BEHIND THE SCENES WITH RENTHAL’S SHAWN NORFOLK
Scheduling off-site interviews and meetings with professional riders is a difficult task. With fame and importance come rock star status and a schedule that’s filled up worse than seating for a new Star Wars movie. Fortunately, the nine to five people who hold down desk jobs at ATV companies throughout southern California don’t consider themselves famous. Instead, they supply products to the rock stars and reap the rewards.
Dirt Wheels is beginning weekly installments of ‘Behind the Scenes,’ where we will look into various ATV companies and behemoths of the industry. This week we investigate Renthal America and talk to Shawn Norfolk, who just so happens to be Renthal’s Brand Manager.
What is the complete history of Renthal?
How long is this tape [laughter]? Renthal is owned by Andrew Renshaw and Henry Rosenthal, and the two grew up in school together. That’s where the name Renthal came from, Rosenthal and Renshaw. You see, Rosenshaw doesn’t fit on a bar pad so they went with Renthal [laughter]. They each own 50% of the company; it’s a partnership if you will. Henry worked at Martin Lampkin’s farm so he could actually afford to ride trials on the farm. Martin’s son Doug Lampkin was the world champion trials rider and Henry worked on the farm so he could ride for free whenever he wanted on the property.
His folks had a metal manipulation company and they had some leftover aluminum tubing from World War II airplanes. Well Henry broke his handlebars and wanted to make a set of bars out of the aluminum because he didn’t have any money. His folks said sure, so he whittled out his own set of handlebars. Lampkin saw him using the bars and he wanted to use them as well. How’s that for your first sponsorship having a world champion ride with your bars? People wanted what Martin was using and Henry had unlimited amounts of this leftover aluminum tubing because there wasn’t a war anymore so they started making handlebars. That’s the nuts and bolts of the story.
Now we have two buildings in England and distribution in 23 countries. We’re the number one handlebar, sprocket, and grip in America. It’s odd that a European company is number one in ATV products, but Alpinestars has done it as well. It’s tough for European companies to be number one in America. But like I said, that’s kind of where Renthal started. Now every major race team uses Renthal products. Our focus is racing. We’re all about racing and having the best products, service, and race teams to legitimize the products.
How did the company change after the major production facility burned in 2000?
Nothing changed, other than the fact that we couldn’t make anything. Luckily we had a few containers get on the water leaving England to come to America a week before the fire. That product was enough to get us through three or four months. Meanwhile, Henry and Andrew were left scrambling trying to figure out what they were going to do. In fact, the only thing that didn’t burn were the bricks. The steel reinforcements melted and the machines were destroyed.
The two found some places through friends that work on Roles Royce airplane engines and they had some extra space that could be rented out. Then Rosenthal and Renshaw bought some machines and had them air freighted in. Within 45 days they were making 70% of the products that they were making before, which is completely unbelievable. Air freighting a machine that weighs 20,000 pounds from Japan was amazing, but it was either do that or fold up shop. Even our competitors offered a helping hand. We needed help and everyone was offering.
One of the funnier stories is in regards to the laser etching of the grid and the Renthal name into our handlebars. We had purchased a laser-etching machine, with a price tag of $100,000, about a month before the fire. There was the fire and so we immediately ordered another laser etching machine. This company was going, ‘Man, these guys bought two of these machines. They’ve become a pretty good customer within the past two months!’ The only problem was that the company had to build the machine. Yet suddenly because we had a nice status with that company, they let us use their laser-etching machine that they had in their showroom. The company had used the machine to show people who visited how the laser machine would work, but they also let us use it.
We would make handlebars, stack them into a van, two guys would drive up the road to the company that was building the machine that we weren’t going to have for another month or two. But the company would close at 5 p.m., hand us the keys to the shop, and we would use their showroom machine from 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. in the morning. Then they’d load everything back in the van, stay the night at the Holiday Inn down the street, and then drive back to England so they could put them in boxes and have them shipped.
