The Story of North Shore Racks

Words Stuart Kernaghan
Photos Stuart Kernaghan
Date Dec 7, 2010

Here at nsmb, we love to hear about small companies making good with a product or an idea for mountain bikers. That goes double for British Columbia-based companies – it’s where our roots are.

One company that deserves recognition for producing a cool and innovative product is North Shore Racks, a North Vancouver-based company that produces an all-new kind of bike rack for vehicles.

Seven years ago, Malcolm and Alison Hammond, the husband-and-wife team that owns and runs NS Racks, came up with a design for their own bike rack because they weren’t happy with the racks on the market. Fast-forward to today and North Shore Racks is producing racks as fast as possible to meet an ever-increasing demand from customers as far away as Greece and Australia.

Check out the story below to find out how this North Vancouver success story came to be. Tell me the story of North Shore Racks. When did you get started, how did it happen, where did the company begin, and what was your initial goal?

Malcolm Hammond: It all began in the summer of 2003. I was off work for a few months and riding every day. It was time for [my wife] Alison to get a new bike as she had ridden her Kona Cinder Cone into the ground. One of the main factors in choosing the new bike was it had to fit onto our existing bike rack.

At the time, bikes were going through a huge shift in design from the traditional triangle shaped hardtails to full suspension frames with irregularly shaped front sections. Most bikes didn’t have a conventional top tube for a bike rack to hold onto. Here we were spending thousands of dollars on a bike and we had to compromise with our choices so it would fit onto our $200 bike rack. It just didn’t make sense. We had a look at upgrading our rack to a tray-style rack but to carry four bikes they were far too big and clumsy, and expensive. I figured that there had to be a better way!

The NSR-4, North Shore Rack’s highly versatile four bike carrier that allows you to transport four bikes without having to worry about frame design, stupid straps, long loads or any of the other issues that make people hate their racks.

On a warm summer afternoon, I decided to have a go at trying to solve the bike rack problem. I put Alison’s and my bikes against the fence in our backyard, placed a deck chair a few feet away, and sat there drinking beer, thinking. Slowly over a few hours, I came up with the rough idea. I spent the entire next day making the first prototype out of wood and some old pipe lying around the garage. I didn’t set out to make a bike rack but rather just a stand to see if the concept would work. At the end of the day, I’d produced 2’x4′ post with a pipe sticking through it and some wire poking out the top; I could not get a bike to fit in any way and gave up that evening.

The stand sat in our garage for the next six months before I had a second go at it. This time, I had a small welder and some basic metalworking skills and was able to make it work. At about the time of my third prototype, a fellow rider and good friend dropped by for some unrelated reason. He saw me loading a bike onto the rack and the reaction on his face was one of amazement. This is a guy who is pretty negative and sceptical about everything and he was excited!

Alison and Malcolm Hammond, the couple that is responsible for North Shore Racks posing in their garage / workshop.

We filed for our first patent soon after that, and sold our first rack the following summer. I remember the whole scene like it was yesterday. I had done as much testing as possible but was never really 100% sure how the racks would stand up to heavy use. The guy who bought the first rack we produced was super friendly and was buying it for the family’s RV. He loaded it up and set out on a transcontinental road trip. A few weeks later, we received an emailed photo of the rack on the back of his RV with Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota as the backdrop. He had nothing but good things to say about the rack, which was such a relief. Tell me more about the company. Who works there, and who’s responsible for doing what?

Alison Hammond: The world headquarters of North Shore Racks was in our basement until recently. We’ve just moved it into the garage behind our house. It’s been the two of us for most of the last seven years. We’re located at the base of Fromme Mountain, where many of the well-known North Shore trails are located.

Malcolm is in charge of the technical aspects of the business, rack design, web site etc. I run the business end of things such as the book keeping, shipping, purchasing and answering emails and I handle most of the local sales. We also have some help from a local high school student and awesome rider, Simon, assembling and boxing racks for us. [Simon has since returned to Hungary, where he’s from, but Malcolm and Alison are hoping that he’ll return to Vancouver soon. – Ed.]

As you can see, it’s all business at NS Racks – especially when there are power tools involved. Talking to Alison and Malcolm was a great experience, because it’s clear how passionate they are about what they’re doing. Is this a full-time gig for you guys?

Alison: It’s a full time job for me and nearly for Malcolm. He also has another job outside of the business – he’s an airline pilot. I’m also a full-time mum with two young boys. Who designs the racks?

Malcolm: I do all of the designing. I started out with pencil and paper but have now become well versed in CAD [computer-aided design]. Designing on the computer has really taken the products to a whole new level. It makes me wonder how I managed before.

Malcolm standing in front of the cradle bar for the six-bike racks, which are loaded onto storage racks that he also designed and built himself. Can you explain your design philosophy?

