Our guest this week is Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels in Traverse City.
Tim’s been at the helm of Brick Wheels for over 4 decades now, and he’s looked to as a real leader in the biking community up north. He is such a fun person to know and to interview, and he and Tim Gillen go way back as friends.
We recorded this episode over Zoom, and Tim showed up to our video call wearing a huge set of fake vampire teeth, if you’re wondering what kind of a fun-loving guy he is😂
Tim’s shop sells many types of outdoor sporting gear, but he’s also well-known in the disabled bicyclist community of northern Michigan, and his shop, located on Eighth Street in Traverse City, takes care of adaptive and recumbent bikes, assisting in repair and tuning.
We had a blast chatting with Tim for well over an hour about what he loves -and what he doesn’t love!- about running a business in northern Michigan.
Connect with Tim and the Brickheads team:
Hi, nerds Ruthy here. Tim and I sat down at the start of June with Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels in Traverse City. Tim’s been at the helm of Brick Wheels for over four decades now, and he’s looked to as a real leader in the biking community Up North.
He is such a fun person to know, and to interview, and he and Tim Gillen go way back. We recorded this episode over Zoom and Tim Brick showed up to our video call wearing a huge set of fake vampire teeth, if you’re wondering what kind of a guy he really is!
Tim’s shop sells many types of outdoor sporting gear, but he’s also well known in the disabled bicyclists community of Northern Michigan. His shop is located on Eighth street and Traverse City takes care of adaptive and recumbent bikes, assisting and repair and tuning among other things. We had a blast chatting with Tim for well over an hour, but what he loves, what he doesn’t love about running a business in Northern Michigan.
To hear the bonus segments of this episode, that didn’t make the official half hour, make sure you subscribe to our podcast in your favorite platform and never miss an update! And now, our talk with Tim Brick of Brick Wheels.
Tim Gillen (00:57):
Well, hello, Tim Gillen here at Terrapin Networks, Traverse City, Michigan, our guest this morning on Michigan Small Business Story is Tim Brick. He is the owner and founder of Brick Wheels, a very well known bicycle shop in Traverse City, Michigan, Northwest lower Michigan. Hello, Tim. Thanks for joining us. We want to start out by asking you a little bit about your business. Now tell us all the stuff you guys are involved in.
Tim Brick (01:33):
We are a bike shop. That’s what we started in 1974, and we in the winter and snow shoes. We’ve ventured into a lot of different areas. At one point we were selling Alpine skis and snowboards. We had a separate store called B-Xtreme where we handled snowboards and stuff, but we’ve stayed on task with the bicycle part of it through that whole time.
And in this time of the coronavirus, bicycles have become an essential part of everyday lifestyle. The gyms are closed, the kids are home, there’s no little league, there’s no soccer. Bicycling is one thing that families can do together. So it’s really become just crazy this spring. We were closed for about eight weeks. And then when we did open up it was just absolutely crazy.
People were digging stuff out of their garages and barns. I told some of my mechanics, I said, most of these bikes are older than you, that you’re working on! But people were finding stuff and wanting to blow some life into them and sales of new bikes went through the roof. So it’s been a crazy spring.
Consequently, the entire country is out of bicycles. And so resupplying has been nearly impossible for two months, nothing was being shipped into the country. There’s nothing in the pipeline. And now 2021 product is starting to show up, but it won’t be until about mid July before we see any new bikes.
Tim Gillen (03:18):
So you folks were closed due to restrictions done by the state of Michigan. That’s the only reason that you were closed. Right?
And that was not common around the country. Bike shops normally were considered, essentially kept open. Were they not?
Tim Brick (03:32):
Yeah. Michigan was the only state that bicycles were not deemed essential. In the states of New York and Massachusetts, for instance, doctors and medical people are required to have a bicycle. If there is a failure of mass transit, they can still get to the hospitals. So it really makes sense for those people. But that was not the case in Michigan. We were deemed not essential.
So as soon as you were deemed essential, boom, the floodgates opened.
