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Ventana: All Access Tour

Garage bands create timeless classics. They come at you with everything they’ve got with a true sound not often found with mega-label artists. The results are often perfect, catchy, and the bands develop a cult following. Ventana Mountain Bikes is the bike industry’s garage band. The lineup has changed a number of times over the years, but it now thrives as a tightly polished quintet, pumping out cult hits.

Ventana started in a small Folsom, California garage in 1988, not a mile or two from the spot Johnny Cash recorded Folsom Prison Blues some 20 years prior. The garage was Sherwood Gibson’s, founder and braintrust of Ventana, and it sat behind the house he rented from a landlord that lived next door. With the landlord constantly looking over his shoulder, the pressure forced Gibson to begin hanging bed linens from the clothesline that ran between his garage and his landlord’s residence to disguise production activities. Before long, he was doing laundry a few times each week in an effort to meet demand.

120 frames and three years later, the business moved to a ‘legitimate’ space before settling at their current location in 1994. Now with 20 years producing some of the finest mountain bikes available, Gibson has assembled an impressive team. Teresa Franco, business manager extraordinaire, serves as the glue -- handling all business matters from sales and accounting to shipping and advertising. Her presence allows Gibson to focus on what he does best -- everything surrounding the design and production of the bikes. They met at Aerojet, a local aerospace firm, prior to the inception of Ventana. Gibson was an engineer, and Franco an efficient, over-achiever-type executive assistant for ‘half the building’, Gibson explained.

Paul runs the machines, which Gibson still sets up with tooling. Robert handles quality control, shipping and assembly. And Ono applies Ventana’s trademark ‘Electric Sex’ welds, and assembles bikes as work flow determines. That’s it: five people. And they do it all in house -- machining, mitering, welding, heat-treat, powdercoat and assembly. The only process they farm out is the polishing of the rear swingarms.

Because they do it all in house, Ventana is able to provide a high level of customization to most every one of their 17 models -- shocks, rockers, pivot bearings, etc. Despite the myriad of options, in most cases, any frame ships about a week after it’s ordered. Custom geometry only pushes that back anywhere from 2 – 4 weeks (depending on the degree of customization and workflow.) Bottom line -- you get what you want, faster than you would anywhere else. And, it’s done right. As a retailer, we appreciate this, and as customers, we appreciate it even more. We were eager to find out just how they do it.

From the moment we arrived, one secret to Ventana’s success was clear -- they pour every ounce of their energy and resources into providing the highest quality frames possible. After 14 years at their current location, they still don’t have a sign -- not even a name on the door. We weren’t even sure we were at the right place, so we cracked the front door open and peered in. It’s 8 a.m., and everyone is already in the zone, intently focused on the task at hand. Satellite radio pounds out the Kiss anthem ‘Detroit Rock City.’ The shop is buzzing with activity, but little banter. After an enthusiastic but quick ‘hello,’ Teresa hands us off to Gibson, and our tour is underway.

We walked about ten feet, before we’re standing next to two CNC machines, one of which is cranking out 5′ Rockers. Like clockwork, Paul loads and unloads the machine repeatedly, inspecting each piece as he removes it from the machine. Behind him lives the tumbler, used to knock burrs off raw material, and the tube mitering machine. In the few short hours we were there, he worked each of the stations consistently -- no stopping, no bantering, just a focused effort.

At his feet lies stacks of extruded swingarm yokes good for five at a time, Gibson explains. They band saw them apart, and machine one side at a time. Aluminum is expensive, and the price is continually rising, evidenced by recent price hikes at Turner and Intense. Because of this, Gibson is especially keen to minimize waste -- materials come in around $3.50/pound, while the shavings are sold at .30/pound. This was motivation for his shift to the extruded yoke (instead of machining them one at a time), and he couldn’t be happier with the decision. As a small business owner, one has to be aware of expenses -- they can get out of hand in a hurry if one isn’t. It’s clear the efficiency we perceive and experience from the outside is a constant theme on the inside. Gibson goes on to detail the expense of tooling -- one CNC machined rocker uses eleven different tools -- each runs about $500 each. Before embarking on any wild-hair idea, he thinks through it thoroughly, then assesses market viability.

