February 2008 | Case Studies | Reader Profile

Kathy McCurry: A Wild New Ride

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More people would swap their cars for motorcycles if only they knew what to wear. That's the premise behind Classy Rider Apparel, a business that makes motorcycle jackets with mainstream appeal.

In the five years she has been running Classy Rider as a one-woman operation, Kathy McCurry has learned to manage suppliers in China, coordinate the flow of components for final assembly, transport finished goods to the United States, and market her product to customers at motorcycle rallies and through her Web site.

Now she's embarking on a new supply chain challenge: distributing to numerous small retail shops.

The idea for Classy Rider occurred to McCurry when she bought a motorcycle to add some zip to her life as a market research consultant. Riding to client visits, she soon found that biking and business didn't mix.

"I could not find many apparel options for the motorcycling crowd that fit well with the office lifestyle," she says.

Further research revealed that many executives, professionals, and small business owners ride motorcycles for fun, but not for general transportation. Changing from black leather or other riding gear into office clothes and back again is too inconvenient.

So McCurry launched her business, working with designers in New York, suppliers in Hong Kong, and factory operators in several Chinese provinces.

Communication has posed a major challenge. For example, the woman in Hong Kong who supplies reflective tabs and arm bands to McCurry speaks English, but the supplier who provides the jacket linings does not.

"I have to ask the English-speaking supplier to walk to his office and tell him what I want," McCurry says.

Despite her best efforts to stay in touch with supply chain partners, a communications snafu nearly leveled the business in fall 2006. That's when the plant that assembled the jackets stopped shipping product and did not respond to McCurry's calls and emails.

It was peak season, customer demand was on the rise, and McCurry had only 17 jackets in stock. "I had to fly to China, find a new factory, and figure out what happened to the non-responsive factory," she says.

"As it turns out, my order was too small for the factory floor, but too big for the sample room. So the supplier did nothing," McCurry says. "That's why communication is so critical."

If factory officials had only asked her to increase her order, she'd have done so gladly. "But I had no idea," she says.

Having recovered from that crisis, McCurry is developing a new role as wholesale supplier to bike shops and motorcycle apparel stores. Unlike large retailers, these businesses don't order months in advance, and many don't know how to anticipate demand.

"Bike shops place an order when they need a product, then want it delivered the next week. I have to try to anticipate demand, produce the jackets, then sell them," McCurry says.

Besides building up the enterprise, McCurry has her eye on a wider business mission: getting motorcycle owners to ride every day. Biking to work would save them money on gas and help the environment.

"Through the apparel, I would like to help people see the motorcycle as a transportation option," she says.

The Big Questions

What do you do when you're not at work?

I read a lot. I also ride motorcycles with my husband. We head out into the countryside, eat at a nice restaurant, then head back. I often participate in charity rides. I don't think of myself as a biker chick, but I enjoy rides for a good cause.

Ideal dinner companion?

Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson.

What's in your saddlebag?

Some tools; a few magazines to read while eating lunch; sunglasses; and gloves.

First Web site you look at in the morning?

I go to Inc.com for inspiration and ideas, and CEOExpress.com for helpful resources. Then I check my horoscope.

If you didn't work in supply chain management, what would be your dream job?

Glass-blower.

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