the common thread was that every time I looked at her stuff I thought, “man, that looks cool.” Roxy
was more accessible. She was someone that I could actually talk to and learn and share my enthusiasm for design. She didn’t know about bikes. First, you never know how well you can work with someone, so I asked her, “Hey, can you design a business card?” She did a really good job, and I said, “Okay, let’s do a bike now.” (laughs)
We got along well, so we dove into this project of Ibis restarting. The bike was really a daunting project. At the time, doing a lot of compound shapes in 3D was difficult for the computers that most engineers used, and when you added linkages with compound curves, it would often cause them to crash – or be so slow that we would go to lunch while the computers were regenerating the shapes.
I quickly realized that, at the 100 dollars per hour we were paying for engineering time, we could afford to buy them new, more powerful computers – one a week – and still save money. So, I offered to do that, but when the firm realized our dilemma, they upgraded their processing power. I sat next to the engineers for a lot of the 1800 hours it took to design the Mojo.
This was an engineering firm you were working with, if I remember correctly…
Yeah, a design and engineering firm, and Roxy was working on the gestural – the way it was going to look. And then these guys, who had designed bikes before, but just road bikes for the most part – they were working on the 3D, and I was trying to help interpret what Roxy meant. We were going back and forth and at the same time, trying to flesh out all of the mechanical concerns.
At some point, I got in so deep that I couldn’t quit. It didn’t necessarily look like it was going to work out. We had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested – you could have bought multiple houses in most parts of the country for how much we had invested in this design – and we’re not done yet… and we’re not done yet. And then, we hadn’t even tried to make it yet. Yeah, it was scary, but at some point, you’re in it so deep that you have to finish. Otherwise it’s guaranteed to be a huge loss.
So, did you run into any production issues?
Once we got the design ready, the factory worked on it for a while and they actually pulled the plug on it – something like two or three weeks before the trade show. I got an email at three in the morning from the factory and they said, “Thank you for this opportunity, but we have decided not to proceed with your project.” I was like: “Excuse me?” And, they said that it was just too difficult. My wife said that I looked like my best friend had died. I was grey, and in shock.
I had a plan though. I was going to start nice and write a very respectful and pleasant letter to them, asking them to please reconsider and get going, because there was a lot riding on this. But, I already had the second and third letters written - which escalated into we are going to sue you, we are going to ask everyone in the industry not to do business with you ever again… You know, that kind of thing.
Did you have to scramble to find another vendor? There were not many choices back then.
Well, we got to the second letter to put the pressure on them and meanwhile, I had started to ask other people in the industry if there was anything that they could do to help us. It was really cool. Our factory started getting contacted by their customers, saying things like, “You realize that this is not the kind of decision you can make in a vacuum – and that your reputation, personally and corporately, will be affected permanently if you don’t do this.”
By the time we got to the third letter, along with all this outside pressure, we were contacted by them and they came back with: “Ibis is our number one customer.” So, we were able to pull it off, and people had no idea at the show that the two frames we had were the only ones in the world, and it was a miracle that we had them at all. But you know, through consistency and fairness, we are still good friends with that company now.
The original Ibis was so organically grounded with its customers. Scot Nicol, and the way he ran things – he kept it real. To your credit, the new Ibis has maintained that vibe. So, what’s the magic?
That’s an interesting observation. That is part of the reason I bought Ibis and wanted to be associated with it again. There’s this culture of being more human and less concerned with all the corporate stuff. You do a good job and treat everybody well, you’ll be able to pay your bills and you’ll all have a good time. That, to me, is probably a more desirable way to go through life.
Scot got his start in Mendocino and then Sebastopol and then Santa Rosa, and now we are in Santa Cruz. This whole region – in the ‘60s it was hippies and it’s very much artisanal and focused on more soulful things. The word “corporation” is almost like, “Eeew, what is THAT?’
So, it seems like Ibis has grown to an ideal size. You have 26 employees, the brand is international, and the business seems to have grown to the point where you can survive the industry’s inevitable ups and downs. Still, you’re not so huge that you’ve lost the family vibe. How did you get to this place and how big do you want to take Ibis from here?
