Below is an interview my good friend Matt Simpson did with Matt Bracken. A little bit of a departure here for velocb but no one loves a guest DJ more than I do! Enjoy it it's chock full of really good stuff!
* Image on loan
Sitting in small coffee shop in North East Massachusetts, I am to meet my potential boss, possible colleague for my final interview. The company, a bicycle industry 20 year old brand. The people, both 20+ years in the industry. Brand time with Merlin, Mavic, Specialized, Saris, Independent Fabrication, these guys have for sure animated haunting stories. I am going to walk a fine line in my questioning, I am but a rivet in their hub.
We greet. I know the chief character, call him Mr.Z. This interview is his counter part, Matt "Matty B" Bracken. Simply put, MB is as fresh as EZ-E speaks. He is the equivalent of a modern day blacksmith. He dabbles, he tinkers, he is sophisticated, he leads, he follows, his respect in the industry is second to none. I noticed his handshake was humble. His hands have crafted countless thousands of custom weld joints, customer fittings. His hands I am sure, but will not ask, how many beers he has tipped with industry hipsters. I look at his face, wonder what if he would have been a hipster had he not attended a 'preppy' college. His choice of car is of interest to me, but with a dog like his, Charleston deserves a lap of luxury.
On a tangent, we are often treated to irrational BRACK ATTACKS, with his own town line sprints; often the marker is a tree, or a leaf on the road,...either way he keeps our lunch time rides full of laughter. He brings charm with his vintage classics bikes, his Fred like kits, his abundance of IF classics,....he makes our group rides. And don't be fooled, this boy has fitness that has been lying like a smoldering fire, just add air....the rest will take care of itself.
Here is what took place between that day and today - now, Matt is a good friend, we have a trust like an iron horse, we are now the Matt 1 and Matt 2 in the industry for our small, tidy bike care company. We have found ourselves in deep deep deep discussions. I know Matt's plan in 5 years, I know his strengths. I know what many should fear, he is smart as hell, a leader, an innovator, he has vision, he is humble,..the first week of his life, he was not supposed to live. Fear Matty B. He is legit....life is a full circle, karma comes around.
Matt (1) – Me
Matty B, it has a nice ring to it,....strange to be surrounded by so many Matt’s in your life, let’s keep it real, and keep it rolling huh? We should start a Matt club. Has a nice ring to it......but seriously, who is this Matty B guy? Why at '09 Interbike was I in the presence of an industry icon and rock star? Seriously (he laughs) - you toured me around, SRAM, CHROME, SPECIALIZED,...you were the man in demand! (he's still laughing)...so, who are you anyway?
My parents were sent home, I was not supposed to make it. Fuck it, I made it.
I grew up and played sports, soccer was my game my friends would occasionally call me Matty instead of Matt or Matthew. When I entered the bicycle industry in 1990 fresh out of college and worked for Mavic I was lucky enough to work with another Long Islander who is now the head of OE sales for Shimano, USA, Adam Micklin. Adam and I hit it off out of the gate and loved all things cycling. When we would visit shops or do seminars with distributors at the time he would introduce me as Matty b. or as he would say it, “Matty bbbbbbbbbbbbbb” Leaving Mavic in 1993 I was hired away to Merlin Metalworks in Cambridge, Ma. There I worked with a great group of people, many who work at or own Seven Cycles now in Watertown, Ma . One was Matt O’Keefe. People at Merlin were funny and would say stuff like Matt squared or Matt 1 and Matt 2. To simplify things Jennifer Miller, head of Seven Marketing efforts, formerly of Merlin for purchasing would call me Matty, along with our President at the time Ashley Korenblat. What I am saying is the name stuck a long time ago. People who know me well call me Matty b. People who usually don’t like me or others usually refer to you with your last name, like Bracken, that Bracken, or what did Bracken do again. I can honestly say not many people say Bracken, usually Matty b.
Matt (1) – Me
20 years in the industry huh?, you are one jaded mother fucker! You have seen the industry transform in so many ways. Let’s kick the tires of technology for a moment, you have welded with the most basic of materials to day age/space age materials. What structurally has been the biggest shift in technology? What keeps Matty B up at night with these new designs?
The convergence theory!
We are now living at a time when the build it and they will come attitude no longer works. Today if a bicycle can’t boast excellent materials, excellent construction, and killer graphics and finish work you are no longer in the game. The larger companies like Trek, Cannondale, Schwinn, Giant and Specialized have all been applauded for being complete bicycle companies and offering great products at a fair price, but in the last ten years all of these sleeping giants have woken up. The internal resources in their companies for Sales, Marketing, Procurement, Planning, Engineering are world class and if they aren’t constantly exploring the order boundaries of what is possible moving forward not one of these companies can truly hang their hat on being best.
