By Nick Woltman
The first tool Art Engstrom and Howard Hawkins manufactured was a Frankenstein’s monster of a bicycle repair stand, cobbled together from the base of a dining room table, an artillery shell casing and a hockey stick.
Oakdale-based Park Tool now manufactures a line of about 400 bicycle repair tools.
What began in 1963 as a side business run out of the back of Hawkins’ and Engstrom’s St. Paul bike shop has grown into the world’s largest single manufacturer of bicycle repair and maintenance tools.
Engstrom and Hawkins opened their neighborhood fix-it shop in St. Paul’s Hazel Park in 1956. Among other things, the pair — who grew up together on St. Paul’s East Side — sold and repaired Schwinn bicycles.
It didn’t take long for them to tire of stooping to pick up gears for the bikes they were repairing. So they pieced together a contraption that would clamp the bikes off the ground and rotate them 360 degrees.
“It was a real time-saver, and it made our work a little easier for us,” Hawkins said. “The first one, we used it for several years before we realized that we had an idea that could maybe be marketed.”
The pair brought their idea to Schwinn in 1963. Soon, they were manufacturing bike stands for Schwinn dealerships nationwide.
The early success of their repair stand led the two men — both experienced welders — to design and fabricate other tools specific to bicycle repair, and they devoted more time to this new enterprise.
“We decided to put our effort into tools and see what happened,” Hawkins said. “Things took off.”
They built a new store in Maplewood and moved in with their employees in 1966. The tool shop operated out of the back of the store.
By 1969, the two men decided the company was big enough to need a president. A coin flip decided the title would go to Engstrom. Hawkins became secretary-treasurer.
“I got the title; Howard got the work,” Engstrom joked during a 1990 interview with the Pioneer Press.
Their three Schwinn retail stores led Schwinn dealerships nationwide in sales in 1978.
But their tool business was quickly eclipsing their bike business. Hawkins and Engstrom decided in 1981 to get out of retail bike sales and focus full time on tools. They sold their three dealerships to employees, continuing to operate their tool business out of the Maplewood Schwinn dealership.
Two years later, Hawkins’ son Eric — who had spent his teen years working at his dad’s shop after school — joined the business full time, after spending a couple of years in college.
In His Own Words: Eric Hawkins
On being a dominant player in their industry: “We have the advantage that we’re the 800 pound gorilla in our niche within the bicycle industry. You can’t take that for granted. You’re always a target, though. Our job is to discourage others from getting into our market.”
On the advantages of trademarking their signature color: “We feel like the trademark really did its job. We were really seeing an onslaught of cheap Asian product come into the U.S. using our color, trying to capitalize on our reputation. Once we got the trademark and rattled a few cages, it’s kind of died down.”
On expanding into the consumer products market:“Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly how it happened. That’s what helped with a lot of our growth. I can’t ever claim that I came in and said I have a master plan. It was natural for me to keep looking for the next thing. That included expanding the line and getting more into consumer product.”
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just came back and started working in the shop again,” Eric Hawkins said.
Park Tool’s focus had been designing for professional bike repair shops, but the company began focusing on the consumer market in the late 1980s. This move fueled the business’ first major growth spurt.
After once again outgrowing its headquarters, the company moved its 15 employees to another facility in 1988 in Vadnais Heights.
The company spent roughly a decade there, before its growth forced another move, this time to Mahtomedi. By that time, the company had begun exporting its tools. Although exports accounted for only about 10 percent of the company’s business at that time, its potential for growth was evident.
Eric took over as company president when Howard retired in 2000 — the two men bought Engstrom’s share of the business in 1992 — and has overseen further growth.
Exports now make up as much as 40 percent of their business. They ship to 70 countries.
This growth forced another move in early 2013. The company has been settled in its new headquarters in Oakdale for almost a year. The 80,000-square-foot building sits on a 23-acre plot of land a couple hundred yards from the Gateway bike trail. The building is equipped with two showers and bike storage to encourage employees to bike to work.
The company’s line of 400 tools is made up from 3,500 individual parts — nearly 80 percent of which are manufactured in Minnesota. Park Tool does all the assembly and packaging in-house. Its nearly 50 employees work four 10-hour days — their weekends run through Monday.
Its finished tools are recognizable by their trademarked blue — Pantone 2935 — detailing. Eric Hawkins says the company’s trademark means other manufacturers can’t produce bike tools “from almost a robin’s-egg blue to almost purple.”
“You can’t have brown delivery trucks; you can’t make pink insulation; you can’t make green tractors,” Eric Hawkins said, noting other familiar trademarked colors.
They’ve had to go to court a number of times to protect this trademark.
The company keeps between $5 million and $6 million in inventory at its warehouse at a given time, but has a hard time keeping up with orders during the busy spring season.
“It’s a constant battle to keep things on the shelves,” Eric Hawkins said.
And they add tools to their line every year. Park Tool employs three in-house engineers to design and test new tool concepts to suit the changing needs of cyclists and professional repair shops.
“My dad said 30 years ago: ‘What’s left?’ ” Eric Hawkins said. “The industry presents us with opportunities every year. Bikes change. Components change.”
One of the company’s hottest-selling products at the moment is something Engstrom and Howard Hawkins would recognize: a new breed of bicycle repair stand, this one electric-powered.
Nick Woltman can be reached at 651-228-5189. Follow him on Twitter at@nickwoltman.