Last Updated: 17:47 March 28, 2012
LONGMONT - Lee (Max) Sutherburg may have an interesting twist on an old adage, "When the going gets tough, the tough keep going."
Of course when you are the founder, president, chief engineer/designer and janitor of the company, there is often little choice in the matter. But keeping his performance motorcycle accessory business afloat the last several years depended upon some key business decisions.
"We've kind of pulled back, but for a variety of reasons, not just because of the economy," said Max, the sole proprietor at Maxair Engineering LLC in Longmont.
In fact, he said that overextending his product lines and distribution channels were as much of a problem as the market sector that depends on motorcycle hobbyists having spendable income - especially motorcycle owners who bought their machines in part because they were more affordable than a Harley-Davidson.
"We're talking about a market sector that's been brutalized by this economy," said Max, whose nickname comes from surviving, usually unscathed, some rather brutal motorcycle crashes, as in Mad Max.
"In this economy, you have to pay attention to the market and adapt."
For Maxair Engineering that meant getting back to the core competencies and the distribution channel that made the business run like a well-tuned motorcycle in the first place, Internet sales.
Max's business is entirely focused on the Japanese-made class of motorcycles commonly known as "metric cruisers," which are designed in the feet-forward, semi-chopped look of Harley-Davidson. In particular, Max started the business in 2002 focusing on Yamaha cruisers, which are the bikes he rides, modifies and knows best.
Maxair had tremendous success with one of its very first products, the Maxair Predator Pro, an air-intake accessory kit that produced a 20 percent increase in torque and horsepower for Yamaha cruisers. But the accessory differed sharply from similar products in that it was an entire kit for adding the part to specific Yamaha models and came with exacting diagrams, instructions and readily available tech support either online (including YouTube videos) or the phone.
"When we started the business 10 years ago, we were at the leading edge of the e-commerce revolution, ... and we stole the idea of online tech support from the software industry," Max said.
Max takes on almost every chore of the business himself as. He taught himself 3-D computer aided design and HTML to start the business. The online merchandizing has always been a success, he said, and continues to include accessories for many metric cruisers, including Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki.
But while Max was able to design parts for all those bikes, he is not a machinist and has always been somewhat at the mercy of his suppliers for the parts.
"I design products and have people make the parts in bits and pieces," he explained. "I put it together, package it and ship it to my customers."
Suppliers were always a problem, but that became more pronounced when he expanded his product lines. In addition, he added a dealership channel that added time and cost, and hindered the spot-on pricing he could employ with an Internet-only delivery channel.
Cutting the dealer program and refocusing on Yamahas for the Maxair products, allowed Max to focus on the market sector he knows best, and also the aspect of his business that has always set it apart - overwhelming good technical and customer support.
Today, the hottest seller on his website is the Maxair Racing 42 Carburetor, a conversion that puts a performance carburetor on a Yamaha Road Star. It may sound like a specialized product, but Maxair ships around the globe. The product, he said, is perfect for the do-it-yourself customizer who doesn't have a ton of money to spend but wants a clear performance enhancement for their money and effort.
"Over the last few years it's been more about me. People buy my product because they want my expertise my assistance and my advice," he said.
"I've really studied carburetion in the last 10 years, and knowing carburetion theory and how they work makes it easier," he said.
"It's been kind of a pet project. But it's like cheating if you sell to people who are just like you."