I agree. I really enjoy the current state. It’s a feeling of mutual respect and understanding between the employees. It’s not like we are striving for it to get better in some ways to solve some problem. It’s quite good, and that does get harder as you grow bigger, so we grow reluctantly in a way. If you have a hundred people working, a lot of energy is spent on keeping everybody on the same page. When you are smaller, you just overhear everything – you don’t have to have a lot of meetings. Everybody just knows what’s going on.
We want to do more of what we are doing without adding a lot more people, and there is another reason for that. The numbers have just come out and Santa Cruz is the fourth least affordable place to live in the entire world – number one in the USA. So, as a strategy (if you want to call it that), we need to be really good with all of our systems and organization, so we can keep a decent amount of sales per person, so we can pay people enough, so they can survive here.
So far, so good – we have been able to do that, but it is quite different having a business located here compared to almost anywhere else. It’s spectacularly expensive. We have to watch out for each other so we make sure we don’t have lay-offs. It’s serious. We really try hard to do things better so we aren’t hiring ten more people in the busy time of the year and then laying them off in the slow time.
That sucks. We want the same crew all year, and maybe that means we have to work fast all summer and maybe take more bike rides in the winter, but we keep the same crew, so everybody knows where stuff is and how to do it and you’re not always trying to bring some new person up to speed on the culture of Ibis.
At your size, you can’t and probably shouldn’t make every kind of bike. How do you choose which models you will concentrate upon? Which genres best express the brand?
We get tugged in different ways depending upon what we’ve been riding lately. Primarily we’ve made variations on a theme of different travel and wheel-size trail bikes. Our customers and some of our dealers have need for different terrain and fit considerations – but for us, we need to be interested in it to do it authentically, and you can see that in our current line. Each of the bikes we make has a big champion within the company. Most of us ride Ripleys, and if we are going to be in the mountains
and riding steep terrain, then maybe the HD4. Some people have more sway than others. Sometimes the engineers simply refuse to make a bike that we want because they are not into it.
Do you have the last word?
More and more I realize that putting things out for discussion can have too much ambiguity, and sometimes you need someone to come in and go, “Okay, here’s what we’re doing.” Especially if you are confident that it is going to be a good result, and if it rings true, you’ll get a great response – and maybe a week or two later, the program will be happening. I’ve been doing more of that lately because I am realizing that a good, solid and early decision goes a long way towards the company’s success. Sometimes we are earlier to market than we would have been if we had discussed it for six months first. We are making it part of the company culture to be decisive and quick.
When you relaunched Ibis, you assembled a team of specialists. You had Tom to oversee the big picture, Scott to keep Ibis real, Colin the engineer, Roxy the designer, Dave Weagle produced the kinematics - which suggests that you are a hands-off type of manager. But that isn’t the case, is it?
I feel like if it have been given the chance, (which usually means the time), that I can come up with things that are really helpful. I‘ve been deliberately handing off some of my duties to guys, some of whom are qualified for it and it’s a no-brainer: “Can you do this?” - “Sure” – boom! Others are guys who are coming up in the business who, like me, have had no formal training. I’ll show them how to do something like purchasing or book keeping, and I’ll answer their questions as we go along and they grow into a whole new job that is a positive thing for them – and for me too. That frees me up to work in other parts of the business and be more creative, which is good for Ibis and fun for me.
Do you have any big projects ahead?
Working with all of our factories, and having the mentality of always looking at things and asking, “How could you do that better? How could you make it less bad? I wanted to look at the process of making carbon frames and go from tip to tail to reduce the amount of energy it takes, make the quality easier to achieve, take some of the time out of it, and make it less labor intensive – because right now, making one of our dual-suspension frames takes about 40 hours. At Bontrager, we could make a steel hardtail in nine and a half hours total: handmade, powder-coated, prepped and decaled.
So, we have an in-house carbon research and development facility where we have been making carbon parts and trying all these theories and trying to bring them into reality. With a lot of these things, you look at the fundamentals (the physics of it) and think, “It should be possible.” And, then you go try and do it and sometimes it totally works out and you say, “I knew it!” And other ideas are just a pain in the ass and you think, “Okay, this might take years to figure out."
