Tag Archives: Ural Motorcycles

Ural Motorcycles: Tale of the three-wheeled Russian

1 Sep
Ural Motorcycles Expands U.S. dealer efforts, marketing push
By Dennis Johnson
REDMOND, Wash. – Ural Motorcycles is one of the more improbable stories in the powersports world.

Here you have a Soviet-era sidecar motorcycle company manufacturing bikes in a sprawling factory at the base of the Ural Mountains in Irbit, Siberia. It’s a motorcycle born in the vacuum of Communism and designed for the rugged roads of Russia — places where draft animals fear to tread.

To build a Ural, components must be procured and shipped to the remote factory in Irbit from suppliers on the other side of the globe. Most other parts are manufactured in-house, everything from spokes to fenders to engines, even the wheel weights for balancing the spoked wheels. The manufacturing process hasn’t been updated in decades, nor has the machinery used, and the factory itself takes up a small sliver of a massive, once self-sufficient facility that occupies about 450 acres.

The bikes are then shipped to Germany, where they are sent by boat to New Jersey and then hauled via truck or rail to the company’s U.S. headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The whole grassroots operation is run by a married pair of Russian expats and their skeleton crew of employees who oversee everything from engineering upgrades and homologation to spare parts supply and distribution.

Listenting to owner Ilya Khait tell his company’s story, a person gets the sense that the once-state-run-company-turned-niche-bike-brand exists in spite of itself. And it’s looking to grow.

Khait and wife Madina Merzhoeva have launched an effort to expand the company’s U.S. network of 65 dealers and increase its audience beyond the diehard gear geeks who’ve always been drawn to the rugged bikes. They are touting Ural’s uniqueness as a big dealer draw, a new way to pull in new customers. There’s also the company’s unique cash-only, no flooring model.

“We believe that in our particular case, traditional flooring model creates more risks than advantages,” Khait explained. “In paying for the bikes with their own money, dealers behave more responsibly as far as inventory planning, less inclined to discounting.” The company has also upgraded its spare parts supply and management.

Then they are reinventing the Ural brand by shedding history for a coat of Cordura. In other words, they’re dropping the long-held World War II and Soviet imagery in favor of a flavor that more closely jibes with the brand’s hardcore and newbie enthusiasts striking out for adventure on a machine reportedly built to beat holy hell out of the road and keep on going.

Off-road is not Ural’s only home, the company said, adding that the sidecar bike has a growing fan base of urban riders who view the extra space as a practical alternative to an auto. And then there are those who just want something different.

“The goal for next year will be no more than 25 dealers … and it’s going pretty well,” Madina said. “We get a lot of multiline stores, and I think that after the recession a lot of dealers started to realize it’s good to have a variety and it’s worthwhile to have a specialty product. It doesn’t compete with any other lines. We hope to bring new customers into Urals. I think for dealers it would be advantageous to have a different slice of customers and a different slice of audience to be brought into the store.”

To meet the challenge, Ural has hired a full-time dealer development director and a dedicated marketing person — work previously done in-house. The team has revamped its website and started the branding transformation. Ural has even secured retail financing through Freedom Road Financial, a first in the company’s history. Ural has signed up almost 40 new dealers in the last two years and began the push to reach newer audiences with unique marketing initiatives, a strong social media push and a new website.

PIVOTAL POINT. The company finds itself at a pivotal point in its storied history. To grow, there are obstacles to overcome. But how do you rebrand a company without losing the core? What’s the best way to change old opinions or subvert a product’s stereotype? How do you update a 70-year-old manufacturing process with little cashflow and few staff? And, chiefly, how do you market a singular product to multiple buyer groups?

But that’s getting ahead of things. Before any of that, some more background is in order.

Talking to Madina and Ilya, there’s no mistaking that they’re Russian. In fact, an interview earlier this year over a table piled high with steaming seafood went a little something like this: We’d ask a question of Ilya, he’d contemplate for a minute and then answer to Madina in Russan, who in turn, would give the answer in English. (After a couple initial rounds of this — and an oyster shooter or two — this circular conversation seemed like the most natural setup in the world.)