Malcolm: First and foremost, we’re mountain bikers. Mountain bikers are the most extreme users of bike racks and regularly stress them well beyond what many rack manufacturers ever imagined.  Most racks on the market are designed to carry regular bicycles to and from the local park, a few times a year. The manufacturers have taken these light-duty designs and tried to beef them up to handle mountain bikes and then market them as such.

Our designing is done in just the opposite way. We designed the racks to carry 50 lb mountain bikes from the get-go, and then make a few tweaks so they will carry smaller lighter bikes. For example, our NSR-4 bike rack is small and compact, but weighs 52 lbs – there’s plenty of metal in there!

The North Shore Racks shop is filled with different rack parts for the two-, four- and six-bike carriers, just waiting to be boxed and shipped. Malcolm and Alison do all of the pre-shipping assembly themselves from parts that are made in North Vancouver.

The other thing we’ve tried to keep in mind is ease of use. We understand that after a long ride – especially with a few bumps and bruises – the last thing you want to do is fiddle with a bike rack.  Our designs are simple and dead easy to load and will not damage bikes.

Another thing I’ve really tried to design in is adjustability. There are literally millions of vehicle and hitch combinations out there. We’ve made every effort to make the rack adjust to fit virtually every one, right out of the box. A couple of other design points: our racks don’t block the brake lights, and on most vehicles you can still access the back of the vehicle with bikes on. Overall, the best way to describe our approach would be to say that we are passionate about riding and design the racks for like-minded people. Does the design change over time?

Malcolm: Yes, it does. We produce the racks in relatively small batches and as such are able to make changes as needed. Now that all the designing is done on computers, we are able to email those changes to the manufacturer here in North Vancouver, and they implement the change with the next batch. It’s fantastic how we’ve been able to improve the racks in this way. The designs have matured and there are only small changes happening now.

Malcolm holds the newly redesigned brace, which connects the mast to the hitch tube. It was tweaked to ensure there’s no way to get your fingers caught when the rack is lowered, and to add an extra 2° of rearward lean for more vehicle clearance.

A recent example was we changed the location of the centre hinge by one inch to make the rack more visible to the driver when folded and backing up.  It is a very minor detail but if the rack cannot be seen from the driver’s seat, it will get forgotten and you’ll back into something. Out of sight, out of mind! Tell me about the materials you use to build the racks.

Malcolm: The main structural components are made from steel. It’s strong, easy to work with and is very forgiving. The racks are then powder coated for corrosion resistance. Accessories such as the pads or cords are UV stabilized. Any other metal accessory is zinc plated. We even zinc plate some areas of the racks underneath the powder coating where the coating is subject to heavy wear.

The NSR-4, folded down out of the way. The mast sticks up far enough to be easily seen when you’re backing up. Who manufactures the racks for you? Do they handle the assembly and shipping as well?

Alison: The metal working and powder coating are done by local North Vancouver shops. We collect the raw painted racks in our specially-built trailer and transport them to our shop. Simon then preps and boxes them for shipping, or assembles them for local sales. [Now that Simon’s back in Hungary, most of that work is done by Alison. – Ed.]

A trailer-load of bases and two-bike racks, fresh from the factory and ready to be shipped. You see NS Racks on all sorts of vehicles, everywhere from the bike park to a cross country trailhead. What kind of rider buys a North Shore rack?

Alison: Good question. Malcolm has always said he’s surprised at how often the customers are women, or at least how often women are involved in the purchase. He always thought it would be the young hardcore “ripper dude”. While we have plenty of young males purchasing racks, more often than not it’s either a female rider, a girlfriend or wife of a male rider or a mum with boys who ride. Even the ripper dudes tend to bring along their girlfriends. There’s a marketing lesson in here somewhere… How many racks to you sell a year?

Alison: Sorry, but we can’t really give that kind of information out. What I can say is that we have production runs being made all the time. We are unbelievably busy and usually sell out. Our production is constantly increasing to keep up. Where do most of your customers come from?

Alison: Our customer base has been steadily changing. When we started, almost all sales were local. Someone would see one of our racks at a trailhead and then email us and come over in the evening to buy. Now the majority of the sales are online through our web site. We ship all over the U.S. and send a small truck down to Washington state once a week to simplify shipping to customers down there. But the majority of our sales are to fellow Canadians, mostly in B.C. and Alberta. What’s the furthest you’ve ever sent a rack?

Alison: We have a few in Japan and one in Tasmania! Aside from the trailhead sightings and people seeing racks on vehicles, how do people hear about you and the racks?

Alison: For the most part, it’s word of mouth. They usually see one somewhere and talk to the owner, or read about us on an internet bulletin board. Then they go to our web site, or do a web search to see what people say about us on the boards. Have the big players in the bike rack industry – Thule or Yakima – ever been in touch with you to discuss some sort of business arrangement?

