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Snubbed by Ford, start-up had a better idea for its stainless steel

KVA Stainless of Escondido had been developing lightweight parts for cars but switched to supplying piping to bicycle makers. It's also exploring the use of steel in golf clubs and lacrosse sticks.

November 03, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

The e-mail from an executive at Ford Motor Co. was blunt and direct.

"I do not have any interest in pursuing anything," the official wrote one of the company's parts developers in Escondido earlier this year, as the auto industry was sliding into a historic meltdown.

That was how tiny KVA Stainless Inc., a 5-year-old start-up working to develop lightweight, gas-saving stainless-steel components for Ford, got dumped and how it found a new direction on the shop floor.

The e-mail presented a challenge for KVA founder Ed McCrink, an 88-year-old entrepreneur whose long career included developing other steel businesses and a smoke alarm company. Small businesses with one main product and one customer need to be prepared when the market changes or the customer looks elsewhere.

McCrink found a new use for the company's stainless-steel piping in an even older transportation industry: bicycles. And the company is also exploring the possible use of stainless-steel tubing for golf clubs, lacrosse sticks and other sporting goods.

Bicycles have a long history with steel, but in recent years, the industry has gravitated to aluminum and carbon fibers as the main frame materials because of their light weight.

Luckily for McCrink and his family business, the bicycle industry is discovering that new formulations of stainless steel can be light enough and more durable for frame construction.

KVA has a patented method of turning rolls of stainless steel into tubing used by the builders of custom bicycles.

"Even when we were working with the auto industry, I always thought that bicycles would be a smaller but worthwhile avenue to pursue," McCrink said.

The change in strategy already is paying off for the five-employee business.

Earlier this year, KVA began shipping high-grade stainless-steel tubing to Reynolds Technology Ltd., the British firm that has supplied bicycle frame materials for more than a century.

In the coming months, KVA will begin selling its own MS2 branded stainless-steel tubes to a small but influential group of craftspeople who make bicycle frames by hand that sell for as much as $5,000.

David Bohm, a Tucson bicycle builder known for intricate work such as inlaying mother-of-pearl into his frames, is already working with prototype KVA tubing.

"I am fairly confident this will be good, but nothing beats time to see how it works," Bohm said.

McCrink said the sporting-goods industry also is ripe for the introduction of the type of lightweight stainless steel his company fabricates into tubing and other parts.

KVA is working on developing steel lacrosse sticks, steel golf club shafts and tubing for wheelchair manufacturers. It has already met with several major lacrosse companies and golf industry executives.

"I think these guys have a good shot at the golf market," said Dick De La Cruz of Carlsbad, a golf club designer and former executive at both Callaway Golf Co. and Goldwin Golf Inc.

Stainless steel enables designers to take weight out of the shaft of the club and redistribute it to the head to change the performance, he said.

"That's the quest in golf today: lighter and stronger," De La Cruz said.

KVA owns a patented method of creating tubes from large rolls of flat stainless steel that becomes harder with heating and cooling. The company shapes the flat metal into a tube and carefully controls the cooling when the seam of the tube is welded. This prevents the cracking and weakness that previously was a problem.

KVA's switch from autos to bicycles comes at a time when steel is making a comeback as a popular building material, even among mass-market brands. Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill is reintroducing a $610 steel version of its Allez road bike this year.

Mass producers Raleigh and Fuji are expanding their steel bicycle offerings, emphasizing leather saddles and other accents reminiscent of steel racing bikes decades ago.

"Our steel bikes hit the bike messenger crowd, people who like to ride in the city and people who wanted a nice steel bike when they where young but could not afford it. It is almost a fashion statement," said Kaitlyn Gang, spokeswoman for Fuji, a division of Advanced Sports Inc. of Philadelphia.

But there is more to the trend than just fashion, people in the bicycle industry say. Steel alloys used today are lighter and stronger than what was available a generation ago, said Jim Cadenhead, co-owner of Orange 20 Bikes in Los Angeles. And steel is less prone to cracking and other structural failures that occur with carbon fiber and aluminum frames, he said.

About 85% of the bicycles sold by Topanga Creek Bicycles now have steel frames, said owner Chris Kelly.

They are being purchased by people such as Errin Vasquez of Alhambra, who recently paid $1,500 for a steel-framed Salsa Fargo bicycle from Topanga Creek.

"I like the simplicity of steel. It is very comfortable and absorbs a lot of road bumps," Vasquez said.

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