In business there are niches. And then there are niches within niches.
That's where Eugene-based Rolf Prima Wheel Systems has placed itself. The company, now 16 years old, makes premium bicycle wheels, about 10,000 a year, that retail for $600 to $2,800 a pair, depending on the specifications and materials.
Rolf Prima, named after founder Rolf Dietrich, intends to stay in that highly focused line of work, co-owner Brian Roddy said.
With 15 employees, Rolf Prima is a tiny player in the bicycle manufacturing industry. But Roddy figures there are more than enough discerning customers to keep his company busy into the future.
Bicycle wheels are made up of three basic components: rims, which hold the tire; spokes, which connect the rim to the hub; and the hub, which connects the wheel to the frame. Rolf Prima designs all its own wheel components, makes the aluminum rims on site, orders custom spokes from a manufacturer in Belgium, and orders custom hubs from a manufacturer in California.
The result: a largely U.S.-made wheel, a rarity in the bicycle world, where most wheels are made in China or Taiwan, says Roddy.
The nation's major bike producers — Trek, Specialized and Giant — do all or almost all of their manufacturing in China or Taiwan, Roddy said.
Plus, the industry in the United States is heavy with small startups. So to distinguish itself, Rolf Prima focuses on quality.
"All of our stuff is top-end parts. It has to be, when everybody with $10 and an Internet connection can start up a bike or a wheel company," he said.
"There are so many competitors that are super cheap," he added.
Every wheel a custom order
Every wheel or rim Rolf Prima makes at its 12,000-square-foot west Eugene factory is custom for a specific customer order, he said.
Rolf Prima sells to some Eugene bike makers focused on the upper-end market. It sells wheel rims to Eugene bike maker Rob English and entire wheels to Eugene-based bike maker Co-Motion, Roddy said. And it sells to about 300 bike shops around the country that retail the wheels to bicycle enthusiasts who want to upgrade from the basic wheels that came with their bicycle. About 40 percent of Rolf Prima's sales are to other countries, Roddy said.
"We are typically an upgrade option," he said. "We are at the top end of wheels for performance and craftsmanship. We are for the rider who is getting serious, who wants a wheel that is faster, lighter, stays true longer."
The wheels on a typical bike "are not meant to last for five years. The typical wheels on a generic bike that you get, if you don't upgrade, you are going to wear through some parts," he said.
For years, Rolf Dietrich licensed his wheel patents to Wisconsin-based Trek. Roddy worked for Trek.
After the licensing deal expired, Dietrich started Rolf Prima in Eugene in 2002. And Roddy, who had moved to Eugene to work for bike trailer maker Burley, moved from Burley to Rolf Prima. Dietrich retired in 2009, and Roddy and business partner Steve Cash bought the business.
Making aluminum rims
One of the company's biggest innovations, about five years ago, was to start making its own aluminum rims. Before that, it bought aluminum rims from another manufacturer. Now, Rolf Prima is one of only two companies in the United States that make aluminum bicycle rims domestically, Roddy said.
Building quality rims is tricky, he said. Now, the company is selling rims — without spokes or hubs — under the Astral brand name, and sales are doing well, he said.
As part of its growth, in 2015 the company moved into a newly remodeled 12,000-square-foot facility at 940 Wilson St. in Eugene. The company spent about $1.1 million buying and remodeling the building, tripling its manufacturing space and doubling its overall space.
With its wheels and the Astral rims, the domestic manufacturing is a nice marketing angle, Roddy said.
"We definitely sell to the enthusiast, and of course we get people who value American made as well," he said.
Several years ago, the nation's biggest bike companies — Trek, Specialized and Giant — began selling direct to customers over the Internet. That's posed a threat to traditional bicycle retailing shops. But Roddy said there's still an important role for bicycle stores.
"We think bike shops still offer really good value to help a customer with what they need and how it all works together," he said.
Rolf Prima routinely sells wheels to about 300 of the nation's roughly 3,500 bicycle stores, he said.
An ever-changing market
The bicycling market keeps changing rapidly, Roddy said. From the boom in road bikes, the market has shifted to adventure bikes, which are used by people who are backpacking or traveling on gravel or other harsh roads. Components, including wheels, need to be adapted for the adventure-bike market, he said.
The big bike manufacturers, all of which make bicycles in the full price range, from a few hundred dollars to well over $10,000, can easily get stuck with inventory that has been outpaced by customer preferences, Roddy said.
By contrast, "being small and nimble, (the small bike companies) can all adapt pretty easily," he said. As a build-to-order manufacturer, Rolf Prima has scant finished inventory, he said. "We have maybe 15 wheels, 20 wheels, on the shelf right now." he said. "We can turn on a dime."