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 (story continues)