Yeah. Originally it was, we were allowed to open as a repair and curbside service. So it was extremely cumbersome way to operate because we had to sanitize each bike and before we could bring it into the store, then the guys would do an estimate on it. We would take the estimate back out to the person and then get a authorization to complete any repair. We were taking in 20 to 25 repairs a day and maybe being able to get out about 12 or 15. So we quickly got quite behind and in service and we were then splitting up our staff and, having guys coming at night to try and complete repairs. So we were trying to get caught up in, we’re still about a week behind that.
It’s, it’s been a process for sure. First week we went through 400 pairs of gloves, 2 gallons of sanitizer and 30 masks at 5 bucks a piece. So it was a very expensive way to operate.
Tim Gillen (05:07):
But that’s settled down a little bit now? Of course you say now you’re about a week out, so that’s not all that unusual for this time of year, I would guess.
Tim Brick (05:16):
No, not really. And we have a unique situation in Traverse City. There’s three bike shops in one town. There used to be a gas station on every corner. Now there’s a bike shop on every corner. It’s really a unique thing. I can see the other stores and they’re just as busy as we are.
Tim Gillen (05:40):
And for those listening, you hear the phone ring. Tim’s at his store right now when they’re open for business. So that’s what some of that is. He’s taking some time out of his day to chat with us.
His very busy day.
Let’s go back step. Then we’ll talk some more about current stuff, but let’s go back a step. What’s some of the origins? You say you started the company in 1974, give us a little bit of feel for how that went.
It was very similar situation. Now we didn’t have the pandemic situation, but gasoline had gone from 25 cents a gallon to a dollar and the entire world thought it was going to end. And all the hippies wanted to buy a $100 bicycle and ride to Oregon and start a commune. And so that’s kind of when we opened and it was just a crazy time, there was not nearly the number and the amount of accessories as there is now. There wasn’t the car racks and all the other stuff. So it was pretty much just bike sales. And we closed during the winter. It was, you know, a couple of long-haired hippies that ran it during the summer and shut down in the winter.
The two hippies, my dad had running the place, got haircuts and got real jobs. And he was sort of in a quandary and said, you gotta come back and help me. You’re the only guy that knows much about what’s going on there. And so I came back and took over and worked out a deal where I bought it from him and I said, if I’m going to own this place, we’re not going to close in a winter. And that’s when we got into Nordic skiing and we stayed open. So I think year 3 on, we were into the outdoor gear. People had more time. Everybody was into that whole earth type thing, you know?
So you took the store over from your father in 1977?
Tim Brick (07:39):
Uh, yes, I was working there from 74, but I wasn’t in charge until 77.
And so when you did that, you were taking it over at you, you started doing a year round thing where you were more connected with kind of like an outdoor living, as well as the bikes in the summertime. And when did you grow that? You said you also had B-Xtreme for awhile. What was the growth pattern from 77 to then opening up B-Xtreme until you shut B-Xtreme as well?
Tim Brick (08:12):
During that time we moved the first four years, every year to a new store and a bigger place. We said ‘Brick Wheels, always on the go!’ You know, we kept getting bigger and bigger and getting into more product and moved into our building that we bought that was probably about 5,000 square feet. And we stayed there for awhile. Then snowboards got to be a big deal. And snowboards did not want to be in a traditional Alpine ski shop. They wanted to be in a standalone store. They were too cool. They were not in corporate. The biggest company was Burton and we wanted to carry Burton and Burton wanted to be in a standalone shop. So we looked around for another store. We found this location that we’re in presently, and we parceled off a portion of that building and created this shop called B-Xtreme, which was really fun because we had, you know, purple hair, tattooed guys running this place.
(09:15):They were, you know, way into snowboarding, skateboards, scooters. During the summer we did beach wear and all kinds of cool stuff. So it was really fun to deviate away from that, you know, tech nerd, geeky, bike guys, you know?
So when was that? What was the timeframe?
