Charlie Shelton, an electrician uses a Worksman tricycle in his job at the Boeing factory in Seattle.

 
 Surviving the Cycle-Business Downturn

 

 

By Laurence Zuckerman , April 24, 2000

 

Morris Worksman was a man ahead of his time. In 1898, he had a vision that horse carts could be replaced with human-powered vehicles that would not foul the streets with messy horse byproducts. He finally got his break in the early 1930's when a young company called Good Humor asked him to build delivery tricycles for its ice cream peddlers, establishing the Good Humor man as an American icon.

More than 100 years after the original vision, Worksman Trading, the company he founded, is still making heavy-duty trikes and bikes in New York City. Only now it seems like an anachronism.

Manufacturing has long been on the decline in New York City. In the 1950's, there were 970,000 manufacturing jobs in the five boroughs. By 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, the number had dropped to 257,000.

And bicycle manufacturing in the United States is also fading fast. In the last eight months, Huffy and Roadmaster, the two largest domestic makers of bicycles found at retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us, announced that they would close their American factories in the face of competition from low-priced imports from China.

What is left of the domestic bicycle industry are a handful of relatively small companies and manufacturing boutiques that make expensive high-performance models for cycling enthusiasts.

Worksman illustrates the difficulties of trying to make it as an old-line manufacturer in New York City at a time when Internet start-ups and store openings grab the spotlight.

Worksman survives by dominating the market for what it calls industrial cycles. The company's tricycles are used by other manufacturers like Boeing, Chrysler and Ford to move workers, tools and parts around cavernous factories and warehouses. Its two-wheelers are popular with pizzerias in the city as delivery bikes. The D'Agostino chain relies on Worksman pushcarts to deliver groceries.

Worksman also sells a line of recreational bicycles and tricycles as well as food vending carts. "If you have ever bought a hot dog on a street corner in New York, chances are we had something to do with it," said Wayne J. Sosin, Worksman's vice president.

Yet despite a booming economy, the company, which employs 60, says it is under pressure on several fronts. Many of its best corporate customers have merged or moved offshore. Restrictions on sidewalk vending licenses in the city have essentially dried up the local market, once its most lucrative. And there is the threat of competition from Asian manufacturers that can undercut Worksman's prices.

"It's a difficult fight staying in New York," said Jeffrey Mishkin, Worksman's president, whose wife, Barbara, is Mr. Worksman's granddaughter. "I don't want to look at moving away, but with costs becoming very tight, I may reach a point in time when I have no choice."

Worksman's battle plan has been to broaden its offerings. Besides its flagship industrial cycles, the company offers a folding tricycle for older riders and a two-seat model that it says is popular with the disabled. One of its newest products is the ExecuTrike, a lighter-weight version of its industrial model with a basket on the back, intended to speed managers around the factory floor.

The company is also trying to expand overseas, selling to European manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, which now owns Chrysler.

All of the company's products are produced at its factory in Ozone Park, Queens. Brightly colored frames, wheels and partly assembled bikes are stacked around one of the shop floors along with boxes of bike components.

Worksman does not produce its cycles on assembly lines. Instead, workers spend a day or two making components as they are needed. On a recent day, frames were being welded from steel tubes in one corner of the floor, while on the other side of the room wheels were being built by a machine that inserted four spokes at a time until all 36 were in place.

Mario Carmona, 65, has been at Worksman for 25 years, building wheels and operating and maintaining the machines. After immigrating from Puerto Rico in 1953, he said, he worked for 16 years at Iberson, a bicycle manufacturer in Brooklyn, joining Worksman after that company went out of business.

"They treat me good," he said of Worksman. "It's like a family, I have been working here for so long."

Ricky Lalman, 31, who was born in Trinidad, has been working in the shipping department for 11 years. His brother, who services bikes, has been with the company 12 years.

Mr. Lalman also said that Worksman felt like a family but added that too much real family is not necessarily good. Both his parents also worked at the company but quit after a few years. "Sometimes you don't want your parents working where you work," he said.

Worksman prides itself on the durability of its cycles, which sell for $200 to $1,000. Mr. Sosin said people still ask for parts on models it stopped selling in the 1960's.

"They do make a durable product," said Ali Khan, the director of maintenance at D'Agostino's, which bought 100 three-wheeled Worksman push carts for its home deliveries. After a truck hit one of the carts last month, he was pleasantly surprised to see that it had rolled away without extensive damage.

"We call them delivery tanks," he said.

Craig Clark, a project coordinator at a plant in Avon Lake, Ohio, where Ford makes Mercury minivans, has bought 15 Worksman tricycles in the last five years. "I have a nice yellow one," he said. "I keep it chained up so it doesn't disappear."

Mr. Clark added that the trikes save time moving people around the sprawling plant, do not pollute, are quiet and give workers some exercise. "We throw a lot of weight on them," he said. "You've got to make sure there is enough air in the tires, but other than that you can really load them down."

That is exactly what Morris Worksman had in mind when he surveyed the busy streets outside his toy shop in Lower Manhattan in the late 1800's. A compulsive tinkerer, Mr. Worksman invented a differential gear for an early three-wheeled Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Mr. Mishkin said.

He also made tricycles with cabinets attached.

Barbara Mishkin, his granddaughter, recalled her grandmother's saying that in those early days Mr. Worksman spent all the family's money on patents. "They moved from place to place because they didn't have enough money for food," she said.

All three of Mr. Worksman's children ended up working with him. It was his youngest son, Irving, then still in his teens, who struck the deal with Good Humor. That enabled the company to move from Manhattan to a bigger space in Brooklyn. In 1979, Worksman moved to its current factory in Queens.

After Morris Worksman's death, Irving took over the business. In 1987, just before Irving died, he sold it to his daughter and son-in-law and to Mr. Sosin, who had joined Worksman as head of sales eight years earlier. Last month, during his spring break as a business administration major at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, the Mishkins' son Brian, 21, was working in the shipping department, learning the business from the ground up.

"If he likes it, maybe one day he will want to take over," Mr. Mishkin said.

Just how difficult things are for Worksman is hard to tell, because the company is privately owned and will not divulge information about sales and profits.

Jay C. Townley, a longtime bicycle industry executive who is now a consultant in Lyndon Station, Wis., said he believed that Worksman was not in imminent danger.

"The people who have tried to compete with Worksman have mostly dropped by the wayside," he said. "Worksman is going to be fine."

In 1979, the city helped finance the company's move to Queens by giving it tax breaks for 20 years. That arrangement ended last fall, returning the company to its full tax rate.

Now Worksman's owners would like the city to do more. They are looking for a new location where they can operate on a single floor rather than three, to improve efficiency. But there are few such spaces and real estate is expensive.

Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city's Economic Development Corporation, would not comment specifically about Worksman but said there were a number of programs to help companies expand and stay in the city.

Mr. Sosin has hinted that Worksman may not be able to resist the siren calls of Southern states that are offering long-term tax holidays and other incentives.

But Mr. Mishkin appears committed to New York and its diversity. Most of the company's workers live nearby and are immigrants from countries like Guyana, Jamaica, Poland and Senegal. "You have a very good labor pool here," he said, noting that about one-third of Worksman's employees have been with the company 15 years or more.

"We don't want to leave the city," he said.

"We are part of the city, just like the street vendors you see. There are no incentives that anybody would give me that would be more worthwhile if the city just made it a little easier for us."


Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

neil@mishalov.com

© 2000 by Neil Mishalov