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Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

SELLING OUT

Thule's long ride to buy Chariot Carriers Add to ...

Although he insists there was no “courtship,” Mr. Welander and Thule management spent about six months flying between Sweden and Calgary to have “chats” with the Chariot team. Thule is no stranger to acquiring companies, having bought 12 since 2004.

Like Chariot Carriers, the Thule Group comes from humble beginnings. In 1942, Erik Thulin started selling pike traps in Sweden. Then, his company, Metallfabriken Thule, launched its first car-related product, a headlamp grille, in 1955, followed by a rooftop ski rack in 1962. It now has about 3,100 employees at more than 50 production facilities and sales offices worldwide, and sales of 5.7-billion Swedish krona, or $880-million (Canadian).

Another meeting was held in December, 2010, but Dan Britton wasn't ready to commit. Finally, in the spring of 2011, meetings intensified. After working out principles – Thule's vision for Chariot Carriers and plans for the brand; its intention to keep the company in Calgary, with Dan staying on as director of innovation – a deal was signed on May 31, 2011, handing over complete control to the Thule Group. (The parties have agreed not to disclose the sale price.)

For the Brittons, with 20 years of hard work behind them and with assurances that the company they built up would live on, the time had come. “It was really getting to know them [Thule]and hearing their vision of what they could do for our brand and how well they had researched and understood our category, and the alignment with what we wanted the brand to become,” Dan Britton says.

“It's been a grind for me and Chris. We're not old guys yet, but we're on our way – and you bring that in, and [selling]starts getting enticing.”

Getting to the point where the brothers could cash in on Dan's university pipe dream, however, was never a sure thing. After working on the product for two years, in 1993, Chariot Carriers hired sales reps in Alberta and Quebec (a province with a healthy biking market) and sold 400 carriers.

“Sales went really well that first year, but nothing really else did,” says Dan Britton. “We were late, we had delivery problems, quality problems – all sorts of things – so we lost money.”

When breaking even that first year didn't happen, Mr. Britton had to rethink things. And that's when the idea of bringing on his older brother, Chris, an aircraft mechanic at Canadian Airlines, came to mind. Not only did he have a machinery background, Chris was also a people person, says Mr. Britton, who hoped that combination would work well in terms of hiring manufacturing workers and refining the product. It did.

A father of four, Chris asked the airline for a one-year leave and officially joined as Chariot's vice-president of manufacturing in September, 1993. With Chris on board, Chariot took more control over manufacturing by bringing sewing in-house, buying a hydraulic tube bender and working with Apel Extruders, a Calgary company that provided tubes. The focus also shifted to creating a stronger company culture by team-building and involving staff as much as possible in the process.

Later that year, Chariot hired commissioned sales reps in all provinces and leased a new facility in Calgary, where manufacturing could be done on a larger scale; by the end of 1994, about 3,500 Chariot Carriers were being sold annually across Canada. In 1996, Chariot – whose only models to that point had been a bicycle trailer and a jogging carrier with three large wheels – came out with the VersaWing hitch arm attachment, which was a more user-friendly way for a carrier to be utilized for multiple activities.

As the Canadian market expanded rapidly, the brothers looked south for new customers. When Chariot entered the U.S. market in 1996, it wasn't under its own brand name but as the private-label manufacturer for other brands.

Initially, Chariot teamed up with BelSport, but because that organization started to have financial difficulties, Chariot moved on to Trek, selling models with the identical frame and similar design as Chariot's but in different colour schemes.

In 1998, the company developed another product, for Schwinn for its U.S. market. “We were able to learn about the market, our products were able to get volume again so we could still grow in manufacturing and the rest,” Dan Britton says.

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