'Changing lives one bicycle at a time': Manning home to BCA, largest bike assembly factory in the U.S., and it’s expanding this year

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 3/15/19

Manning and Clarendon County's claim to fame for the longest time has been fishing for the large striped bass in Lake Marion. Now, those stripers may have a competitor roll into town. Bicycles.

Yes, bicycles.

First, a little history. Given the …

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'Changing lives one bicycle at a time': Manning home to BCA, largest bike assembly factory in the U.S., and it’s expanding this year

Posted

Manning and Clarendon County's claim to fame for the longest time has been fishing for the large striped bass in Lake Marion. Now, those stripers may have a competitor roll into town. Bicycles.

Yes, bicycles.

First, a little history. Given the global economy, by 1997, all major U.S. bicycling companies had moved bike production overseas to lower-cost providers in China and Asia and were solely buying and importing models for sales here in the 50 states.

That business model still exists today - with one exception.

In 2014, Kent International Chairman and CEO Arnold Kamler decided to move 10 percent of his company's business back to the U.S. and set up operations in an abandoned warehouse in, of all places, Manning - which has long been considered a small industrial town. Kamler created Bicycle Corporation of America as a division of Kent.

His reasoning: The growing cost of labor in China and a long-term outlook on production costs in the industry. Also, Walmart had established a Made in U.S.A. initiative that encouraged U.S. manufacturing and sales to its stores.

"It's a long-term play," Kamler said. "Even without talk on tariffs, the cost of doing business in China and Asia is going up at a really high rate. It's growing at a much higher rate than it's growing in the United States."

BCA in Manning isn't a back-to-the-basics, full manual labor assembly line operation. That would be too costly, Kamler said. Instead, it's better described as "man and machine." Automated machines now handle the traditionally tedious task of putting the spokes on the wheels in a matter of seconds. With generally 36 spokes per wheel, that's 72 on a typical bicycle. At another station, a programmable machine also tightens the spokes on the wheel so it's ready to ride.

BCA has also invested in the most highly automated painting system for bikes in the world at the Manning facility, according to Kamler. The system can produce an unlimited number of color options.

To save employees' backs, an advanced magnetic lift has also been introduced on the line to hoist up the finished bike (which is generally about 33 pounds) before an assembly worker helps position it into a shipping box.

After 4 1/2 years in operation, BCA now produces about 320,000 bicycles per year for sale in the U.S., mostly via Walmart's 4,000 stores across the country. In fact, BCA is the only U.S.-assembled brand you can find in any Walmart store nationwide. All other bikes at any Walmart from a U.S.-based company, such as Huffy or Pacific Cycle, are all imports.

"That's right," Kamler said, "and produced right here in Manning, South Carolina."

ADDING 65 JOBS

As 2019 begins, BCA has 145 employees and is growing. It has outgrown its current Manning warehouse and will expand with two new product lines into an existing facility just down the road in Summerton, adding 65 jobs.

Kamler said his company has been satisfied with the local workforce. Employees also seem to enjoy the atmosphere and environment.

Chrystal Martinez, a 2005 graduate of Manning High School, has been with BCA since its start here in October 2014. She worked in manufacturing previously in Clarendon, but not quite with the level of technology and automation of BCA. She admits it was a little scary at first, but she said she loves a challenge and that it was exciting at the same time.

Martinez said BCA's assembly lines are getting more fast-paced all the time, and she is currently backup lead on the line, ensuring operations run correctly. According to Kamler, BCA's goal is to reach 500,000 bicycles produced a year.

Martinez said she never imagined she would be making bicycles for a living in Manning, but she says her children love it.

"They tell all their friends at school that 'My mom builds bikes, and it's awesome,'" she said.

BCA Business Manager John Davis has been with BCA for 1 1/2 years and said the workplace is a fun and friendly environment, in part because the people from the local area are so nice.

Coming from a career as a U.S. Army officer, he also thinks bicycles provide people with fun and happiness.

"Every time I drive by somebody riding on a bicycle, I think of them being happy because of the product we produce here," Davis said. "So, sort of my internal motto is: 'We're changing lives one bicycle at a time.'"

Kamler said he's enjoyed his working relationship with Clarendon County development officials and leaders, and Manning is tickled pink to have BCA.

"We've actually been talking with the town," he said, "and they're thinking about putting up a sign: 'Home of the largest bicycle factory in the United States.'"