Bike maker moves to Oklahoma

The Cherokee Motorcycle Company (CMC) may not be a familiar brand name to most folks within the industry, but Ray Whitehead, company president and CEO, doesn’t seem to mind.
“We’ve been quiet and we haven’t wanted to run out in the media and cause a commotion,” Whitehead recently told Powersports Business. “It takes time to develop a quality motorcycle, especially when you’re trying to build it using your own (propriatary) parts.”
A newcomer to the American heavyweight V-twin cruiser scene, CMC, currently based in Hollister, Calif., changed its name from Fast Trac Manufacturing on Jan. 1 and is preparing to move into a new facility in Tahlequah, Okla., where it hopes to ramp up production and formally introduce itself to the industry.
Tahlequah, located about 75 miles east of Tulsa, was the end-point for the infamous Trail of Tears, a journey the U.S. government forced upon the Cherokee Indians in 1838-39.
The community now serves as the capitol of the Cherokee Nation — the federally recognized government of the Cherokee people, the second largest Indian tribe in the U.S. — and is hoping to attract businesses that will assist in its economic development.
Whitehead says the decision to move to Tahlequah was an easy one.
“When we went there for our first visit, we found a hotbed of opportunity and economic development,” he said. “The area gives us more efficiency in terms of the cost of running the company. Energy prices are much more affordable, the labor market is extremely available, and — what really floored me — was that the cost of health insurance was so low.
“Here, in California, medical benefits average about $350 each month per employee whereas the same coverage in Oklahoma is $110.”
Company officials, along with state representatives and delegates from the Cherokee Nation and Tahlequah Industrial Authority, broke ground for CMC’s new 40,000 sq. ft. facility in late May 2002.
“We are in a unique situation by working with a company like Fast Trac (CMC),” said Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. “The company is not interested in exploiting stereotypical images of Indians, but instead focused on the development of images that center around performance and quality, the attributes that the nation associates with the Cherokee.”
With 20 acres to its disposal, CMC is starting operations in Oklahoma with a $8.9 million investment and plans to grow its facilities in a modular form once consumer demand for its bikes warrants expansion. The company has said it anticipates employing about 250 to 300 people in three years.
The Bikes
Fulfilling orders from six dealerships, CMC currently offers three models of cruiser motorcycle — the Platinum PL-100, the Platinum Chopper PLC-100, and the Elite Sport EL-100. Another two models are planned for release in 2004.
The three current models each run on 100” Fatso powerplants, engines designed and originally manufactured by Milwaukee Performance — a firm which was acquired by Whitehead last year.
Now built in CMC’s facility, the Fatso engines are made of the lower end of Harley-Davidson’s Evolution motor mated to the upper end of the Twin Cam. The next two bikes will be powered by similarly designed powerplants that are expected to meet 2008 and 2010 emissions requirements.
While consumers have to shell out over $20,000 for one of CMC’s current models, Whitehead says plans call for the upcoming bikes to be sold “in the high teens.”
“This year served as kind of the completion of our development and we ended up with something like 45 or 46 bikes,” he said, revealing a plan to produce about 200 machines during 2003. “We also finished our new four-inch stretch frames, our new oil tanks, our new forward controls, our new trees and rake hangars.”
Building A Brand
Whitehead served as director of manufacturing for American Eagle Motorcycle Company until he left the firm three and a half years ago to take a position as vice president of operations at Petty Enterprises, a CNC machine shop manufacturing for the aerospace, high-tech, automotive and motorcycle industries.
“Then, when Silicon Valley fell on hard times a couple of years ago, Petty was just getting ready to be sold,” Whitehead explained. “I wanted to become more involved with the ability to machine my own parts for motorcycles, so I bought the CNC equipment that I needed and spun Fast Trac out of Petty Enterprises.”
“From there we stated building frames, and the frames and parts together turned into rolling chassis,” he said. “That’s when we started getting asked to build complete motorcycles.”
Financed from a number of different sources, including revenue sharing bonds from the State of Oklahoma and “substantial” private equity funds, Whitehead said he plans to build his firm to serve consumers in the top 10 states for motorcycle registrations (California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas).
How will CMC succeed in a fickle industry that has doomed so many other bike makers?
“There have been other companies that have tried to grow quickly with large injections of capital, but we’re trying to grow at a steady and slow pace while producing quality and value for our customers,” Whitehead responded. “We’re not out to burn up the world.”

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