Alison: We’ve been approached by several manufacturers wanting to license our designs, but not those two. We’ve also received proposals from investors, but none that we’ve pursued. It’s all about control. As soon as you have an outside investor, you start to lose control of your operation. The same thing would apply if we took production overseas.

Malcolm shows a locking hitch bolt that they now sell as an add-on for all of the racks. Order it with a rack and get everything you need in one box, so you’re ready to go right away. Are you worried about someone copying your design?

Alison: It’s always a concern. The design is patented and we have more patents pending. We see the odd person who’s made a copy for themselves, which tends to get my back up. There seems to be a misconception out there that it’s ok to make one for personal use. The reality is that patents cover production, use or sales of a product. Making your own copy is infringement of the patent.

Malcolm takes a little softer attitude here as he feels flattered that someone has copied his invention, but it bothers him too. It’s all a matter of damage for us. How much damage has been done to us, our ideas and our company by the copy? We are first and foremost riders, and cringe at the thought of suing a fellow mountain biker who has knocked off their own version of the rack, but we are prepared to defend our patents if and when needed. Running this kind of business from your home, on top of being a full-time mom and a pilot, has to be a challenge. What’s the best thing about running North Shore Racks?

Alison: Seeing the racks out there being used. I can remember about five years ago sitting in a coffee shop in Lynn Valley [part of North Vancouver – Ed.] with Malcolm discussing the business and talking about how exciting it will be when we have our first random North Shore Racks sighting. Now we see them every day and I still get excited.

The other thing is meeting the people who come by our place in North Vancouver for local sales. There is something different about coming to someone’s house to buy a product you’d normally purchase in a store. They see that we are just a regular family with little kids running around in a regular house with a couple of cheap cars in the driveway, and suddenly they can relate. We’ve yet to meet someone unpleasant.

The infamous first rack from North Shore Racks. Malcolm and Alison get plenty of customer photos of the racks in action. And your least favourite part?

Alison: Running out of stock. Everyone always says this is a good problem, but in reality it isn’t.  We wind up having waitlists and then when we do get the racks in, we have a huge backlog to cover without much outside help. [Malcolm had just picked up a load of two-bike cradle bars when I stopped by to shoot the workshop. – Ed.] What are your long-term goals and plans, for both the company and the racks?

Alison: That’s a difficult question to answer. For now, continue to grow as we are. Our systems are getting much more efficient, which means we are able to produce and sell many more racks within the same amount of time. What has surprised you most about this whole experience?

Alison: The amount of time required to accomplish things that seem minor. Have you got plans for other products?

Malcolm: We’re working on a roller stand for the racks. The racks can then be used as a garage storage stand for bikes. It will make an incredibly efficient way to store bikes as the footprint will be small.

Alison models a trial version roller stand. It’s a great idea for people who have lots of bikes but lack storage space – or don’t want to move the fleet one bike at a time. Anything else you’d like people to know about North Shore Racks?

Malcolm: Early on with our first rack model, now referred to as the Classic-4, we were nearly driven out of business by a disreputable metal work shop (not in North Vancouver). They produced a batch of racks that were unsalable. Every rack was slightly different and the parts would not interchange; they looked as if a high-school shop class had produced them in an afternoon. They had our money and we had a pile of scrap.

We considered legal action but couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer. They knew that and basically stole our money. That was nearly the end of North Shore Racks. We were starting a family and couldn’t afford the financial loss, let alone the emotional toll that would have gone along with a lawsuit.

The metal shop we use now to build the racks is family owned and located in North Vancouver. Their workmanship is excellent and they really care about what they do, and we couldn’t be happier. The racks we are producing now are of the highest quality in our history. Last (and perhaps most important) question… You guys were riders back in the day. Do you still ride, and what kind of riding do you do?

Malcolm: We’re both avid riders. We’re really close to the trails on Fromme Mountain and both ride several times a week, year round. Alison is very fast on the downhills and enjoys tailgating guys. She talks about flowers and other girly things to psych them out, usually causing them to crash. She rides a Santa Cruz VP-Free and I have a Santa Cruz Driver 8.

The type of trails I like are traditional North Shore trails with skinnies and wheelie-drops. Pink Starfish is one of my favourites. Hopefully, its character and style aren’t lost in the future.

Both of our boys (ages 4 and 6) have been riding since they were 2. They love seeing their bikes on the racks as it makes them feel like real mountain bikers. 

So there you have it – the story of North Shore Racks. Stay tuned for a full review on the NSR-4 rack, which will be posted on in the next few days.

– Stuart Kernaghan

Do you have a North Shore rack? Anything you would change? Talk racks here…

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