eGO CYCLE THE STORY OF AN IDEA FOURTH OF A 4-DAY SERIES
Across the water
An idea that outgrew Alabama prospers in the world's bike capital, but the lure of cheap labor may draw it to mainland China. And back in Fairhope, an inventor is toying with a new idea.
By GEORGE TALBOT
NANTOU, Taiwan - The day begins with a sip of green tea and the theme to the American movie "The Bad News Bears."
The tea, a Taiwanese staple, is served in delicate paper cups to nearly every worker upon arrival at the Kin Sui Cheng Industrial Co. in Nantou, a factory city in the mountainous center of the island. The theme music chirps from Edward Liu's perpetually ringing cell phone.
"Dwaaay," he says, drawling the Chinese word for "yes," answering a call that originated half a world away and 13 hours back in time from eGO Vehicles Inc. President Andrew Kallfelz in Providence, R.I. Liu oversees production of eGO scooters at Kin Sui Cheng, which adopted the more English-friendly name K-Swell soon after establishing its alliance with eGO in early 2002. K-Swell and eGO are separate companies, bound by a contract, but the two work intimately together, the fate of each riding on the success of the battery-powered scooter created by Allen Smith and George Henley in Fairhope, Ala.
K-Swell began assembling scooters for eGO in June 2002, less than six months after Kallfelz and his partner, Jim Hamann, had a contentious split with Smith and shut down eGO's workshop in Fairhope. The scooters were temporarily produced in Providence while Liu, who had already been recruited as eGO's parts supplier, and Kallfelz scrambled to set up the Taiwanese factory.
"Ideally, we would have made one smooth transition from Fairhope straight to Taiwan," Kallfelz said. "The way things happened, we had to improvise."
Improvisation, fortunately, is a sort of national pastime in Taiwan, a rocky, typhoon-swept island that has built itself by sheer initiative into one of the world's most powerful economies.
Liu got the money needed to get the plant up and running from Liao Shu-Chin, a Nantou mushroom farmer who invested much of his family's savings in K-Swell. The company leased a building, hired a team of workers and built an assembly line, all in a matter of weeks.
But with the factory's production steadily increasing, Liu's challenge will be to keep it here.
Already, the same forces that carried eGO to Taiwan from America - cheaper labor and proximity to parts suppliers - are conspiring to move the factory yet again. Jobs that pay $5 an hour on the island pay 60 cents an hour in mainland China, drawing droves of manufacturers.