By the same token, the Ventana design is modular, allowing them to utilize existing tooling and materials to create new designs and adapt quickly to market trends. Take for example the recently released El Bastardo frame -- designed specifically for use with 650b wheels. Many of the design elements are recognizable from other Ventana models -- the rockers, swingarm yokes, ‘taco’ brace, headtube gusseting, etc. What began with an inquiry from Kirk Pacenti, grandfather of the 650b movement, was reality in just a number of weeks. While we were there, they were finishing a run of sixty El Bastardo frames. Ventana does each of their frames in small batches which allows them to make tweaks as they go, and keep quality control at a premium. And, it likely adds to their ability to stay on top of demand for all 15 of their models as they’re never producing the same frame for too extended a period.

Quality control is something in which each Ventana employee takes pride. They only tack weld in the jig, allowing them to check and tend to any QC concern. Each frame has a ‘board’, effectively a metal plate with holes drilled for the different sizes associated with that model. There is still a board ‘on file’ for every model/frame that’s ever been created (yes, even customs). Naturally, like most everything at Ventana, the jigs and their boards have all been created in house -- Gibson is cut from the MacGyver mold, capable of building and designing anything he needs, and probably better than if he were to go to market.

Most frame manufacturers use a Henry James jig to apply the rear end of a frame. Years ago Gibson recognized that the set-up involved was taking them far too long, so he started engineering a solution. Ventana now uses a proprietary tool they refer to as the ‘Primo Jig’, which took their set-up from 15 minutes to 2.5 minutes per frame, with better results from a quality perspective. Appropriately, hand written on the Primo Jig is the phrase ‘Henry James RIP.’

After Ono applies the trademark Ventana ‘Electric Sex’ welds, the frames go to the heat treat/cooling facility, in a bay across the parking lot from the machine shop. Each frame goes through heat treat with a metal coupon bearing the serial number of the frame. The coupon represents the thickest material used in that frame, and is thereby the slowest to quench. In theory this piece of metal should have the lowest hardness of any part of the frame. The hardness is then measured and logged in a file at Ventana. In the event of a warranty issue with that frame, this data is easily referenced to help address the issue and determine if the problem is specific to that frame, or whether there is risk to a batch.

As can be expected, the oven and cooling wash have been drastically customized by Gibson to ‘do it better.’ And they do. The oven bakes up to twelve frames at 995 degrees. They are then cooled at 40 degrees. The tricky part of this process is the transition from the oven to the cooling wash -- it needs to be done quickly so the frames don’t deform. Part of the customization here is a special racking system that allows this transition to take place in less than six seconds. The cooling process takes the frame to T4 hardness, at which point they are aligned (again), and baked one last time at 350 degrees for final hardening.

After the frames cool from final hardening, they travel 8 feet to the powdercoating room. Powdercoat is one of the newer arrows in the Ventana quiver -- prior to 2006, the paint process slowed down delivery of bikes, almost doubling the production period. Gibson recognized this, and elected to bring it in house. As a result, the finishes have gotten better, and frames leave in a timely fashion -- Ventana strives for 48 hours to ship a frame, but no more than a week to get out the door is a safe bet. Granted it takes man hours to paint the frames in house, but the quality has improved (both color quality and coverage), they are able to control their costs, and turn inventory quicker. Ventana is now nearing production of 1000 frames a year -- not bad at all for a five-person operation.

While he didn’t quantify it for us, Gibson told us that their warranty claim rate was astonishingly low, no doubt a result of the attention to quality control throughout the frame’s production. In our experience as a Ventana dealer the last four years, we echo that -- we struggled to think of an example as we wrote this.

It’s not any one thing that stands out about Ventana from our visit -- it’s all the little things. It’s the processes and tools they’ve developed to ensure quality comes first. They take the time on the front end to alleviate any potential warranty issues. It’s the systems they have in place to address efficiencies, and be sure they turn inventory quickly. That’s for their sake, our sake, and yours. But most of all it’s about the people. Behind every good business are good people, passionate about what they do.