What was, that was 1995, and we probably kept it going for about 10 years. And then all of a sudden Burton clothing shows up in TJ Maxx and their ‘non-corporate’ stance sort of deviated and snowboards then became more mainstream. They were all over all over town. So it just sort of lost its legs and cool factor. Anyways we tore down partitions and incorporated that B-Xtreme into the bike shop. We still carried snowboards for awhile, just in with our skis. And then we got out of the downhill ski thing and snowboards, and really focused more on Nordic, which we were kind of the experts at for a long time prior to getting into the Alpine.
(10:23): But snow shoes have picked up and then fat bikes came wrong. Traverse City is probably one of the few places in the country where they sell a lot of fat bikes.
Tell me about fat biking. It’s a term that I’ve only recently become familiar with. What is fat biking exactly?
Well, they’re kind of a traditional mountain bike, but they come with four and five inch wide tires. And you run them at real low pressure, like four or five pounds of pressure. They really lend themselves well to riding on groomed Nordic trails.
So there’s kind of a perception that, Oh, you just plow through the snow and they’ll hold you up. They don’t really, they can go through the snow like that but it’s not much fun, but when you’re out on a Nordic trail where it’s packed and groomed, those fat bikes roll around like mountain bikes.
The fat bike has now become almost a different market. You guys are specializing in the fat tire bikes.
Yeah, because there’s a whole different bunch of accessories. Like people’s hands get very cold holding on to the handlebars. So they’ve got these thing called bar mitts, which go wrap around the handles and keep your hands warm. And then there’s booties. There’s a lot of snow gets tossed up on you from the rear tires. So there’s a whole different set of fenders and all kinds of different stuff. There’s even an electric fatbike.
Tim Gillen (11:55):
Your mechanics are up installing and being expert at putting the fenders on properly so that they stay on. And so you provide that service as well, as not just something someone might buy online and they go to mount it and they might screw it up. You guys do both ends of that. So it’s a much better solution for most riders.
So another angle besides the fat bikes has been the electric bikes, e-bikes battery powered bikes. Tell us about that a bit too. You guys were, just like the fat bikes, an early adopter in these weren’t you?
Tim Brick (12:29):
Yeah we got into the electric bikes, um, maybe 15 years ago. There’s tricycles, there’s tandems, there’s cargo bikes, which is a big deal around Traverse City. A lot of people are commuting. Uh, you’ll see people go to a local health food store with two kids in the front and four bags of groceries in this little wooden box in front of their bike. But if they were to try and peddle that bike, it’d be really difficult.
A lot of people have gone from living out in the country to moving into town, getting rid of their second car and the e-bike cargo bike has become their second bike.
So that’s actually been kind of a growth for you a little bit then.
Yeah. We’ve actually, uh, donated a couple of the bikes to the police department in Traverse City, because it’s so congested in the summer, or it had been with the tourism, the cops can get around on the bike much easier than they can in a car. We’re giving them bikes to get 20 mile an hour speed. They’re all outfitted with red and blue flashing lights and sirens and everything. And they run off the bike battery.
Tim Gillen (13:39):
And then they can charge them every night and they’re good to go for the next shift.
Tim Brick (13:43):
Yeah, absolutely. Just imagine the cost of a patrol car, and these things are probably way more efficient than a patrol car. And the officers are much more approachable when you’re sitting on a bike as opposed to in a patrol car. You get a little more close to the public.
It’s really a challenge up here because we actually, in fact, we were voted in the top 100 bike shops in America, probably 10 or 12 times, which is really odd because all the other places were like, you know, Austin, Texas, or New York City or Chicago or Atlanta or whatever. So what’s really strange about Traverse is we’re like a sleepy little town all winter long. And all of a sudden in the summer we, we blow up load quarter million people that changes over every two or three weeks.
(14:41): So it’s just a challenge because, uh, all of that, you know, hiring people, getting stuff in, all the seasonal stuff we deal with.
