VAN NUYS — Rancho Cucamonga resident Steven Gomez rises weekday mornings at 5 for a two-hour commute to Van Nuys.
Most of the ride is aboard a Metrolink train, but when he disembarks at the Van Nuys station, the 40-year-old design engineer hops on an electric bicycle. In 15 minutes, he's at the doorstep of his employer, Currie Technologies Inc., with only a few beads of sweat on his brow.
"It saves me wear and tear on my person," Gomez said of his commute.
Clearly, in car-crazy Los Angeles, there aren't many electric bike commuters like Gomez. And since he works for Currie Technologies, a developer of electric bikes, it may be a stretch to call him the harbinger of a trend. But Currie Technologies believes what's working for Gomez will work for others--if they'll try it.
So this year, the company that's focused exclusively on developing bikes is entering a new phase. The time is right, company execs said, to build consumer awareness and establish the Currie brand, especially among aging baby boomers who might appreciate how a zero-emission electric motor can ease the strain of tackling hills on a bike.
"We are transforming ourselves into a marketing company," said Malcolm Currie, the 72-year-old onetime chairman of Hughes Aircraft Co. who founded the firm with partner Richard Mayer, a former Van Nuys High School auto shop teacher.
It doesn't hurt that electric bikes represent the confluence of two hot trends in consumer marketing. First, it's one of the array of new products aimed at the 76 million Americans who make up the influential generation born between 1946 and 1964, now middle-age, but maintaining their characteristic youthful attitude. Plus, there's the public's stated interest in aiding the environment.
But that said, creating a market represents a tough challenge for Currie Technologies. "The public doesn't know it needs an electric bike," acknowledged Currie, who was undersecretary of Defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The tiny firm has operated on a relative shoestring, on total funding of $3 million. So far, it's sold between 5,000 and 6,000 electric bikes in the U.S., chiefly its U.S. Pro Drive mountain bikes, without benefit of an advertising campaign.
This year, the company anticipates selling 20,000 units. Part of this is because it has expanded its product line: Currie Technologies now sells a folding bike, a cruiser bike, a tricycle and a foot scooter. Each uses two 12-volt, recyclable lead acid batteries mounted on the frame that can go for 20 miles on level ground before recharging. (Recharging takes six to eight hours with a standard charger that comes with the bike.)
In October, entrepreneur David Noland put up $100,000 to open a shop in Oceanside selling electric bikes exclusively.
Noland said that about 20 people a day stroll through his 3,500-square-foot Millennial Motors, and that Currie's U.S. Pro Drive is the No. 1 seller.
Still, Currie Technologies has a long way to go. It is establishing a marketing department and plans to hire five to six sales and marketing pros within two to three months.
But as Currie moves forward, it faces new, formidable competition: Ford Motor Co. announced recently that it is entering the electric bike business with models selling for $1,000 and $1,200. The bikes will be sold in bike shops, Ford dealerships and on the Internet, starting in June.
Strangely enough, Currie is greeting Ford's arrival with glee, not trepidation.
"I love competition," Currie said. "This is a new industry. It needs exposure."
In 1999, privately held Currie Technologies had annual sales of about $1.5 million. The company is breaking even, the result of careful cost controls, according to Currie, who doesn't draw a salary. Currie projects the company will become profitable this year.
Currie Technologies' 11 casually attired employees operate out of 4,000-square-foot offices in an industrial section of Van Nuys. There's a fully equipped machine shop inside, but no corporate accouterments, such as art on the walls, or fancy desks.
No one--not even Currie--has a secretary.
"We all have Microsoft Word and spell-check," said Mayer, when asked about the absence of clerical assistance.
It's a huge contrast for Currie from his corporate days. As chairman of Hughes, Currie had 85,000 employees, plus loads of perks, such as access to a corporate Gulf Stream. Now he flies economy.
"I had platoons of lawyers, secretaries, financial people. I didn't have to do anything," he said. "If I needed another $100 million line of credit, I'd just call the Bank of America."
But when Currie reached mandatory retirement age at 65 in 1992, he was out. Currie, however, had no plans to toddle off to a golf course. Already fascinated by electric vehicles while at Hughes, Currie became a first-time entrepreneur.
"It started out as a hobby, but it's grown," he said, adding that he is driven by the desire to make a contribution.