Thule’s American headquarters is on the outskirts of Seymour, Connecticut, a blue-collar town. This isn’t where Wall Street execs retreat each night in Cheever-esque gin-and-tonic glory. It’s Budweiser country. As if to emphasize the point, you pass a junkyard as you ascend the 20-percent-grade hill to the plant. And that’s a good thing, because it fits with Thule’s pastime of beating cars to death.
Thule’s M.O. is about overbuilding or, perhaps, bombproofing. That junkyard down the hill? It has lots of trashed cars. Find one with a solid roof, though, and Thule will buy it. Then they’ll attach roof racks to it and abuse those on shake tables designed to mimic doing 60 down a washboard road with sudden gee-out dips. And they’ll leave it shaking until the roof collapses or the rack fails, one or the other.
They also do field abuse, say, rigging a hitch rack as ineptly as possible (don’t overestimate the mechanical skills of the general public) and go off-roading. They’ve pieced together 70-pound bikes and mounted four of them on a rack with half the weight limit and bombed around a skid pad, driving over and over again across speed bumps. All of this is part of the process, they’ll tell you, as if they aren’t enjoying every single minute of it.
The purpose is to fulfill Thule’s promise. The brand offers a lifetime warranty, but what they really want is to prevent any product from ever needing to be warrantied, to make it so tough it won’t fail. And while you might think that’s a little odd in an age of buy-it-to-replace-it, the zeitgeist at Thule is absolutely consistent with the company’s very conservative Swedish roots. Yes, Thule is made in America, but was born in Sweden as a maker of fish traps. And then a rock-shield manufacturer to protect headlights on Volvos and Saabs in a post-war land of awful, often dirt roads. And then, finally, as a rack maker.
But this last part of the equation, racks, also explains why Thule manufacturers in the United States and why, as a Swedish brand, they do it in a way that involves extreme testing. Because Thule quickly realized, long before gas crested $1.25 a gallon in North America, that shipping racks from Sweden was absurdly expensive. Also, that Americans do nutty things Swedes don’t. They drive bigger cars and they do sports that might kill you in a Nordic country. (Back when Thule started making racks in the States, in the early 1980s, they were selling as many of them for windsurfers as skiers.)
And while there were simple pragmatic concerns involved in establishing Thule in America, today the company is fairly independent from the mothership. For instance, a fair part of Thule’s business is making original-equipment racks for U.S. carmakers. Handling that from Europe would be almost impossible.
That’s true, too, if Thule manufactured in Asia. Certainly, it would be far cheaper on the labor front than providing salaries and benefits to 250 Americans. But, Thule says, they’d get crushed when there’s a lousy ski season, like last winter, when all that inventory you built and shipped from Asia would have to be discounted to move it out the door. Manufacturing here lets Thule take a step closer to build to order, which lessens risks.
And, says Thule’s Karl Wiedemann, if you have to hold onto last year’s inventory it pushes down the incentive to innovate, because it doesn’t make sense to create something new that will make all the inventory obsolete.
It’s not all milk and honey stateside. Thule doesn’t make all of its products here. Thule sells a lot of luggage, but not enough that the company could afford to open a factory just for that. And in the bigger picture it might be better; one thing Thule has learned is that its workers are relatively happy because they get to work on several different racks a day, constantly switching tasks, depending on demand. This reduces repetitive stress injuries and prevents mental breakdowns. Making clothing or packs tends to involve nothing but repetitive motion. One reason cut-and-sew left our shores is precisely because the labor is onerous.
Speaking of the process of making stuff, Thule’s Connecticut facility isn’t a one-stop shop. Rooftop boxes are built near Chicago, which makes shipping around the country less expensive. Paint work is done just across the border in New York. Raw boxed metal (which then gets shaped and robot-welded at Thule) comes from Indiana. Injection molding is done in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. And all of these sources are relatively close, again to cut the cost of shipping and to react as rapidly as possible to fresh orders yet keep little raw material on hand.
The one place where there’s lots of material stashed? It’s the spare parts room. Buy a new car but need new feet for your old roof rack and Thule will overnight you the replacement part. Or a ratchet strap that’s stripped. In that parts room, Thule keeps an inventory of every single rack part dating back at least half a decade. Because despite the best efforts of the engineers stuff breaks. Even when you’re “just driving along.”