That’s how much drama was involved with getting a handlebar on a boat to sit over here in a dealership in the U.S. It was either, do that or deal with the repercussions of not doing it. Every Renthal distributor pitched in and it was a gelling of the Renthal family. We rallied the troops and had the product sitting on the shelves over here. By the time we were getting low on product and our distributors were running out of products we had a couple containers show up.
The products were complete losses for Renthal U.K. because of the amount of money it took to make this stuff, but we were able to keep our market share. Also, the consumers were able to still purchase Renthal products. Really, for the consumer, it was almost like we didn’t have a fire – but we did.
How long have you been working at Renthal and how did you get the job?
I’ve been working here since January 5th, 1998. I got the job was because the guys at AXO wanted to have Brand Managers for each three brands – Renthal, AXO, and Mechanix Wear. Everybody was working for all three companies, so they wanted to separate and focus on each company by having a Brand Manager. I was called and interviewed for the job. Luckily I got the job and ever since then it’s been a match made in heaven.
Everything’s been hitting on all eight cylinders, and as a matter of fact we’ve upgraded to ten cylinders and have been hitting on all ten cylinders [laughing]. Things have been absolutely wonderful ever since the first day I started working here.
What do you typically do in a day?
I talk to guys from Dirt Wheels [laughter]. I answer tons of emails and I get tons of emails, but I don’t think that’s the question you’re asking me. Basically as the Brand Manager I’m ultimately responsible for the brand – Renthal in America. The gray area that comes in is when we market for the entire globe, so all the advertisements that we do are available for all of the Renthal distributors worldwide to use as well. We put them on the FTP site (note: File Transfer Protocol, or using a system whereby multiple users can download the exact same file). That’s where the job is more on the global side of things and not just American.
I’m ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the brand. If we succeed then I get to pat myself on the back. If we don’t, it’s all my fault. I’m not responsible for everything that goes wrong, but I’m completely accountable. For example, if we don’t have product for the race teams, if we don’t have the right riders or race teams, if we’re not hitting sales goals, if we don’t have the right distribution network…any problems that you could see I have to make sure get fixed. The running of the business, the profitability, making sure the bills get paid…I’m just responsible for the brand. I have to make sure that I have the right team and staff to get the job done. From payroll to paying the bills to making sure the carpet cleaning guy comes in to having the right product to working with the U.K. to develop new products. I also have to make sure that test sessions are set up with the race teams, everything from A to Z. I don’t do it all myself, but it’s up to me to make sure that everything’s getting done.
How many races do you attend each year?
I attend…one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…[pause] about 10 races a year, and that’s including the Motocross Des Nations. Somebody from Renthal is at every race until the outdoor Nationals, and then we’re at about one-third of the Nationals. We do have the Active8 Racing truck at every National, which are Brian Berry and John Franco. They are our eyes and ears at the track and have product there for all of the racers. We get marketing reports from those guys counting how many of our guys who are on the gate, including factory guys and privateers. Those guys go to all of the supercrosses too, but someone from Renthal America attends every supercross as well.
I go to most of the races that I can drive to or won’t have to fly that far to get to. I stick mainly on the west coast, but I’ll do an east coast race here or there and I go to the MXDN.
What advice do you have for someone aspiring to work in the ATV industry?
[Pause] First, you have to have passion and drive for ATV’s and the industry. Without that drive and passion you’re not going to be happy with how little money you make and how many hours you have to work. When you come into this industry you’re going to work more hours than you thought and make less than you thought you were going to make. Your drive and passion are the only things that are going to keep you around through that tough time.
When I moved to California from Maryland, I took a 50% pay cut and I pretty much lived on credit cards the first two years that I was out here. It was a culture shock to me. I was a hillbilly from Maryland and my house payment in Maryland was $590 a month, and it was on an acre of land. Out here I was renting a single bedroom apartment for $795 with no garage, took a 50% pay cut, and I was the Top Ramen/tuna fish king of the world. That stuff was all that I ate. Shoot, It’s all I could afford to eat. But this is what I wanted to do and I knew that I had to be in California in order to do it. That’s why I made the move, and I got through it. I met my wife through moving out here and I have a beautiful family and two children because I did it. The reality is that I owe it all to motocross. If I didn’t make that move then I wouldn’t have the family I have, I wouldn’t have this job, and I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. It was because I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t as much glory as I initially thought there’d be in it. I would think, ‘Oh man, I’m going to work in the ATV and motocross industries!’ I had no idea that I wasn’t going to make any money. I thought to myself, ‘How could that happen? It’s ATV’s and motorcycles.’ You know what I mean?
