Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com

A Rare Tour of a Rare Business: Chris King's Made-in-USA Bicycle Factory

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    Chris King Precision Components employs 96 people in an old coffee roasting plant outside Portland, Ore. It's one of the few bicycle factories left in the U.S. King makes mostly components, including wheel hubs and headsets, the assemblies that make the front wheel turn smoothly. Until this year, Chris King, the founder of the 36-year-old business, allowed almost no visitors into his factory, guarding the methods that have helped him compete against larger rivals in Asia, where 99 percent of all bikes sold in the U.S. are made. He still forbids visitors on the main manufacturing floor.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    Chris King got his start in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1976, making parts for medical and military equipment—and bikes. He moved to Portland in 2003 after struggling to find skilled workers who could afford to live in California. King believes in investing in employee compensation and perks. The cafeteria is run by a chef who once worked at the Four Seasons in Seattle. Everyone who works 30 hours a week gets health insurance. Employees who bike to work get credits to spend in the café.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    Cyclists covet King components because they last longer than others. The durability starts with the raw materials. King buys his aluminum, titanium, and steel from three mills that meet his standards. All of them are in North America.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    King excels at bearings—the ball-filled assemblies that make things, like bike wheels, turn easily. One of his first bearings went inside a medical drill used to penetrate the human skull. This worker is using a special device to load the tiny metal balls into the housing, called the race. The parts are milled to 2/10,000ths of an inch so they fit together perfectly.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    King makes his parts on computerized cutting tools. He has also refurbished older equipment, including a drill press once used to install electrical pickups on Gibson guitars. This worker is shaving an axle by hand to make sure its dimensions are exact.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    King makes his parts in 10 anodized colors. A rigorous environmentalist, he tries to recycle and reuse whenever possible. In the factory, parts are stored in simple cardboard egg trays.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    Chris King Precision Components' sales total about $10 million a year. Much of that comes from hubs, the bearing-filled cylinders to which the spokes are attached. A top-end King hub sells for $578.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    Companies that cut metal for a living use a lot of cutting fluid to cool and lubricate their machines. Often, it's a petroleum product. King uses more expensive soy oil because it's easier on the environment. Metal shavings come out of the machines coated in it. King squeezes the shards and filings to extract the oil and reuse it. These compressed pucks are the result. They get sold to a recycler.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    King made bike frames under the Cielo label until the early 1980s, then stopped. Frame building is time intensive, and his component business needed his attention. Established in the other businesses, he revived the Cielo brand in 2008, lured back by rising demand for custom steel bikes. King makes about 300 annually in a corner of his factory. A frame and fork, without components, starts at $1,700. Each one is made by hand.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com
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    With an eye toward marketing, something he hasn't done until recently, King set up a mini-museum in the factory, showcasing bikes and parts spanning his career. Cielo built the middle one for the 2011 Oregon Manifest, an annual contest.

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    Photograph by Chris Mueller for Bloomberg Businessweek.com