That said we are see the convergence of most companies large and small of Engineering, Industrial Design, and Graphics. How many ugly bikes have we seen lately? What is driving people to brands these days besides all the givens of what is listed above is finding a place they are comfortable. Earlier this week I attended a money raising event for a local steel builder Geekhouse. The event was packed and the crowd that attended looked to be having a good time. I felt a little out of my element being one of the oldest in the room at 41 and finally when a friend showed up we laughed at feeling like outsiders. But, more importantly than how I felt about being alone I could feel the positive energy around me for Marty Walsh and his bikes and all the things assocciated with it.
Besides the 3 points of convergence above, Marty is building a brand and a social network where people can be who they want to be. It was no different than my many years at Merlin in Cambridge, Ma or the 8.5 years of working at Independent Fabrication. These people were where they wanted to be. Good stuff Final note, You can be the most talented designer, engineer, or painter in the world, but if your attitude is bad it won’t matter, people won’t buy your stuff because sooner of later they will figure out you are non genuine to their ideals and why they were attracted to you and your brand in the first place. Do it because you love bikes and be grateful to those who are paying you to do it. Once you drink you own Kool Aid you are done.
Matt (1) - Me
Wow, deep. It’s true what they say about Matty B....you are tight. So – seriously, you are saying, the biggest shift in the industry in the past 20 years is vanity? And by the way I have seen a shit ton of uguly bikes, have you seen the Geek House Bikes? (with all due respect, I have some friends on the team, and have heard stellar things about Marty – so of course said tongue & cheek – hell I am of brit heritage). The local Boston scene seems to have a huge offering for custom, what with Seven Cycles, Zanconato Custom Cycles, Geekhouse, the re-birth of Spooky, Independent Fabrication, just to name a few of many more; why the cluster of custom rigs in Boston? It can’t be the shot gun pellets from Fat Cycles, can it?
Your question is too big for me to answer is less than 3 paragraphs, but that said if we can trace the roots of Heavy Metal to Led Zeppelin I definitely agree most of the modern Boston Bicycle seen was connected at one time to Fat City. Fat City’s legacy as a bicycle company was it was cool to ride bikes and have fun. Unfortunately the business of running a bicycle company caught up to them in the end as they were not taking a long term strategic view of what Fat City might be one day when it grew up.
Hell, I owned three. A team Fat, 2 years before the Yo Eddy came up, a 1oth anniversary and finally a Slim Chance. All great bikes built by a company I was proud to support making shit in America and the Boston made in New England Yankee workshop attitude.. If you didn’t work for Fat City you worked at Rhygin or Dogma or created Igleheart or Spooky or Seven Cycles, or fell into Indy Fab. Incest, not what you want at home, bad for the gene pool, but a good thing for bike culture in and around Boston. I sure based on where you live in the country, Madison, WI, SF, CA or Portland, Or this situation is similar. Vanity, fuck yeah. Look at the Young Republican Club who all shave their legs and race road! Vanity is a duel edge sword, it can give you a nice clean shave or it can cut your aorta.
Matt (1)- Me
Shaved leg’s = vanity, yeah....totally get that dude, totally. So; the industry was abuzz a year ago when you left IF after 8 years. There are always two sides to any incident, some would gather your role in securing equity is yet another way you put your beliefs in front of your wants. But; really; what happened? And why is it you still believe in; and support the IF brand? Most would say fuck it; and spread the poor gospel, you have done the opposite, why? (Matty B was the President of the employee owned IF of Somervile, MA for, working 8. years at IF)
Independent Fabrication will always be a place that I treasure for many reasons, but the chief among them was taking care of our customers and the dealers who supported the brand. When I left I.F. I never sent out a letter or explained what happened and none of that is important. Why support a brand that in many people’s eyes or opinions has let me down? Why would I ever tear down a company that I built up?
There may be some people out there who may say I said something or did something to deserve being let go, but the truth is I did my job and looking back I must have done something right if you look at the success of the brand. I helped build a brand and it was a great thing. This brand paid a lot of paychecks and gave many of us a reason to get up in the morning. It is much easier to create and nurture than to destroy. I do find a lot of humor how history has been rewritten at I.F. And that my 8.5 years have been erased.
Funny, google me up and there are many links between my work and IF, yet according to the latest IF website I never existed. I can’t figure that out but so well. One chapter of your life ends and one begins. The irony of being told to leave by the new owner of IF is that very same day I found out my lovely wife was pregnant with our daughter Madelyn was overshadowed by her coming... Funnier was having my image and likeness on the IF website for over 8 months after I left.
