Another episode from our very own Brad Hughes from his over 40 year career in bicycles.
It was summertime in Chicago and I had just graduated Junior College. Mr. Rudy Schwinn called and asked a question that would change my life forever “Kid, how’d you like to work in the bike factory?" Rudy always called me kid because I looked young and sub-consciously I represented the son he never had.
After pinching myself I eagerly accepted. He said “ be ready Monday morning 6:30 sharp.”
As my first day approached thoughts raced through my head. I was about to start work in the greatest bike factory in the world. What it would be like? What would I be doing. Would I like it? I’d never been to a factory before let alone the world famous Schwinn Bicycle factory. On the way to the factory Rudy explained that Schwinn had three factories in the Chicago area: (1) a metal processing / tube forming factory, (2) a frame production factory and (3) an assembly factory complete with painting and wheel building. Wow!
As we approached I remember the bright Schwinn logo above the entrance and the hustle bustle of a people arriving for work punching in on what looked like a clock. It was actually a time clock that recorded when you arrived, when you left for lunch and when you finished for the day. That’s how they knew how many hours you worked and how much they’d pay you each week.
After leading me to the hiring office Rudy left and said, “see you later kid!” There I was, a Schwinn factory worker. I was excited and terrified. Not only was this my first real job, but my sponsor was nowhere to be found and I didn’t know anyone yet. The job started like most jobs start, with paper work. After the paperwork was complete, my supervisor came down to meet me and together we went into the factory. My eyes and brain were busy scanning everywhere, so many things to observe, to see, to hear. All eyes were on me, word had already spread that Mr. Schwinn was bringing somebody down to work at the factory. Within a few hours I learned that if the Schwinns brought someone down to the factory to work that they must be ‘family’. And apparently I looked like I could have been a member of the Schwinn family because the treatment was palpable.
My supervisor’s name was Luca Cimarusti, a tough guy of Italian decent. He spoke like Marlon Brando. His accent was so thick that at times I struggled to understand him. I was sooo nervous. I learned very quickly how to say “yes, Sir!” Luca was a purposeful supervisor. He demanded that you show up for work on time everyday, never complain and do as he told you, no questions. But he was also a nice guy.
When I started at Schwinn I worked at the very beginning of the assembly line. I was stationed where they assembled the metal head badge to the painted frame. My co-workers there were two women who were 20 year veterans at Schwinn! They gave me a quick lay of the land, told me where to go, when to stop, not work too fast and to not forget to eat something. They thought I was too skinny. I watched them do the job. They were pros at attaching the head badge.
Nowadays, most head badges are attached with adhesive. But at the time, they were fastened to the frame by hand with metal fasteners. The frame head tube had two tiny holes punched in it. My job was to place the metal head badge over the holes, insert these really tiny screws into the holes and then whack the screws with a tiny hammer. If you hit the head on the screw squarely, all was good as the screws went in properly. However, if you missed or if the screw was out of line you could dent the head badge which meant the frame had to be removed from the assembly line and repaired. At the end of my first hour we had more botches frames than good frames. It got so bad that the assembly line had to stop. Well here comes Luca…in polite Italian English he wanted to know what the &$#@! was going on. We had bikes to build and orders to fill, at this rate today was not going to be a good day. And to add dramatic flair to the situation, I must have dropped a thousand of those tiny screws on the ground. Luca did not appreciate how I had redecorated the floor. After a quick call to Rudy, I was allowed to continue but I’d have to work off-line practicing before they would let me back on the line. How embarrassing and humiliating.
Within days I was given a second chance on the assembly line. But this time I was not assembling the head badge. Instead I was inserting the metal top and bottom head cups into the frame (these are the parts of the bike that help it steer smoothly). This job might sound simple. But I was a newbie and working at Schwinn assembly line pace is a skill. I had to operate a press machine, something I had never done before. The cups needed to be lined up correctly – an off-center press would result in a botched frame that needed repair (or worse, needed to be thrown out). And I had to do all of this while keeping up with the speed of the Schwinn assembly line. Again I think it ran about 10 frames per minute. The pressure was intense with Luca nearby. Luckily this time something clicked. I could do this job and I managed to keep up and even get ahead of the assembly line.
The first week flew by and before you knew it the months did too. As Rudy’s protégé I was learning fast and gaining confidence moving down the line to more and more important assembly jobs. Soon people learned that I was not a ‘Schwinn’. Luca had a good laugh about this (unlike the rest of the workers, he knew the truth all along). But shedding the royal Schwinn label strengthened my relationships with my fellow workers – I was embraced as one of the team. And everyone was now willing to teach me new things.
There I was at age 19 getting a chance of a lifetime to learn step-by-step “how to assemble a bicycle” at the Schwinn Bicycle Company!
Brad Hughes is Head of Products at Prevelo Bikes. He has over four decades of experience in manufacturing, product development and sourcing bicycles. When he is not working for Prevelo Bikes, Brad runs sourcingdoc.com where he helps entrepreneurs with new product ideas learn how to develop and source products.
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