Business

A conversation with Roger Malinowski, founder of BOB strollers

This article first appeared in The Tribune in July 2004.

Roger Malinowski likes to say he is in the "human-scale transportation business."

That broad characterization allowed his San Luis Obispo company, B.O.B. Trailers, to customize one of its jogger baby strollers into a rolling backpack for Polly Letofsky, the Colorado woman who is about to complete her five-year Global Walk for breast cancer awareness and fund-raising.

The rolling backpack is just the latest innovation for the decade-old company that got its start making the YAK Beast of Burden (B.O.B for short), a lightweight bicycle trailer designed to haul everything from groceries to camping gear.

Today, the company sells a variety of three-wheeled strollers especially designed for joggers, and is one of the world's largest producers of bicycle trailers and accessories. Its products, which typically retail for $300 to $400, have been featured in several movies and are regularly touted in magazines such as Adventure Cyclist, Bike, Trail Runner and Parents.

In January, B.O.B. more than tripled its Sacramento Street warehouse and office space to 9,000 square feet. Recently, Malinowski talked with The Tribune about how the company has evolved and what new products might be in the offing.

How did you get involved with designing and donating a stroller for the Global Walk breast cancer awareness fund-raiser?

They contacted us, and it seemed like a cool thing to do. When you start a company, there are so many people who call you to sponsor this or that. Every now and then something stands out, like Global Walk.

They requested a rolling conveyance like a rolling backpack that would carry all of Polly's things to sustain her for the entire trip. We plan to get the stroller back, since we are curious to see how it fared with all the working parts.

We used a stock stroller and John Cutter in San Luis Obispo -- a contractor of ours -- did all the fabric work on the stroller. He basically outfitted it like a backpack with a series of compartments. We used high-grade fabric and airless tires.

We are curious how she maintained it. Even fabric out in the sun for five years would take its toll. As a result of that, we are actually starting to look at a new series of products.

Like what?

We're looking at an infant car seat adapter for infants who can't hold their heads up yet. It's slated to come out in 2005. We have the prototype made.

We're also coming out with the "Burro, " that turns our stroller into a rolling conveyance similar to Polly's. You can use it to take all your things from the car to the beach for instance, including an ice chest. It will be offered as an accessory.

We try to develop products that work from birth on, whenever you need to travel and carry things on foot. It makes the stroller a better value.

Where do you get inspiration for new products?

It was just curiosity about how to solve a problem. Some category growth exists within our core abilities where we can use the same manufacturers and designs. The future for us lies in bikes and juvenile-related categories. We're developing a prototype for a four-wheeled bike trailer. Another idea is a tagalong where kids are attached to the bike and can also peddle along.

Not all ideas are viable. They can be too expensive to produce or have too small a market. Usually it takes 15 to 18 months of work to get a new product designed, the prototype made and into production. Someone has to write the manual and design the packaging. It can take 18 months to two years to bring a new product to market depending on its complexity.

What are typical upfront costs to develop and produce new products?

It depends on if you include components of staff time and travel costs. It takes about $150,000 to $200,000 to get something into production --something we don't undertake lightly. There is also a business and emotional side to this. If you spend a couple of years developing something, you definitely want to see it be successful.

How did you transition from making bike trailers to baby strollers?

Our wives were bringing home strollers, and Phil and I decided we weren't sure we wanted to be seen pushing something with flowers and polka dots -- not exactly guy material. Someone suggested a suspension stroller to us one day. The more we looked at it, the more we liked the idea. We never intended to be involved in strollers.

Strollers fit within our general philosophy of human transportation. We are basically widget people. We like to apply our mechanical abilities to come up with solutions to a problem. We enjoy designing stuff -- it's a big part of what we are about.

We did a kid traveler for a while and that put us in contact with a supplier of low-cost suspension strollers. We did research into what they were selling for and the cost to make them. We found it was something possible for us. We started shipping our first ones in fall 1998.

You experienced an expensive voluntary recall when some parts cracked in extremely cold climates. Have you had any additional recalls?

No. In the manufacturing environment things move so quickly now in terms of products, techniques and rollout. If you have something that is working, you want to be cautious about how you approach change. You need to keep the company competitive, but not so much that you get ahead of yourselves. We haven't had another recall and hope not to have to do it again. It's a very stressful thing to go through. You have to stop shipping products before you can even announce what's happening. It's best to avoid it if you can.

What portion of your sales are strollers versus trailers now?

Strollers are about 75 percent and trailers 25 percent. We are the world's largest manufacturer of single trailers for bicycles, and we are not a huge company. When looking at strollers, you are looking at big companies like Graco. There are literally millions of strollers sold in the United States each year. Bike trailers probably sell about 3,000 a year, and we sell most all of them.

A lot more people are having kids than are doing long-range tours or commuting by bicycle. Strollers are a more competitive market. We have to put more emphasis on cost and style than we do in the trailer business.

Which is more profitable?

Total dollars is strollers, but per item it is trailers.

What are some new developments in your industry?

Since 2000, we have developed new trailers such as the IBEX, a full-suspension trailer for long off-road bike tours. We didn't anticipate people would start doing significantly long trips like the GDR (Great Divide Route) that travels over 2,300 miles from Montana to New Mexico.

The original YAK trailer does not have adjustable suspension. A lot of evolution in the bike business is around full-suspension bikes that is now a significant part of mountain biking. We now have rear-wheel suspension for mountain trailers, making it much better suited than rigid trailers. Hardcore "Bobophiles" (loyal customers) really love it.

Company: B.O.B. Trailers

Address: 3641 Sacramento Drive, Suite 3, San Luis Obispo

Web site: http://www.bobgear.com

Founded: 1994

Staff: 11 employees, plus 16 U.S. sales representatives

Annual revenues: Projecting 2004 sales of almost $4 million

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