Pledging full customer support and “accelerated global expansion,” Niner Bikes has announced the completion of its purchase by UWHK Limited, a division of an international outdoor sports conglomerate that also owns Huffy.
“With UWHK’s support, Niner can focus on quality off-road product R&D and effective strategies to maximize gains,” said Bruno Maier, managing director of new business for UWHK, an outdoor-brands investment firm under Cayman Islands-based United Wheels Limited that was formed for purposes of the deal. A former Huffy executive, Maier served as president of RockyMounts, a bike rack manufacturer based in Boulder, Colorado, before leaving a year ago.
Founded in 2004, Niner declared bankruptcy last November, blaming debt and excessive inventory. Reorganization was needed to fund innovation and marketing, said co-founder Chris Sugai. Flash forward, and Sugai now says Niner, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, will continue to honor warranties, supply parts, and otherwise support its consumer base. In an interview with Mtbr, he hinted at a broader product line, including support for across-the-board 27.5 wheels.
While the Niner name will continue and the company will operate independently, Sugai did not rule out “shared opportunities” with other bike ventures expected to be acquired by UWHK. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Mtbr’s take on the deal is this: The bike business is changing in ways that are both obvious – such as online impacts – and less manifest, particularly in financing. Niner’s reorganization can be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent the wheel (so to speak) without being beholden to obsolete models. As one industry veteran who himself went through a major corporate overhaul told us, “Don’t jump to any conclusions. Chris is in a great position and may be just the guy to do some creative things here.”
Mtbr spoke with Sugai on the lead-up to the deal being finalized. Here’s a transcript of that conversation.
Mtbr: In starting Niner 14 years ago, you were at the very forefront of 29er development and evangelism. Where do you see the premium mountain bike market heading today?
Chris Sugai: There has been an explosion in wheel size experimentation since the 29er movement started. As we continue this development we will see where we end up. I think 29 and 27.5 will be the majority of the mountain bike market for the foreseeable future. We are much more wheel-size neutral than we were before. There is a wheel size, suspension travel and more importantly frame geometry, that is best for each type of riding. We think riders should focus on where they do the majority of their riding and what wheel size, suspension travel, and geometry will suit them best. We want to continue to explore and push these boundaries and perceptions.
Mtbr: Looking ahead, where can we expect to find Niner bikes for sale?
CS: We see no changes in the distribution of our bikes going forward. Our plan is to make it easier for our independent bike dealers and international distributors to work with us as partners.
Mtbr: What can you tell us about UWHK? Was it formed for the purposes of the Niner purchase?
CS: UWHK (formally Emersion International) was formed to purchase Niner. The parent company United Wheels wanted to make sure there was a clear separation from their other businesses. Niner and the other companies will all run independently.
Mtbr: Moving forward, what reassurances can you offer to Niner fans about warranties and parts availability?
CS: It will be business as usual for service, parts, and warranties. Niner is now a part of a very large cycling group of companies so you can be well assured Niner will be here in the future to provide service and warranty support for the long term.
Mtbr: Your title at Niner no longer includes CEO. How are CEO duties being handled now? What will your role be as president in the reorganized company?
CS: For legal docs and such, my official title is still CEO. I have never been a fan of titles. If I have to have a title I would rather it be President. Niner Bikes will have a new Board of Directors, of which I am a member, I will have to report and answer to the board going forward. I will still be in charge of all day-to-day operations, budget control, as well as the strategic vision for Niner.
Mtbr: What areas will Niner be exploring in R&D?
CS: We are in the process of hiring another engineer. We are also looking at purchasing some new R&D equipment. Our R&D department is excited about increasing our ability to develop and increase testing of new products for the future. Come visit us at Sea Otter for some sneak peeks.
Mtbr: Will Niner be supporting across-the-board 27.5 wheels? If so, will the company name stay the same?
CS: We are not changing our name. For years we have had cyclocross bikes, 27.5 plus bikes and a full line of gravel bikes. I have stated in the past we are neutral on wheel sizes. Our mission is to make cool stuff for the premium off-road segment and support trail advocacy.
Mtbr: Are there any plans for a sister brand to Niner? In other words, will the Niner brain trust always be working on Niner brand only? Will there be cross-pollination with Huffy and other United Wheels brands?
CS: UWHK does have a strategy to seek other high-end outdoor companies and brands. Niner was the first and more acquisitions are to come. We will have to wait and see what other brands are acquired before commenting on cross-pollination in the future. Huffy and Niner occupy different ends of the cycling marketplace and operate our businesses differently. We did not see places where Huffy and Niner could merge operations, distribution etc. Again as UWHK seeks other high-end outdoor companies I think there will be better business alignment for shared operations with those future companies.
Mtbr: Anything else you want to add?
CS: The employees and I would like to thank our riders, dealers, distributors, suppliers, and the Mtbr crowd that stood by us during the difficult three months of Chapter 11. We are glad we can now get back to focusing on making cool products for our riders (Ninerds) and supporting trail advocacy.
Full Niner Press Release
UWHK Limited, formerly Emersion International, announced it has finalized the purchase of Niner Bikes. The acquisition includes an accelerated global expansion plan for the premium off-road bicycle brand. Niner is expected to gain market share through independent bicycle dealers and international distribution.
Chris Sugai continues as president of Niner Bikes, located in Fort Collins, Colorado. “We are in-step with the vision and fast-track global plans for Niner,” said Sugai. “Our leadership team and culture, which are synonymous with our brand, will be maintained. UWHK’s support allows the dedicated team at Niner to keep producing high quality bikes.”
“I got into this business because of my passion for all things cycling and I’m glad we can get back to making awesome bikes,” added Sugai. “Supporting riders and giving back to the riding community will continue.”
UWHK Limited is an investment firm in premium global outdoor brands and a division of United Wheels Limited. United Wheels is the majority shareholder in Huffy Corporation and owner of Allite, Inc. and VAAST Bicycles, to be launched later in 2018. Each company, including Niner, maintains separate operations.
“Acquiring Niner represents important opportunities for UWHK and Niner,” states Bruno Maier, Managing Director of New Business for UWHK. “With UWHK’s support, Niner can focus on quality off-road product R&D and effective strategies to maximize gains. UWHK recognizes the short-term and long-term potential of this acquisition. Chris Sugai has the right team in place to accelerate Niner’s growth and ultimately, to increase global market share.”
Keep up to date with all things Niner at www.ninerbikes.com.