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In the close-knit community of just over 4,000 people in Manning, South Carolina, having a job where you work side by side with your neighbors just seems natural. But like in many small towns, the industrial boom from the turn of the 20th century has long since come and gone for Manning, leaving a community in need of fresh energy — and more jobs.
So in 2014, when Kent International — a leading producer of affordable, mass-market bicycles — turned a local, abandoned Sunbeam® plant into a state-of-the-art bicycle assembly factory, it was welcome news to local residents, especially with the creation of more than 130 new jobs.
“I’ve been here since the doors opened in 2014,” said Cheryl Brown, who supervises the bike wheel-building process at the factory. “I like the family oriented environment. Everybody cares about one another, and everybody wants to help one another. The people up front care about the employees here on the floor, and that’s very important to us.”
For Kent International CEO Arnold Kamler, strengthening an American community is why he brought back 10 percent of the company’s bike production from China to South Carolina three years ago, and why he aspires to change the tags on his company’s bikes from “Assembled in America” to “Made in America.”
An unexpected meeting
In March 2013, Kamler attended the annual meeting of managers and suppliers for Walmart, Kent International’s largest customer. While there, he happened to meet South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who is currently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations — and the two began discussing the possibility of Kent opening a bike factory in South Carolina.
“During our first meeting with the governor she said, ‘Arnold, we have an airplane factory in South Carolina, we’ve got a car factory in South Carolina, and Arnold, I want to be able to tell the kids we have a bicycle factory here,’” recalled Kamler.
That conversation sparked the idea to move part of the company’s bike production back to the U.S., and just three years later, in 2016, the Manning factory rolled 300,000 bikes out the door of the 200,000-square-foot facility.
A big part of Kamler’s ability to ramp up production at the new factory was the installation of a powder-coating paint system, which positions the company to reach its goal of producing 1 million bikes annually at the facility by 2021.
To figure out how to finance the paint system, Kamler tapped his twenty-plus-year relationship with his Wells Fargo banker, Thomas Grabosky, and the two discussed the company’s options, ultimately setting up a loan for Kent International with Wells Fargo’s Equipment Finance group.
“I visited this facility with Arnold when it was vacant, and to see it come to life and have Kent work with the local population in providing jobs and investing in bringing back manufacturing to the U.S., is very rewarding,” said Grabosky.
As the bikes get packaged and shipped to sellers like Walmart, the tags read “Assembled in America.” But with the early success of the Manning facility, Kamler has a vision to change that first word to “Made” as his company discusses how to grow its U.S. production even further.
“We always wanted to make bicycles here, but it wasn’t economically feasible. But with labor costs going up in China, we started putting a pencil to it and we came up with a calculation that within three or four years we could be competitive on a dollar-to-dollar basis,” said Kamler. “We’re the first company — we hope the first of many — to bring back bicycle production to the U.S. We’ve got a great labor force and we’re really excited about our future here.”