We have been going through the carbon process stuff for about three years now, and we are about five or six years into a finishing project. I haven’t been working on that full time, but I usually make good progress when I get a chance to. We’ve manage to figure out a couple of things. The frames that we are making here right now don’t actually require finishing, so we can put stickers on them and wax them and they look great. That’s huge. You’ve cut out an immense amount of weight and work and pollution, and you’ve got something that has advantages in some way.
The other alternative was that we figured out how to powder coat carbon fiber, which I still haven’t heard of anybody doing. You use powdered polyester, electrostatic spray it, and there’s no solvents and no pollution. We solved the problems that were keeping us from doing that – and they were pretty gnarly problems, but it worked. The ultimate is not having to paint it at all, but if we do have to paint the frames, we will powder coat them and not have to use solvent-based spray paint.
On the process side, we’ve changed to a much lower amount of energy required to cure the carbon. We’ve got much better controls on the cure cycles – the heat and pressures – than the typical factories. Very little work has to be done after molding. We’ve also figured out how to use larger and fewer pieces in the layup – one third the number of pieces.
Thinking that we want to be able to make some frames here, in the most expensive town in the US, it’s one of those puzzles. We like hard puzzles and the satisfaction you get from solving a hard puzzle is better than the satisfaction you get solving an easy puzzle. It’s thrilling and we love it, and so far, we usually figure out how to do it. It’s not easy, but that’s why we like it.
Do you foresee a time when you will shift more of your production in-house, or will you take what you have learned and use it to increase the efficiency of the factories you are currently using?
I’m currently thinking of it as both. We’re going to make a small production – one size of the Ripley. That’s like our pilot and it allows us to keep things under control as we grow this. We’ll learn a lot doing that and we’ll smooth things out, and then the next thing we’re going to do is one entire model. It will be one that can really benefit from what we are doing. We can make it really light – push the limits of a very light structure that is as strong and tough as it needs to be, because we have control over the entire process.
Having control of your carbon process also gives you the opportunity to make your manufacturing more earth-friendly. How does Ibis fit in there?
We’ve got in-house carbon as well and we can’t recycle it ourselves, so we store it. When we have a defective part or something that has been crashed or decommissioned, we save all those parts. For seven or eight years we couldn’t find someone who would recycle it. So we put them on boxes and pallets. Here were a couple of places that were recycling leftover composites from aerospace companies like Boeing, and I was like, “Great! I’m going to call these guys and get in on this.” I could never get them to engage with us. Basically, they were too busy with the big stuff to deal with some small company calling. It wasn’t for lack of trying.
Eventually, we knew one of the guys at Specialized who was in charge of a corporate responsibility program that involved recycling – and recycling carbon. They had gotten through and had a program in place. We were able to piggyback on that. A semi from Specialized would stop here on the way to the recycler and pick up our stuff. We’ve done that repeatedly now and we’ve managed not to send a bunch of our carbon stuff to the land-fill.
You look back at Ibis 20 years from now, what will you be most proud of?
Switching from Ibis to all the different companies, which are Bontrager, Santa Cruz, and I had a bike shop for a year, and now Ibis – the thing I hope I will be proudest of and currently, really proud of is that we never had layoffs. Through the Iraq war, no layoffs. Through the big 2008 – 2009 meltdown, we never had layoffs. We just never got ourselves into that situation.
There’s an observation that I read and now I realize that it is actually very important: “You never get credit for the things that didn’t happen.” So, something that doesn’t happen like: nobody got hurt on your product or, you didn’t go out of business or, you didn’t have a big layoff. You didn’t have to sell the company because it got out of balance. Those sorts of things, you don’t get credit for, they just don’t exist on people’s radar. To me, that is actually a big accomplishment – something I am really happy about.
As far as Ibis goes, I am most proud of the culture that we have built and that it is such a positive thing. All the way from our customers (the bike riders themselves), the dealers, to us, and to our vendors, everybody is on the same team and having a good time, and that’s a really special situation. It doesn’t happen all the time. To be able to work in that situation and with the people I’m working with, and have a good time each day, and do these bikes… I feel really lucky.