Shimano’s mission statement is founded on the belief that “we are happier and healthier when we are outdoors enjoying the activities we love.”
Shimano Iron Works was founded in Japan in 1921 with a single lathe and a dream. Their quest for perfection and innovation has never wavered. Shimano has always strived to understand global trends and individual customer needs as they explore new markets and this was the pivotal idea that first drew Mr. Yoshizo Shimano to the U.S.
A New Market
In the early 1960’s more than six million bicycles were sold annually in the U.S., with most production done domestically. The dominant U.S. bicycling companies were Schwinn, Murray Ohio and Muffman.
In the spring of 1965, Yoshi landed in the U.S. to set up a sales office that would later become Shimano American Corporation, their first operational headquarters outside of Japan. Yoshi wanted to be close to the influential and fast-growing U.S. market to observe consumer trends and be in touch with manufacturers. The initial office was in New York City with Yoshi and two associates.
The first order of business was to hang a sign that stated the objective of the new organization. The plaque simply read, “We are here to serve you better.”
A majority of bikes were sold through hardware stores or mass merchants. Sears, Roebucks and Co. alone sold more than one million bikes annually. The concept of independent dealers was just starting.
Nearly 80% of the U.S. demand at that time was for juvenile bikes. The use of bicycling by adults had waned as the automobile became more available to the masses. Kids used bikes as transportation to school, and also as a first taste of freedom and independence. The idea that adults would ride bikes for recreation or sport was just starting to gain traction.
A New Opportunity.
Shimano’s first U.S. contract was to supply components to Columbia Bicycles. Shozo Shimano, Yoshi’s brother and the president of Shimano at the time, set one ground rule – “we will never compromise quality to meet a price point.” After many spirited exchanges, the two companies agreed for Shimano to supply components for 100,000 units per years.
With this new contract in hand, Yoshi moved to the U.S. to act as the president for the sales outpost in the vibrant new market. He would end up staying for the next 27 years.
Yoshi’s Magic Bag.
Yoshi and the other founding member of SHIMANO AMERICAN, Mr. Mitsuharu Hontani, began visiting U.S. -based bicycle companies. Manufacturers appreciated the quality of Shimano’s products, but would comment on the lack of market awareness for the brand. “If you create demand, we will purchase your products” became a common theme.
They quickly realized that to be successful they would have to think differently about how to get customers and consumers to discover the company and its products.
Yoshi packed a “magic bag” of the latest Shimano components and started attending toy fairs since there were no specific bicycle trade shows at the time. With samples and determination, he explained that Shimano’s products could be used with complete confidence. Yoshi would disassemble and reassemble the 3-speed internal hub in front of his audience to assure them of the quality that was at the heart of the Shimano brand.
Listen. Learn. Kr€ate.
Shimano’s promise to listen to the market and react to its demands was about to be put to the test.
In 1965, Shimano had just introduced their first external gear changer. The parallelogram dérailleur was a new concept that was driving sales in Europe and bringing new sport riders into the market. The U.S. market was still dominated by single and 3-speed coaster hubs, mostly on steel-framed street bikes.
The mid-1960s saw the debut of a radically-new kid’s bike concept with a high-riser bar and banana-shaped saddle. The bicycle market was about to change forever.
Since American children were not used to dérailleurs, there was resistance to equipping bikes with the technology. Shimano worked to engineer a product that not only made the shifting system function flawlessly, but that was also fun to use.
Imitating the popularity of sports cars with 4-on-the-floor stick shifting, Shimano introduced a shifter that put kids in the driver’s seat of a new concept in riding.
The idea that shifting should be intuitive and easy was born. The Krate series of Schwinn’s iconic Stingray was launched in 1968, and with it, Shimano’s commitment to listening, learning and innovating was introduced to America.