My advice is that you’re going to have to struggle. There aren’t many jobs because the industry is a nice small knit community where everybody knows everybody else. Our industry has grown, but most jobs come from within. I was lucky to become the Brand Manager of Renthal because I was hired from the outside. It wasn’t like I was somebody who moved up the ladder from within, which was kind of odd. There are plenty of people who could have had that job, but I was blessed I guess to get the job.
Skip Norfolk, my brother, was Jeremy McGrath’s mechanic forever. Well, I broke my wrist riding a Z50 and I had been working for Coca-Cola in Maryland at the time. They put me on disability and wouldn’t even let me come in and answer phones because I was high risk and they didn’t want to have to pay me workman’s comp if I was working and something happened to my wrist. So they just said, ‘You’re on disability and you can’t come to work for three months.’ They wouldn’t even let me answer phones. Skip told me that I should go on the road with him.
At that time, everyone was driving box vans and my brother wanted me to help him with driving on the road. So I decided to do it and I met him at the High Point National in March. Jeremy was riding 125 Nationals that year, but 250 supercrosses as well. At the time the schedules intermingled between Nationals and supercrosses. Skip had to drive from Mt. Morris to San Jose, California that year. We’d leave Sunday night after the race and had to be there at San Jose for practice on Friday, but Jeremy had to do press day on Thursday. Skip had a muddy 125 that he had built the week before the National, but he also had to build a 250 for the following weekend. The point is, you can’t drive to San Jose that quickly.
So all the mechanics – Marshall Plum (Brian Swink’s mechanic), Ron Heben (Steve Lamson’s mechanic), Pete Steinbrecker, Wyatt Seals (Jeff Stanton’s mechanic) – we all drove together. You’d sleep in the back of the box van until the van needed gas. Then you’d wake up and just rotate seats. We left Sunday night at midnight and we were into Nevada on Tuesday morning. It was non-stop 80 M.P.H. across the country and it was six box vans barreling across the country because everyone had to be there for press day.
That weekend in San Jose I met Bob Rathkamp from Sinisalo, and Sinisalo was sponsoring McGrath that year. Bob happened to come up to the track and we got to talking and he said that he needed someone and whether I would think about it. I seriously thought about it while I was on the road for a few more weeks. When I got back to Maryland, I flew back out and met with Bob. He offered me a job in sales for Sinisalo and I decided to take it. That was the summer of 1993 and I moved out to California in October of 1993. It’s funny because my first day back to work at Coca-Cola after being off for three months I gave them my two weeks notice and told them that I was moving to California [laughter]. That was it, and that’s how I ended up getting here.
Through my amateur years of racing I met a lot of people when I was riding for Team Green. Through the people that you know and the people that you talk to, if you ask the right questions to the right people then you can get somewhere. Luckily my mom and dad had a motorcycle dealership, we grew up racing, and we went to Loretta Lynn’s every year. The group of people we knew was expanding more and more, so I was asking questions to people that could help me. They would talk to different people and it lucked out that I happened to be in San Jose and Bob Rathkamp happened to be there where we could talk.
I don’t think for a second that he thought I would come out and take the job. For all I know he might have been joking! I did it though and I came out here. Top Ramen, ten for a dollar and I’d eat those at lunch and I’d have tuna fish at night.
So you caught some good breaks, but what about someone who is just getting started in the industry?
I would suggest asking questions to people at races. If you’re in your local area or there’s a Loretta Lynn’s regional qualifier and some fast kids show up, they might need a mechanic when they turn pro. They might be sponsored by companies that need people. If you’re not willing to ask or talk to them, it won’t work.
You could also simply being skilled enough to have a resume where somebody would be willing to hire you. You have to put the time in and prove that you have the passion and drive, and then you’ll get to wherever you want to go. Sorry for the long answer [laughter].