It’s a real fun business to be in. I go to work the shorts and I get the best rides, all the cool stuff. And nobody comes into my store upset unless maybe the service department didn’t get their bike done in time or something. You’re usually dealing with pretty happy people. They’re coming in looking for something to make them happy. I had a friend that was in the auto parts business. He didn’t like it. I said, well, Scott, nobody comes to your place happy. Their wiper blades are screwed up. Their battery’s dead. They need a jumper cable. They need something. I mean, nobody’s there because they were having a good time.
(15:30): But you get that. You get those kinds of people. They’re just dreaming. They just think about next bike.
And that’s a segment of owning a business that’s overlooked. I have a brother who’s in the yacht repair business down in Florida and he’s dealing with people’s dreams. They love their boats.
It’s fun stuff.
Yeah. Most bicycle enthusiast have herds of bikes, they have flocks. They have a fat or a road bike, two mountain bikes, full suspension bike. Their wife’ll come out and look at them and go, did you buy a new bike? He goes, no, no!
Tim Gillen (16:11):
There’s just a pile of bikes out here, just a herd as you say.
Moving forward in the cycling industry, in the bike industry. What changes do you see coming down the pipeline?
Well, I think we’re going to see a continuing evolution of the electric bike. I think that’s going to continue to grow particularly as the society continues to age as it does. We have a problem right now where kids are not riding. And there’s been a lot of work getting them back riding again. It’s kind of strange how we, we talk about obesity in America and yet we don’t let kids ride their bikes to school. We don’t even give them bike racks. We’re so worried about them getting hurt. And that was something we did. We grew up all the time. We didn’t even think about going, you know, eight or nine miles on our bikes.
(17:02): We rode her bike to school. If you’re on a bicycle, you pull right up to the door, you walk in, get what you want, come back out.
And, and you are finding a little more emphasis to a school age kids and that kind of thing on bicycle riding, are you starting to see more emphasis?
Yeah, locally, we have a good group called Norte that has encouraged kids to get out and ride. They lead them on rides and they teach them hand signals and stuff like that. Once again, things that we learned when we were younger. I mean, I remember riding around baseball practice with my glove, hanging off my handlebar.
Yes, I rode to cheerleading practice on my bike every day.
Tim Gillen (18:07):
So what do you see? What’s kind of a conclusion from your standpoint. Let’s go back aside from cycling as a small business, give us a couple of tips from a guy who bought a company from his dad 40 years ago, plus, and turned it into something. What tips do you have to pass on to someone who’s looking to get into small business or who’s 7 or 8 years in and is trying to keep it going, maybe had some real challenges from the pandemic and the shutdowns or whatever, wherever they may be listening, whatever their current state may have may have done. How about some tips?
Tim Brick (18:43):
I think it’s important that you have a business plan and the business plan always changes. It’s never what you want it to be. It just continually evolves. And you have to go with the flow. Like you have to kind of use it as a map. It’s going to guide you where you’re going.
And it’s important to have an accountant. It’s important to have a board of directors. And by that, I mean, not necessarily a board that sits at a table and makes decision, but somebody you can bounce ideas off, maybe another person, who has a business, an older person. I remember I used to get a group of senior advisors. You could have them come in and they kind of steer you the right direction and stuff.
(19:37): So like, my brother is on my board of directors. I can go to him and ho, “Hey Bob, I’m having a hell of a time. I just can’t get my employees motivated. What do you do?” You know? And so we’ll bounce ideas off each other and figure it out that neither one of us knows what we’re doing.
But that’s really valuable, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. And then, you know, your business plan needs to change. You need to look at it every year. We operate under strict budgets I was talking to a guy the other day, he went to business and he forecasted 20% growth. I’m like, that is a program for disaster. He figured he could spend 20% more expenses and 20% more in advertising and the growth never showed up, but he had already spent the advertising money and expenses, you know, so now he’s laying people off and everything else. I said, you gotta be conservative. And know what you’re forecasting and be realistic. I mean, yeah, 20% sounds wonderful. You can get a new car and all that, but then it doesn’t happen.
