If asked, Eric Hawkins will tell you his official job title is, “Owner, CEO and chief mechanic — I think.” He’ll add, “We’re kind of loose on those things around here.”
Here is Park Tool, a bicycle tool company that started six decades ago in the back of a St. Paul Schwinn dealership that today is a global manufacturer and distributor of every manner of contrivance, apparatus, and gizmo necessary to maintain, repair, or clean a bike. Hex wrenches and grease guns, yes; but also the arcane: rotor truing gauges, belt drive sprocket removers, spoke tension meters and saw guides for carbon composite forks.
But loose is not at all the vibe at the company’s sleek, orderly, bustling new headquarters just off the Gateway State Trail, where more than 50 employees (along with about 30 local contractors) will this year make and ship more than 450 kinds of tools to 75 countries.
It all started in 1956 when Hawkins’ dad, Howard, and his partner, Art Engstrom, bought a bike shop on St. Paul’s East Side and started selling Schwinns. A lot of Schwinns. Most every year they were a Top 10 Schwinn dealer in the country. But, Hawkins said, the tools for bikes back then were lousy — imprecise adaptations of basic shop tools. So Engstrom and Howard Hawkins started to invent some, including the now-standard bike repair stand. The tool business got so good that the family eventually sold off the retail bike shops and concentrated on tools.
Eric Hawkins, 54, of Lake Elmo, started in the bike shop in 1976, joined Park Tool in 1983, and now runs the place. His is a life shaped by bikes.
On his bike-centric upbringing
Bikes were all around us. The funny thing was, my dad was part of one of the biggest Schwinn dealers in the country, but we never got new bikes! We always got used bikes or we built something up, or whatever. But as a kid we’d take biking vacations, back before a lot of people did that. When the Elroy-Sparta [State] Trail opened [in 1967 in western Wisconsin], we were right on that. So we did a lot of bike riding.
On his father and Engstrom’s biking
They were once they got into the business. But I still have my dad’s old [Schwinn] Paramount here. He probably rode more after he retired. Spring and summer — they were busy. They had a lot of things going on with bikes that did not involve riding them.
On his number of personal bikes today
If you want to include all of the collector bikes, I probably have somewhere over 100. Bikes that I ride, I probably have six or seven. I’ve got an Orbea road bike. I have a couple of old [racing] team bikes, one from the Discovery Team, one from the old Motorola Team. I have a Salsa fat bike. And a couple of Bianchis just for riding around. A [Salsa] Fargo that I ride to work with bags and lights and fenders on it. And I’m a unicycle guy.
When your dad owns a bike shop and you hang around, you end up on a unicycle. For my generation, it was probably the coolest thing, in my opinion anyway, that your dad could have done is to be a bike dealer. It was cool.
On the idea that it is more fun to fix a bike than ride one
I have always said that. I just enjoy the technical aspect of a bicycle. It’s a beautiful machine. It’s complex and simple at the same time. It can be figured out, but at the same time there are things about them that you have to learn. I can open the hood of a car now, and I’m a mechanical guy, but there is very little I can do on it. With a bicycle, you can work on it. You can fix it. The information is out there. It is still a simple enough machine that you can do it and it’s very satisfying. I like fixing things, but I really like to fix bikes.
On the trends in tools and the kinds of bikes people are riding
The number of bikes sold has not changed over the last 10 years. But I think you have more people who are enthusiasts or regular riders. So for us, it is a matter of figuring out what tools an enthusiast or regular rider needs for maintenance and repair. That market is growing.
The bike industry is always looking for the next big thing. Here’s an example: When mountain bikes started to really blossom, our business took a huge spike because there was more maintenance involved. And it was probably a younger demographic, more willing to get their hands dirty. The latest trend is electric bikes. Basically they are bikes. What the industry is expecting is that this could expand the number of people on bikes. You can ride later in life, you can ride further, you can keep up with someone who is a better rider.
In tools, the biggest thing is that there are so many bike and component makers that we have to keep up with. Consumer maintenance is really what has expanded our business the most — people now doing their own work. So, we make repair stands. In the beginning, we made one repair stand. Then it went to two, and then three, and then we made a bench mount. Now we make 20 different stands — a fold up version, lightweight version. There is bench mount, wall mount, different ways they hold the bike. We make a [electric motorized] lift stand now for heavier bikes. That has been more popular in Europe because of lifting restrictions for employees and the heavy e-bikes. It picks a bike right off the ground.
On requests for obscure tools
We are in contact with mechanics all over the world — race mechanics, shop mechanics, home mechanics — and we get a lot of ideas from people. We often have to say, “That’s a good idea, but I don’t think we can sell it.” We also have that same thing when new people get into the component-making business. So they make a revolutionary bottom bracket or head set. We don’t know if it going to take hold. So we wait on the sidelines a little bit, and sometimes we never make it. But they come to us because we can give them worldwide coverage. If we make a tool for their component, it almost validates it in the industry. But we don’t also jump on the ship right away. Same with trends. Fat bike — we didn’t know right away. We asked: Is this just a local thing? We didn’t know. You wait it out little bit. But now? We’re all in on fat bikes.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.