The connection between the Michelin Man, bicycle wheels, and baseball bats may not be readily apparent – unless you live in upstate South Carolina, near the company’s North American headquarters in the city of Greenville.
That’s where Boyd and Nicole Johnson build and sell high-end bicycle wheels; and where the father-son team of Eddie and Matthew Rollins turn out Anchor Bats. Both family-owned companies were established to put professional-grade products into the hands of consumers who desire top-quality gear. And both have received loans from Michelin Development Upstate that allowed them to grow their businesses.
Established in 2009 to identify local businesses that have potential but are being held back by social or economic disadvantages, Michelin Development Upstate is part of the overall Michelin Development program, founded in 2006 and inspired by a similar program the company runs in France. In this one corner of South Carolina, the company has made 61 loans totaling more than $2.8 million, and in turn, helped create more than 560 jobs.
For the Johnsons, recipients of two $50,000 loans, it has allowed Boyd Cycling to outgrow their living room, where it was founded at the end of 2009 after Boyd retired from his pro racing career.
“We started it out of our house, hand-building wheels,” said Nicole. “We were selling directly to customers and had a website… offering a high-quality product that was more affordable.”
But the Johnsons were at a turning point. The company was started with their savings. They had a solid customer base and industry connections, and their wheels sold from $700 to $1,800 per set. But they couldn’t get a bank loan to expand.
“We found very quickly things were costing lots of money,” she said with a laugh.
Then, serendipity: A friend saw an article about Michelin Development Upstate and mentioned it, urging them to talk to the company.
“Right away they were very interested in what we were doing,” said Nicole. “They loved the concept and were really pleased with how far we’d taken it in a year and a half. They granted us a $50,000 loan at a low rate.”
And more than that, Michelin put their own experts at the Johnsons’ disposal.
“They told us if there’s something you don’t know how to do, ask us. We said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Nicole said. “Because a small business has tons of stuff they don’t know how to do.”
And so they met with accountants, marketing experts, and others who gave them the insights they needed. Boyd Cycling doubled in size the next year and paid off its first loan in two years. They doubled in size again two years later, and now they have a second loan and have moved out of the living room into a new building.
“It was exciting for us and for them,” Nicole said. “We’ve stayed in touch, and they’ve always been very much into our success, even when we didn’t have a loan with them.”
Anchor Bat is another local business founded on a family’s passions. Matthew Rollins was a standout college baseball player who went on to play on independent professional teams, then worked in the athletic industry. One thing had always stuck out to him when it came to that most essential piece of baseball gear, the bat.
“The way the industry works,” Matthew said, “oftentimes the people who pay the most get the worst, and the people who pay the least or nothing get the best. For us, it didn’t seem right.”
Working out of their garage, he and his father, Eddie, set out to craft professional quality baseball bats at a price point that made them available to any serious player. After they were featured on a local television news program, a couple of Michelin employees reached out to them about the loan program. The steering committee liked what the Rollinses showed them.
“We got the approval for $50,000 and it allowed us to buy some material we needed desperately, gave us a little bit of breathing room with some cash to get some equipment we needed,” Matthew said.
And, as with Boyd Cycling, they got access to Michelin’s expertise – in this case, access to 3D scanning technology that allowed them to analyze and tweak their bats in incredibly small, but significant, increments.
“Why not tap science into the craftsmanship of America’s pastime?” said Matthew. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be aligned with a company that gives us access to that kind of resource.”
And the name recognition of their benefactor hasn’t hurt, either.
“It also gave us the ability to appear to the public as a legitimate company, especially to other investors,” he said. “Once you start mentioning Michelin’s name, from a credibility standpoint, you get what you otherwise couldn’t have gotten.”
For Nicole Johnson, having Michelin Upstate Development support Boyd Cycling hasn’t just been a good thing – it’s been everything.
“This could not have happened without Michelin,” she said.