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Tacoma, WA - January 9, 2008
RUSS CARMACK/THE NEWS TRIBUNERick Clark of Gig Harbor, the new president and CEO of a company that manufactures motorcycles with sidecars in Russia, shows off a partial product line. Several South Sound residents, members of Tacoma Angel Network, have invested in the company that was born in the shadow of World War II.
Siberian bike’s allure draws investor
Shareholders of a sidecar motorcycle company near Russia’s Ural Mountains have named a Gig Harbor investor to lead them into financial success.C.R. ROBERTS;
Published: December 27th, 2007 06:00 AM Some investors like what they see, write a check and wait for the profit. Rick Clark of Gig Harbor liked what he saw, visited the factory in Russia, wrote the check and signed on as president and CEO of the company – and he isn’t taking a salary. Yet.
Clark, 60 and retired from the business of food products, is a member of Tacoma Angel Network, a group of wealthy investors from the South Sound who seek out and help build businesses that desire to grow.
As a member of the group’s screening committee, Clark saw the first raw presentation by executives of IMZ-Ural – or Irbit MotorWorks – a Siberia-based maker of sidecar motorcycles.
You’ve probably seen the Ural, or its German BMW cousin, in movies. The bike was born in the shadow of World War II and prospered under the Cold War subsidies of the Soviet Union. After Stalin, after Gorbachev, as that empire downsized, so did the company. Sales fell.
But loyalists remained. Russian entrepreneurs took the company private. Quality improved with new technology. The company opened an office in Redmond, and executives sought financing.
“It’s a funny little company,” Clark said last week at home in Gig Harbor, after finishing a phone call to an investment banker in Moscow.
Irbit MotorWorks is smaller than the companies Clark has managed in the past – Presto Food Products and Morningstar Foods. He retired as an executive at Dean Foods, which he helped build from a $300 million company to one worth $10 billion.
Figure Irbit at around $9 million.
Clark retired in his 50s and moved in 2000 with his wife and three young children to Pierce County, where he believed the climate would be better for his wife’s asthma than the air in Texas. He came here with the expectation that he would consult and invest.
“I wanted to catch up with my family,” he said.
He was one of the original members of TAN, joining in 2005. He has so far invested in four enterprises that presented to the group.
Ural is one of those. He is not required to name the amount of his investment.
“Three Russians bought it out of bankruptcy for $2 million in 2002,” Clark said. “They recognized there were some benefits to reincorporate the company in the U.S. Here’s a company that went through all the hoops to become an American company, and they got into a tight cash-flow crunch.”
He saw a company that had more demand for its product than the factory could supply. He saw a company with an exotic history and a successful record.
“The deals we look at at TAN are for the most part concepts. Generally, they’re pre-revenue. They’re great ideas of people looking for seed capital,” he said.
“This was a real business. They had a product. You take that product, you take the mystique, you take the business and stir it together.”
The Russians presented a $2.7 million Series A offering.
After Clark heard the pitch, he knew he needed to make the trip. Last August he flew to Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, and drove the 120 or so miles to Irbit. He found a town where the old men wore medals and the women wore scarves, where the young people wore earbuds for their MP3s.
He describes the factory as “what we’d call a well-capitalized asset. It’s probably been deprecated a thousand times. The building was old, the people were willing. What I saw was opportunity.”
He had made a promise to himself. “I tend to think quickly and get excited or not excited. I promised myself that I would not come to any snap judgment. I’d spend a week.”
He asked questions, and the workers asked questions back. Clark sensed the deep pride the workers took in what they did. He found a willingness to listen to advice and make successful changes.
“Do I have experience in the motorcycle industry? No. But business is business, assembly is assembly. They’re the experts,” he said.
“They were curious, but cautious. When I started asking questions, they kind of warmed up. This was their life. Some of their grandfathers had worked at this plant. I saw that the factory had the ability to increase capacity without significant capital investment, just by doing things better.”
During his visit, the three principal owners had a long discussion about the future of the company.
“I was there. They liked me. They thought this would be the way out,” he said. “Can I help with long-term strategies? Can I raise money? Do I have the skills to bring the team together? Yes, I can do that. But do I want to do that? The fact that I can visualize it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Larry Kopp, a founding member of TAN and principal with Globe Capital, said Clark “has a broad perspective of where a company should be going and also how to get there in the real world.”
Kopp said Ural has “won the double bonus, the big prize of getting both one of the largest investments made to date by TAN members and Rick as their CEO.”
“It’s all the complexities of a global business in a teacup,” Clark said. “This is going to be a great pure-case study for the University of Washington Tacoma. This isn’t GE, but it’s everything that GE has – finance, marketing, production, distribution.”
At the factory, the shareholders offered Clark the job as head of the company, and he accepted.
“We always look at testing ourselves,” he said. “It would give me an opportunity to stretch all the unused tendons and muscles. We’re going to make this company successful, and I’m going to get a return on my investment.”
So far, four TAN members have invested in the company.
Overall, Ural has raised $1.7 million of its $2.7 million offering from local and other investors.
Clark is unworried about his prospects.
“There’s something unique about this bike that people get passionate about,” he said. “People love this bike. At shows, people take pictures of the bike, they sit in the sidecar. There’s something visceral about this. Of all of the consumer products I’ve been involved with, none comes close to the passion these owners exhibit.”
He figures that 6,000 of the bikes are on the American road. Worldwide, owners meet at clubs in Austria, Portugal and England. Bikes are available in Washington from Ural Northwest in Bellingham. “We have sold a bunch of them,” said manager Mark Watson on Wednesday. “We really like ’em.”
Clark’s primary challenges, he said, are raising money, continuing to expand capacity and expanding the network of dealers.
“We are just getting started in Australia and Japan, and Mexico,” he said. “We haven’t set foot in South America.”
But he will.
“There are very few global opportunities,” he said. “When companies talk global, how far into the Arctic Circle do they sell?”
Ural recently made a delivery above the Arctic Circle.
“I don’t get into things just to stick a toe in the water,” Clark said. “I’m incredibly energized by this. I think it’s a fascinating project. I think it’s a fascinating product.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
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