Riding High On Little Wheels

The kick scooter's unlikely comeback pays off big for J.D. Corp.

He never intended to spur a global fad. All Gino Tsai wanted back in 1996 was to have his designers build a small scooter to help the 5-foot-4 Tsai negotiate his sprawling Taiwanese bicycle factory. "My legs are too short, and my walking speed always seems too slow," says the 44-year-old Tsai, president of J.D. Corp., based in central Taiwan.

Tsai got his scooter, and much more. His staff built what would later be named the Razor, a melding of state-of-the-art technology and trendy design that has emerged as the hottest wheels since in-line skates. From the streets of Tokyo to the boardwalks of California beaches, the scooter craze seems to have taken over the world. More than just a toy for kids, scooters, with their sleek metallic frames and neon-colored wheels, are being snatched up by grownups, too. And no one is more pleased--or surprised--than Tsai. "We don't understand why it is so hot right now," he says.

Hot is an understatement. In 1999, the Razor accounted for just 10% of J.D. Corp.'s revenue. That will go up to 90% this year. This year revenues are on track to more than double, to top $80 million, says Tsai. The company, until now an obscure bicycle-parts maker, has sold 1 million of the fashionable scooters through the first half of this year, compared with 500,000 for all of 1999.

Now, Tsai is gearing up to churn out Razors at an even faster clip. Next year, he'll introduce three new scooter models: a shorter, stronger Razor Sport for teenagers; a longer Razor Cruiser with comfortable suspension for older, less adventurous types; and a smaller, battery-powered Razor Power, for urban transportation. He's also partnered with Razor USA, a Cerritos (Calif.)-based outfit, to market in the U.S.

The Razor may never have happened if Tsai hadn't taken his one-of-a-kind scooter with him on convention trips to help him cover ground at exhibition halls. While zipping around the floor of Chicago's National Sporting Goods Assn. World Sports Expo in 1998, he attracted the attention of a buyer from San Francisco-based retailer Sharper Image Corp. At that point, Tsai says, the scooter was not for sale. But soon afterwards, when Sharper Image CEO Richard Thalheimer saw Tsai riding the shiny little gadget at the Hong Kong Toy Fair, he ordered up 4,000 of what J.D. had by then started calling the Razor. "It struck me as soon as I saw it," says Thalheimer. "It was such an adorable idea."

He wasn't the only one who thought so. Atras Auto Co., a Tokyo-based importer of European cars, had also spotted the Razor at the trade shows. But rather than position the Razor as a sporting good, Atras promoted it as a fashion accessory, a must-have item for the ultra-hip streets of Tokyo. That caught the eye of trend-conscious consumers and media in Japan, where the Razor has also become a huge hit.

LIMITED LIFE SPAN? Razors, of course, aren't the only scooters out there. Other hot brands include Micro, Xooter, and K2, all of which gained popularity in the '90s. Micro traces its roots back to a German engineer who craved a no-hassle commute to work. Xooter, a larger, sturdier scooter, is the brainchild of a Silicon Valley professor. What's more, the kick scooter has been around for decades. Radio Flyer, the famous Chicago-based maker of the Little Red Wagon, was one of the first to produce them in the 1930s. And that company plans to return scooters to its line-up in 2001.

That's probably just in time, because the rage over scooters can't go on forever. And that could be a problem for Gino Tsai and his big plans to roll out more models of the Razor. "Will it be this hot next season? I doubt it," says Hong Kong-based sporting goods importer Gary Meylan. "Fad items have a life span."

Right now, though, Tsai is just happy to be along for the ride. So far, success doesn't seem to have changed him. Tsai still prefers T-shirts to suits and avoids his well-appointed office in favor of a desk in a workroom off the factory floor. And there's still nothing he loves more than taking his scooter for a spin.

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