After hearing the almost unbelievable description of the Soviet-flavored logistics that go into manufacturing a Ural sidecar motorcycle, we asked Khait why he continued to do so. The answer was quite simple, he said. How could he not? There was so much history wrapped into this brand, in this hulking beast of a metal motorcycle, that to let that glory fade would be wrong. Plus, there’s a legion of Ural-heads out there and the promise of more on the horizon, he noted.

Since taking over the brand from the previous importer and distributor back in 2002, Ilya and Madina have been running a full-frontal, grassroots attack at keeping it going. Largely the same motorcycle that rolled off the assembly line in February 1942, the Ural’s undergone a complete transformation under their guidance.

First they had to recertify the bikes to meet U.S. homologation rules. Then came upgrades, many of which from customer suggestions. Other changes were needed to drag the bikes into the 21st century: Brembo brakes. Ducati ignition. Domino controls. Aluminum rims. A transmission overhaul. And then there’s the Denso alternator. Seems the OE alternator on the Ural had a bad habit of destroying engines. So one customer figured out how to adapt a Denso alternator (like you might find in a Toyota) to work on the motorcycle.

“He said, here guys, here’s a solution” Madina explained. “We took his solution to the factory and made it work on the production line. We implemented Densos, and they don’t destroy the engine now.” That prototype adaptation built by the customer sits on a shelf in Ilya’s office.

Building and establishing the brand became a labor of love. They listened closely, via Web forums and groups, to the Ural’s first fans. These were the history buffs, the techie gearheads, the engineers — people who could do stuff with their hands, because the early bikes required a lot of hand work, Madina noted. Ural was one of the first OEMs to have an active online community, probably since the late ’90s, she added.

She and Ilya would find themselves at three in the morning answering forum posts from a guy with a Ural that’s broken down in the middle of nowhere. This feedback was hugely important and likely one of the reasons Ural has survived. Recognizing that the Western market was the future of this Eastern bike, the factory started implementing more of the upgrades demanded by foreign buyers by making quality key.

The huge volumes of the Soviet era were long gone, as was the reality of operating in a factory that at one time had about 1.3 million sq. ft. of manufacturing buildings, including a 360,000 sq. ft. building that housed welding, painting and main assembly operations. The self-sufficient setup also had its own heat generating plant, railway station and depot, fire station and tooling shop. The factory even owned a stadium, a cinema, hospitals, greenhouses and even a pig farm.

Today Ilya is part owner of the IMZ Ural Group, which owns Irbit MotorWorks of America, Ural’s North American distribution arm. He runs Ural during the day and the factory at night via Skype, and travels to Irbit once a month or so. Madina serves as vice president of sales and marketing for IMWA, and takes over the company reins while Ilya is in Russia.

This origin story, the early personal connection with customers, the constant product feedback, the bootstraps building of a motorcycle brand had a huge influence on the current culture of the company. There’s still an unpretentious feel that extends from the physical product — metal, exposed parts, cables, and chunky, mechanical angles — through to its management. “The straightforwardness of the bike kind of translates into every aspect of how we do things, how we talk with customers and our dealers,” Madina said. “We’re not super sophisticated like other OEMs. … We talk. We yell at each other some times, but we still end up working together.”

CALLING YOUR BIKE ‘SVETLANA.’ Many dealers were inherited from the previous distributor. Others have come onboard since. The retail lineup includes everything multiline shops to standalone service centers.

“Ural is very different from any other motorcycle out there because it’s metal. It’s Russian steel. It’s not a perfect bike. It’s not ideal. It’s not a Toyota or a Honda Goldwing, but it’s got character,” Madina said. This is a bike that gets Russian names like Svetlana and Katarina from its owners. A sidecar bike alone comes with its own personality, and one built in a Soviet-era factory Siberia should carry its own biography, but the Ural practically screams with individualism.

“You can fix it. You can touch. You can drill a hole in it. You can do whatever you want with it. You can really fix it in the middle of nowhere with a hammer and sickle, as they say,” Madina said. “It’ll take you anywhere, anywhere you want to go. Around the world. Across the country.”

