Nelson-based Hybrid Bikes received the Supreme accolade at the 2021 David Awards. For owner manager Frank Witowski it’s further proof his business, and product, meets a high performance benchmark. The David Awards roared back into life in 2021. They’re a proving ground attracting a high calibre of New Zealand’s smaller owner-driven businesses. That’s the view […]
Nelson-based Hybrid Bikes received the Supreme accolade at the 2021 David Awards. For owner manager Frank Witowski it’s further proof his business, and product, meets a high performance benchmark.
The David Awards roared back into life in 2021. They’re a proving ground attracting a high calibre of New Zealand’s smaller owner-driven businesses. That’s the view of Frank Witowski, the driving force behind Hybrid Bikes, who was thrilled to be awarded the Supreme Award in October following another tough year of Covid disruption.
Frank’s business, which manufactures carbon e-bikes to his own design and engineering specifications, has won numerous accolades around the country in a relatively short period of time. He utilises a specialist overseas manufacturer to produce the components and then, as each shipping container arrives, is heavily involved in assembling and dispatching each bike to customers around the country – with an increasing number being sold offshore.
For Frank, a gifted engineer with experience across a wide range of industries, running such a hands-on operation is a far cry from his previous ventures – one of which involved designing “New Zealand’s most efficient” solar water heating system. He remembers pitching that technology to Richard Branson, but unfortunately the timing wasn’t right for the head of the Virgin empire.
A subsequent offer to Rinnai Australia was scuppered by the crash of the US dollar exchange rate.
E-bikes, on the other hand, are surfing a wave of popularity around the world.
“From an engineering skills perspective, e-bikes are comparatively quite easy,” Frank says.
Doing it differently
Frank’s driving mantra all his working life has been to build things differently, but not promote his own name.
“While it can be risky, it’s important to do something others aren’t doing.”
With his bikes, the difference lies primarily in the carbon construction. It is stronger, yet more forgiving. And most importantly, it’s lighter. When you’re loading one onto the back of your SUV or ute, that makes all the difference.
If you get the price point right (<$5k) and have a streamlined direct-sell business model – and Frank has both – then you’re onto a winner. A high-spec e-bike for the purist with an affordable price tag.
Not surprisingly, Frank definitely had his share of detractors when he first started Hybrid Bikes – but not anymore. And although, for now, he may not be generating as much turnover as some of the bigger brands, Frank’s happy that there’s enough money coming into the bank to keep developing new ideas.
It may come as some surprise to learn that Frank is not a dedicated cyclist. Engineering makes up the bulk of his DNA, along with a desire to exactly meet what a discerning market demands. He’s got the spreadsheet to prove it.
Besides, in the early days he had visited a German trade show and seen how little competition there was in the international carbon-fibre trail and commuter bike arena.
In Europe Frank had also seen the winning way to market his bikes – namely online retail.
Can you sell a premium e-bike online? Turns out you can when positive feedback gets shared;
when people believe in your product; and when there is a full money-back guarantee (provided the bike is still in showroom condition and has travelled less than 50 kilometres).
To date, none have been returned.
Personal customer care has also contributed to Hybrid Bike’s excellent reputation. Frank says he is always happy to answer the phone, even if it’s early in the morning or late at night.
“You don’t have a business without customers, so that is why I look after them,” he says. “That’s why I go that extra mile for them.”
Apart from a retired mechanic friend who helps out with e-bike assembly at peak times, Frank has been a one man band. He admits that he finds his business increasingly difficult to manage by himself, and it’s not helped by having fluctuating workflows and cashflows based on the delivery of each shipping container. This also creates a shortage of storage. Forty-foot containers take up a lot of space on his semi-rural property.
He’s looking forward to the time post-pandemic when he can travel freely back to his overseas factory partner to teach them how to improve pre-assembly in order to save him time on custom assemblies.
“It could cut my hands-on workload by two-thirds,” he admits.
The ups and downs in sales, caused by swings in the covid pandemic, have also created some major challenges, he adds, not to mention added pressure and stress on him.
“It would be so nice to have a crystal ball in times like this.”
Looking back to the early days of Hybrid Bikes, the 52-year-old is thankful that he had a sufficient nest-egg from his solar business to launch the company. He’s also aware that he is careful with money and maintaining cashflow.
This is his advice for people looking to start up a business. Have sufficient cash in hand to get you over any dry spots in sales, and keep a close eye on the business’s financials.
With the arrival of covid, Frank is grateful for being in the right industry at the right time.
Be wary of investors who want to hand over a lot of money too, he says, because you will ultimately be giving up control of your business.
As for Frank, he remembers when he made the decision to launch Hybrid Bikes. He had survived a cancer scare. There were no job offers on the table. It was time to seize the moment, and he has never looked back.
He’s pleased to say that in a recent high-profile survey of e-bike brands in New Zealand, his garage-based business ranked number two, flanked by two global billion dollar companies.
“I’ve been lucky so far. Let’s see where this takes us,” he says.
“One thing is for sure, it will get much bigger.”
Story by editor Glenn Baker.