Many a IF dealer and customer emailed with a chuckle over that since most had already read about my move to Pedro’s that August to work in Product Management. Was it a amicable break up? No. But the truth and history in a quick synopsis is below. Believe me, there is enough to write an extremely entertaining short story, but that is it, story, not a drama. Independent Fabrication was founded over 14 years ago by a group of men and women who used to work for Chris Chance at Fat City Cycles in Somerville and once it was sold to Serotta Cycles at the time instead of laying down they banded together and founded Independent Fabrication. They were Steve Elmes, Mike Flanagan, Jane Hayes, Jeff Bucholz, and Lloyd Graves.
Others were part of this new venture, but I never worked with them when I joined I.F. In December 1999 after leaving Merlin Metalworks in Cambridge, Ma after 7 years working there. I could smell the potential that this small brand had and on many fronts it was ahead of the curve. Steve Elmes was the forerunner of being a huge believer in American Cyclocross racing (he chose Jonathan Paige and Tim Johnson to race for IF), single speed off-road racing (remember Christina Begy?), and the belief that if IF was ever to get ahead it needed to be a multi faceted brand in multi materials and custom to boot! Steve is one of those unsung heroes of IF and I wish him all he best in Colorado.
The day he decided to leave was a big blow to me personally as I was going to miss his big heart and huge laugh. The company was founded on the premise of employee ownership and being a place people could work and over time build a brand and company through sweat equity and heart. I was approached by Steve Elmes and the recently deceased President of IF at the time John Barmack in the summer of 1999 and asked to come in to whip the dealers and sales programs into shape. At this time IF was only selling steel and only 6 models, the Deluxe, the Special, Club Racer, Independence, Crown Jewel, and Planet Cross. All of which were made in steel only, 4 decal choices, and non custom, unless you wanted to pay a small fortune.
I told John for 5 months I had no interest in coming to Somerville and working with a group of people in the industry who only believed that steel is real. John told me that it wasn’t money that would persuade me, but making a difference and making change. In the end, he was right. John was a great man and if not for his perseverance and power to broker deals IF would have fallen into oblivion many times. John passed away only a few weeks ago and it was an amazing memorial service that looked back over his life and all those he touched. The synagogue was packed with people of all ages, color, religion, politics. Who didn’t John know or get to know I wondered?
I realized the greatest thing he ever told me was how important it was to treat people with dignity and respect even if it came at the price sometimes of your own happiness. Real character was shown when people didn’t look the other way and stood up for what was right. John never let the “turkeys” get him down and was thoughtful to concentrate on the problems on hand and not to make it personal. John was the person responsible for IF’s first business plan and convincing Catholic Charities to loan IF money to start. John never left the brand or company, it left him!
My immediate job back in December 1999 was to find the right dealers, get our prices up to pay the bills and to bring IF into the world of custom. It took two years and it finally worked. As the immediate interface with customers and the shop I was constantly asked why IF wasn’t building in titanium and painting ti because some of them new about my many years of work at Merlin and the fact that some of our best shop folks could easily build a titanium frame.
The first ti frame we ever built in the summer of 2001 was a single speed Ti Planet Cross for no one else but Steve Elmes, our head of Marketing. It met great reviews and totally annoyed some of the other local Boston builders who claimed to be the best custom ti builder in the world. In the Fall of 2001 we showcased the first Ti Crown Jewel custom and the rest of the models followed over time. The revenue created by the sale of titanium IFs and the deposits taken by the dealers helped IF grow over the next several years as we increased quality, options, developed a well followed website, improved the paint department with the addition of several new painters and attitudes within the shop.
Once we hired Chris Rowe and changed the paint department to accept custom paint it seems as is things took off. Chris was smart to hire Jill Rogers, who no longer is with IF and works down in Somerville at the Diesel Café in Davis Square. When Chris decided to leave Jill took the reigns and once again the process improved and the paint got better. The customers always loved the fit and feel of an IF, but wished for more paint. They always want more don’t they? The real question would be if we could deliver and at what price? Well we did and again the brand moved forward. What good is a great bike if it doesn’t speak to you? Vanity? Hell yes.
IF is still one of the best paint shops in the country and I have enjoyed over the past year watching what has come from the shop. It looks great, especially the Svelte Cycles stuff, it is tight and well thought out. I like that, clean. Shit, I’ll say it, they look pretty. I think Clint and whomever else is working with him are doing nice work and it shows. My favorite bicycle ever is an IF. My gold Xs. It was built back in December 2006, this was the second year in a row that IF won the “Dream Bike Award” presented by Bicycling Magazine. It was gold because once the ti lugs were fabricated there were hand polished and send off to be Titanium Nitride coated.