OEMs typically go after different buyer segments by offering a quiver of different bikes. The industry’s modern lineup includes a motorcycle for just about any purpose. Short of painting it a fat metal flake green, installing hydraulics and doing a tuck-and-roll job on the upholstery, the Ural is still just going to be a singular metal sidecar motorcycle.

How do you rebrand a bike that’s practically tattooed with its own history? This is the challenge the company now confronts with a new marketing effort that doesn’t go after any particular buyer with any particular motorcycle. Rather than tell a group of riders that this is the bike they need for XYZ-style riding, Ural is asking its customers to find their own reflection in the product. (With a little help, of course.)

It’s also hard to talk about specs or horsepower or numbers or weight, when none of those are the product’s selling point, said Jon Bekefy, Ural’s director of marketing. The company has retired the Soviet/military theme of the motorcycle and turned toward the then-nascent ADVRider/dual sport market. This is where the two-wheel drive became a strong selling point.

Some of the other options, such as selling its retro or vintage nature, don’t really work, either, as Ural doesn’t have the kind of scratch to compete in these growing segments, Bekefy noted.

“We can’t market it to any one group with alienating the rest of the groups because we don’t have a second bike, a second tool unless we try to market colors and kits,” Bekefy said. “So we market one bike to everybody, create environments for the bike [in advertisements] and let people imagine their place in those environments. We’re talking adventure or escape, which I think can bridge that gap to younger generations.

“You know, we’re not selling track experience or wrenching experience, any of those things that people relate to, just pure escapism,” Bekefy added.

Ural has created partnerships with the adventure travel publication Overland Journal and collaborated with Triple Aught Design, a San Francisco-based company that offers high-end outdoor adventure clothing and equipment, for aFall 2012 Look Book. It also supplied a bike to ICON for a catalog, video and photo shoot and supports custom-bike design house Hammerhead Industries.

The social media push includes a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest — all free forms of marketing. The new website has already resulted in an increase of the amount of time visitors are spending on the site — from less than a minute to now nearly five minutes on average, Bekefy said.

“I’m trying to be really new media about this whole thing and get in front of everyone with exploiting anyone or pandering. I typically put journalists on it when they’re willing to get with the vibe and ride it the way our owners do,” he said. “When I shot the new catalog, I used a lot of urban settings, just to try and play off that Indiana Jones duality of a bow tie and dress shirt from the waist up and dirty khakis and boots from the waist down. Thats the Ural and it’s what I’m trying to show people.”

A new ad campaign is geared toward reaching a younger demographic without taking hipster or vintage route, he explained. It’s an attempt to feature the bike in the kind of timeless, adventuresome environments that call people to the road. The feedback thus far has been supportive — except for the handful of complaints from some old timers and miscellaneous cranks, Bekefy said.

For those Ural fans who fear the company is losing some sort of historical flavor, Bekefy said he knows that the heritage is there, that it can’t be forgotten. But he suggests beyond that Stalin-esque background, the Ural is simply a great functional motorcycle, one that functions just a bit differently than anything else on the market.

“When people talk about losing the spirit or complain about the bike changing, we’re not trying to maintain some sort of 1940s vignette,” he said. “We’re trying to build a motorcycle with a sidecar that’s made of metal.

“We don’t want to obsess with it being an ‘old’ bike. It is what it is. People who buy Urals, when they discover what hey can with one, it’s about functionality, what they want to make out of it.”

DEALER DEVELOPMENT. This marketing push is part of an overall campaign aimed directly at consumers with the idea of creating some pull-through demand for the product at the dealership level. This, in turn, feeds the drive by dealer development director Chuck Schram to sign up more Ural dealers.

One new dealership, Southern California’s San Diego BMW, has been carrying Ural for a little less than a year now, and dealer principal Gary Orr says the whole experience has been a blast. He added the line to his dealership, he said, because no other stores in his area were offering sidecar motorcycles and he wanted to add something to his showroom that was just a bit different.

“The main thing that attracted me is that it’s a sidecar motorcycle and it’s unique and different. There’s also some history that I can appreciate,” Orr said. “Retrofitting sidecars onto BMWs, while you can do it, it’s expensive.”

