Coraopolis bicycle clothing venture Aero Tech Designs flourishes
Cathy Schnaubelt Rogers started making biking clothes for herself because big companies didn't make them for female cyclists.
That motivation led to her first business venture, Schnaubelt Shorts, which folded in 1992 because of what she called a faulty business model.
“We manufactured other brands, instead of our own brands, and there were a lot of price pressures to produce at a lower price,” said Rogers, 56, of Moon, who laid off 53 employees and became a teacher. “We couldn't make a profit.”
Returning to her initial mission of making everyone comfortable on a bike — from professional racers to folks putting on Spandex for the first time — Rogers restarted the sewing machines at her Coraopolis warehouse nine years ago. The new company, Aero Tech Designs, makes a growing line of biking apparel up to size 5XL and sells it online and in a storefront that opened on Fourth Avenue two years ago.
“We are an actual factory that manufactures a product right here in town,” said Rogers, whose 38 employees at Aero Tech include her sons, Ted and Ben. “Customers appreciate that.”
In five years, the company has grown from 15 employees and doubled its sales, said Ted Rogers, 28, of the North Side, director of operations. He declined to give specific figures because Aero Tech is a private company but said sales growth averaged 17 percent annually during the past five years. Two years ago, Aero Tech expanded to a second warehouse across Fourth Avenue, from which it ships 1,200 to 1,500 packages a week.
“Sometimes it seems like we're not in control, it's all happening so fast,” he said after a tour of the warehouses, storefront and production and design spaces.
“It's a lot of fun working like this,” said his childhood friend, Steve Ewing, 29, of Coraopolis, Aero Tech's marketing director.
The most recent growth includes a division formed in the past month to design, print and produce specialty apparel for companies and other groups, such as trail groups and bike shops. Last week, Ben Rogers and fellow employees worked with a high-end sublimation printer to put designs and logos on riding jerseys for Thick Bikes, a retail store and shop in the South Side.
“It's nice to deal with someone local, and we've heard good things about them,” said Thick Bikes owner Chris Beech. “The samples show some great detail. We're really excited.”
Aero Tech wants to tap into the local biking community, which has grown in the past decade with interest in regional trails and more bike commuting.
“We're lucky to have Aero Tech here. It's uncommon for bike gear to be made here in the U.S., and I think it's inspiring that Cathy and her team are doing it successfully in Pittsburgh,” said Scott Bricker, executive director of the advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, for which Cathy Rogers serves on the board of directors.
He noted that Aero Tech sewed and screen-printed special bags that will be handed out on Friday during Bike to Work Day activities in the city.
“It's clear they understand the value of the work we do and want to support it,” Bricker said.
Since finding initial success online, Cathy Rogers said she's focused on “the metric of returning customers.”
“We listen to what they need and want,” she said, which includes making minor changes that she called “lefts and rights” to popular products. “Our direction comes from our customers.”
In a bright area on the first floor of the original building on Fourth, Naomi Sasaki-Whalen and two designers use that direction to create prototypes on computers and with fabrics. Upstairs, a crew of 15 to 18 seamstresses pieces together high-tech fabrics, special padding and elastics based on the designers' recipes. All cuts and stitches are done with an eye to lean manufacturing, producing little waste.
Down the hall, Evan Moran, 40, designs logos and marketing materials, and photographs items for the website. He and others try on apparel such as compression socks.
“All the guys are into cycling. We all help each other out here,” he said.
In the new warehouse, a longtime employee cuts patterns near a room holding three printers that arrived in the past month. Aero Tech is working with 3M to get reflective ink — crucial for bicyclists' safety — with uniform glass beads for screen-printing.
“The opportunities are endless here right now,” Ted Rogers said.
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com.