This is the same coating used on high speed drill bits to keep them sharp longer. Along with the mirror finish gold finish of the ti lugs the ht badge was cast from a solid ounce of 18k gold from our casters in Maine. To add more bling the carbon tubes, seat stays and fork were all tinted with a Harlequin gold to pink finish. The new Record 10 spd Ultra Torque cranks, Deda bar, stem, and post rounded it out with Campagnolo.
By Spring of 2007 I came to the realization that I was a bit burned out from travelling for the brand and spending too much time speaking about bikes and not enough time enjoying them. That is when I came with the idea of quietly approaching a person or person who might be interested in investing $ in the brand. I knew if this happened I would lose most of the percentage of ownership I enjoyed at the time, but taken from your initial question I put the need of the brand before my own. It was important if I were to leave IF one day that it would stand the test of time and do better. IF always suffered from lack of cash flow and as demands on cash increased with customer demand it was pretty clear that we find money or close the doors. I approached a person who I felt was the right individual with the right resources who could help move the company forward again.
By the Fall of 2007 this individual was prepared and ready to invest. It was February 2008, after the 4th annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show that this person took 66.6% of the shares of IF in exchange for the majority control in our brand. When the inked had dried and the celebration was over I realized in order to help fulfill the destiny that IF deserved I was selling my own out. I didn’t want or need a boss, all I need was this investors money. All my former co-workers wanted was a boss and a job.
Friday the 13th, 2008 My day started out as usual, coming to work with Charleston my yellow lab, checking emails, making revisions to designs to be signed off on, etc. By 10;30 I was packing my desk. I remember crying a lot that morning in front of Joe Ingram, the bookeeper at IF and Joe was nice enough to remind me that it was all for the better and that better days lay ahead. He was right...
Remember, this was the same day I found out in less than 8 months I was going to be a dad. I was the youngest of ten children and the one thing my old man taguht me was no matter what you did in life you couldn’t take it with you. All you had was your name. People won’t remember you for your money or possessions, those things are often a cover for lack of security by some.
But, being 20 years in this industry I was offered 5 interviews and 3 excellent offers upon my departure of IF. Pedro’s is a lot like the original IF I joined back in 1999. The people are kind and considerate, the work is challenging and the brand is continuing to reshape itself. I am proud to be a part of the efforts moving forward and look forward to many years of helping to be part of the culture and process of improvement. The major difference in my new job and this is true for anyone who dreams of success is that I have the authority, accountability, and responsibility to do my job with the support of my co workers.
This was not true at IF my last few years. There were definitely days people all wanted to be the boss or days when convenient they wanted to be just an employee with the right to express their unhappiness about everything. As a former IF employee said, “It was like herding cats”. I wish the best to the new IF and I am glad I am no longer part of it’s history as expressed on it’s current website.
Special Thanks: John Barmack- For his convictions to stand up for the oppressed and forgotten. Steve Elmes- For his big heart and willingness to work till he could no more Jane Hayes- juggling the books and making me laugh when things looked bleek Jeff Bucholz- for being one hell of the reason why IF bikes are so well made and straight. If not for Jeff’s love of precision and quality they would not be what they are today. Jason Williams-for being a great listener and friend to Charleston Keith Rouse-For hanging on at such a crazy place as long as you did and never getting the credit you deserved for your work or support of your family Shawn Estes-For his love of Rush, being one hell of a dad, and being the clown who introduced me to my lovely wife Alyson. You are responsible for my little lady Madelyn Mackenzie! Shanna White-Big Bellie laugh and willingness to learn Chris Rowe-For making our paint dept better Jill Rogers-hard work and excellent perspective on what really matters Brian Kelly-Precision and skill, a great travel partner and excellent mountain biker Mike Flanagan-Founder and now owner of ANT bikes in Holliston, Ma- A big thanks to my Irish Texan for keeping it real and following your dreams Lloyd Graves-We may not have always seen eye to eye, but I am proud of Lloyd for hanging in there as long as he has, he is he last founder standing and now a proud father with a little boy named Lloyd junior Tyler-Mad skills as an artist and welder. Good job on the new blog Tom Burnett- for getting out when you did Joe Ingram-keeping the books
We finish the interview, Bracken is passionate He is passionate toward the industry. He is extremely humble. He can still throw it down on the lunch time rides, he can build bikes in minutes, he can build wheels like no one. He was fun to sit down with.
We end our interview - he offers a fresh espresso. I take him up on it. The conversation changes to his family. He starts to share his baby stories. If you wonder, yeah, he is well, really well, and will again be a force to be reckoned with. Tick Tock.
Thanks for reading.