Orr noted that customers who either purchase a Ural or just come by to look at them really appreciate the bike’s quirky, fun aesthetic. “You can take someone who knows nothing about motorcycles and you can have them enjoying the ride in a short time. People are looking for them for recreation,” he said. “It’s something fun, something different and unique and something they can personalize.”

Dell and Ginger Zehm have been selling Urals since 1994, back before Madina and Ilya took over the brand, out of their St. Croix Harley-Davidson dealership in New Richmond, Wis. Dell Zehm remembers the early bikes as being “terrible” motorcycles that still attracted a devoted following who liked the simple mechanics of a carburetor and a kickstart. “That was the appeal, there were kickstarters and you could work on them yourself,” he said. “The downside is that you had to work on them yourself.”

Zehm said that once the bikes were upgraded, he started selling more of them — about 15 to 20 a year starting in 2006. They’ve been doing similar business every year since and have even sold a handful of bikes to repeat customers.

“It’s kind of a niche. The people usually have a BMW or a Ducati or some kind of imported bike in their history,” he said. “Right now they’re as good as the late ’80s, early ’90s Harley-Davidsons.”

There seem to be big plans coming out of Redmond, Wash., in the lush, green office park where Ural’s new headquarters are located. The dealer push. The new marketing and branding. The efforts at international distribution. There’s even talk about upgrading the machinery and manufacturing process at the factory in Irbit. But that might be a ways off. For now they’ll still be machining the bike’s crankcase through a line of more than 60 machines that are manned by three people, with each machine performing just one operation such as threading the drain hole or boring the space for the camshaft bearing.

“You won’t see this type of process on the modern factories,” Ilya said. “All of these huge machines can be replaced by a just one CNC machining center, operated by one person. This is something we’re working on right now.”

So onto the larger stage goes the motorcycle developed in isolation from the rest of world, a bike now loved by many for its quirks and oddities. Behind it are Ilya and Madina, running a company that seems to exist far outside the powersports industry norm. And it seems to be working for them.

“We’re weird. We’re different,” said Madina. “We’re Russian.”

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Ural Motorcycles: The most improbable motorbike company anywhere

8 Oct

Ural Motorcycles Expands U.S. dealer efforts, marketing push

Earlier this year I had a chance to head up to Redmond, Wash., to visit with the bootstraps brains behind Ural Motorcycles and take a ride on one of the sidecar bikes. The married Russian expats who run the company — Ilya Khait and Madina Merzhoeva — are a grassroots management team who handle everything from homologation concerns to keeping operations running smoothly back at the motorcycle plant in Irbit, Siberia. They have what can only be described as the most unbelievable operation in the motorcycle business.

Ural MotorcyclesHere’s the story I wrote for Dealernews about the company. They may have one of the best stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of telling. Really, just the logistics of building bikes in Russia and shipping them over here for distribution in the United States are mind-boggling. Here’s a detail I wasn’t able to fit into the story: After being asked why they have to ship all the bikes west, out of Russia and through Germany to the U.S. East Coast and then delivered to Washington state, when it seems it’s a much shorter route to go East, to America’s West Coast and Ural’s HQ, Ilya said, “Shipments have a way of disappearing when they head in that direction.”

Some other tidbits that didn’t make it: The massive production facility that’s been building Ural motorcycles since the 1940s is spread across nearly 450 acres. It had its own steam generating plant. The total square footage of the manufacturing buildings was about 1.3 million sq. ft., including a 360,000 sq. ft. building that once housed, welding, painting and main assembly. At the height of production in the 1980s, Ural was one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in Europe and in 1993 it pumped out 132,000 motorcycles. Now? Not so much. After the collapse of the Soviet Union released that captive audience, those number dropped drastically. As mentioned in the story, Ural consolidated all of its operations in one 220,000. sq. ft. building and only uses a small sliver of that space.

I actually met Madina years ago, shortly after she and Ilya took over operations from the previous importer and distributor. It’s been pretty neat watching them build the company, improve the bikes and continually push the motorcycles further into the U.S. powersports market. Check out their full story at Dealernews.com.


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