Tim Gillen (20:48):
It doesn’t happen most years. There’s no doubt about
Tim Brick (20:48):
You have to pay attention to your competition. In my case, I can look out my parking lot and know what the competition is doing. You have to look at the trends nationally, where you’re doing locally. You just have to pay attention to all these different aspects and the people you work with are really important. That’s your key element, get good people. And if you got a good one, figure out a way to retain them. We have a really good incentive program that my guys just love because if we’re hitting at all cylinders, they’re benefiting. So the people you work with are really important. We like say a high tide floats all boats. And that’s what we do here. We say if the business is making money, my employees are making money. So we share the wealth.
Tim Gillen (21:57):
Well, that’s something I’ve noticed. As one of these outside vendors who become a partner to a company, become their team nerd as people have heard us talk about, I get involved. My outfit Terrapin Networks got involved with Brick Wheels a few years ago here. And man, it was striking how many employees you had that you had had for 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years. That shows a stable business and a stable mindset that hasn’t been lurching all over the place. That’s really difficult to accomplish, says a lot about your company. And it’s not common. Take my word here. I’m in other small companies all the time. It’s not common. It’s very uncommon and very impressive.
Tim Brick (22:48):
Well, we listen to what they say. I mean, it’s not like serving with an iron fist. I’ll sit down and they can come in and tell me and all of it, “We can’t do this. This is not the way we’re doing it.” And I have to listen to them because like you said, some have been there 30 years, they know, and that’s important. I think you gotta rule by committee. You know, I always say the best committees are an odd number less than three, but you still have to have a committee.
Tim Gillen (23:13):
Yeah. And that’s true. And I’ve seen that. I mean, I’ve seen the input that you give your staff and I’ve seen the value that comes from it. These are smart people. They’re there a long time and they’re committed to your company. That’s obvious. Again, these are the kinds of things that an outsider like me can see. So you’ve done a nice job of putting that together.
So that’s gotta be part of you tip to that small business owner and that person who has been doing it six, seven years, trying to grow and next level and all that kind of stuff is pay real special attention to your team and retention and giving those people some say in the game.
Tim Brick (23:50):
Well, things are changing so fast. I mean, I’m an older guy and I’m not on Instagram or a Twitter and all this stuff. And my guys are my younger guys, so I have to lean on them. I’m like, “Kyle, I don’t know how to, you know, access a promo box and get all these ads and pictures together.” And those guys just do it.
So it winds up being a very collaborative thing where maybe you’re not, you know, really into the whole Instagram or Twitter world, but they are. And so you’re able to work together for the betterment of the cut of the company really.
And I have to trust them. But they’re good. I can pass that on because I am able to see that.
The team you have, Kyle and Hunter, some of your team members, are good at understanding that kind of new media and how it can help, what you folks are doing at Brick Wheels. And you add that to someone like you, who’s been in the trenches of this industry for 40 years. Terrific combination.
Tim Brick (24:57):
Yeah. Like I said, during this pandemic, we’re getting those older bikes in. I tell my guys they’re older than they are, and they kind of enjoy hearing some of my stories about, you know, when we were doing racing and we were doing ESPN races up here.
Tim, if anybody wants to get a hold of yourself or Brick Wheels or anything, what’s the best way? Is it just coming into the store? Is it contacting all on Instagram? What’s the best way people can get ahold of Brick Wheels?
Tim Brick (25:24):
Oh, they probably could get a hold of us on Instagram, but I don’t know how.
I’ll figure it out. I’ll put it in there.
But, uh, BrickWheels.com Call us at the shop at (231) 947-4274.
All of my employees have emails. If you go to the website, you can get anybody’s email. Our shop is located in Traverse. We are on Eighth Street, 736 eighth street, which is almost really geographically in the center of town, but not in the center of downtown. So we’re a little South of downtown and to the East. We are from the Bay off where the Holiday Inn was.
Tim Gillen (26:13):
Right off the corner of Eighth and Woodmere, which almost kitty corner from the public library. The TART trail runs right behind your shop. You’re actually in a really good spot, big, a lot of parking and all that yeah.
Well, Tim, thanks a million brother. I appreciate it. Alright, thanks. Thanks for doing this.