OK Motorcycle Enthusiast Starts Niche Business
Sometimes a product changes everything. It happened approximately a decade ago to Stillwater's Rod Brakhage.
Brakhage built research hardware of Oklahoma State's College of Engineering, Agriculture and Technology for more than 20 years. He's also a motorcycle enthusiast who was disappointed with motorcycle chocks designed to hold bikes upright while trailering. They were ineffective and often damaged the motorcycles, Brakhage said.
Shortly before Christmas 2003, Brakhage and best friend Mike Lyons started developing what would become the Wheeldock chock.
"We ended up spending about two or three weeks just cutting stuff apart, just changing this and changing that. What we ended up with was so unique that I decided to apply for a patent. We got it. Mike is actually ... the owner of the patent and I am the associate patent holder," Brakhage said.
That was the birth of Wheeldock, the company. At first, Brakhage had someone else manufacture the product while he marketed and sold it.
"The chock took off so well. I didn't really expect it to sell that well," he said. "... I went to a couple of motorcycle rallies and lo and behold people bought them."
Brakhage said he realized after that first year Wheeldock needed to make the chock as well as sell it, and he would need to choose between a job he loved at Oklahoma State and becoming an entrepreneur.
He bought the needed equipment, hired employees and started making the Wheeldock in house. He hired someone to manage the production operation and continued working at Oklahoma State.
"It was a great job. I had been there 22 years. I had a manager. It didn't work out well. A small company you just don't have a lot of margin. It requires a hands-on approach. I realized if I didn't get directly involved, it wasn't going to fly," he said.
Brakhage took what he said was the biggest risk of his life. He left OSU to run his company.
"I was within a couple years of retirement when I did it," he said. "I stepped out of that and stepped into this full time. It probably was the best move I ever made, but it also was the scariest."
Few industries survive by making just one product. Brakhage knew motorcycles. He notes accessory needs and creates products to fill those niches.
In fall 2006, Brakhage designed the EZ-Up Drive Off Center Stand. A few years later, he developed the Park-n-Move motorcycle dolly for the Legal Speeding Co. In 2012, Wheeldock introduced its third product— the EZ-Air Management System that makes adjusting the air shocks on Harley-Davidson touring bikes easier.
Over the years, the company's workload expanded which necessitated moves to bigger manufacturing facilities. In summer 2011, Brakhage decided to purchase 2 acres. He built a 16,000 square foot facility on Territory Lane in Stillwater that opened in January.
He also invested in equipment over the years — a CNC Vertical Milling Machine, a robotic welding center and a powder-coating booth.
The equipment allowed Brakhage's company to obtain a parts-manufacturing contract for Ditch Witch. Wheeldock also performs powder-coating for clients.
A new product — a collapsible, folding motorcycle trailer — is in development, Brakhage said. It folds up and occupies a small footprint in the garage. Traditional motorcycle trailers take up a spot for a car in the garage or sit outside in the driveway or on the grass next to house.
"It's a whole lot easier to sell something to somebody when it's something they need — when they can identify this solves a problem for me. They can take ownership of that thing and it makes selling it a whole lot easier," Brakhage said.
Wheeldock employs nine people. OSU graduate Jeff Yerby, who worked for MerCruiser in Stillwater, has joined Wheeldock as its general manager.
"I've been pretty fortunate that everything we've gotten into has done pretty well. Our gross sales are going up in spite of a tough economy. It looks like we should continue to grow," he said. "We are a $2 million a year company in annual sales."