Its headquarters may look like those of a local startup, but messenger-bag manufacturer Timbuk2 is not a newcomer. Its 22-year history started in the Mission and the company continues to have a presence here, but most of its production moved to Asia in 2003. For many years, the choice of whether to buy the locally made product has been up to the customer.
The strategy has worked. Every year, thousands of people and companies happily buy one of the 60,000 locally produced, custom-made bags at a price that can easily exceed $100.
These 60,000 bags represent about 25 percent of the company’s total revenue. They are made at its 583 Shotwell St. headquarters, where marketing, design, customer service and the financial operations are also housed.
Although the company’s overseas production is a sensitive topic, Chief Operating Officer Tony Meneghetti said that in this case it’s a matter of choice — to let customers decide if they want to pay for a personalized local bag or opt for the more affordable standard imported bag.
“We have to be competitive to the price,” he said. Materials are the same, but if produced locally, the made-in-Asia products would cost around $30 or $40 more, he said. “Nobody would buy them.”
“If you don’t do both, you can’t grow and you remain a small business,” added online marketing manager Lizzy Fallows, who pointed out that the company’s growth also allows it to hire more employees in the San Francisco office.
Having a strong manufacturing presence here, company officials said, has always been a priority for Timbuk2. It’s where they manufacture the customized products that customers design on their website or in the retail store.
“No, we have never considered moving it to Asia,” Fallows said. Despite the higher cost, producing these bags locally has advantages. It allows the company to manufacture small quantities, to innovate and to test new designs. It also means they can fix mistakes easily and deliver faster.
“Other companies manufacture custom products in Asia, too, and it takes weeks to deliver them,” she said. Timbuk2 custom bags are shipped just two or three days after they are purchased online, or on the same day if the sale was made through the retail store.
“We are proud that we can make this,” Meneghetti said. “We are one of the only companies in the United States sewing bags here.”
Before moving into the building on Shotwell two years ago, the company worked out of a space at 16th and Alabama streets.
“It was important for us to stay in the Mission, so we were very lucky to find a space that combined manufacturing and office space in one building, on one floor with great natural light and facilities,” Fallows said. A loft with a handrail overlooks the rest of the space, providing an extra level that’s integrated with the ground floor, which makes for “clearer, faster, better communication and a more unified feeling as a team.”
The size of the manufacturing area did not change, Fallows said, but the move allowed them to reduce unused warehouse and raw materials storage space by 40 percent.
And the company keeps growing.
In the last few years, the percentage of total production made in San Francisco has remained stable, while overall production has grown and new designs come online every year. “We’re doing more of both,” Fallows said.
Inside the San Francisco Factory
By 10 a.m., the factory — separated from the office by a door — fills with the sounds of lively conversations in Chinese, music from a small radio and sewing machines stitching bags. A LinkedIn logo stands out on a half-made messenger-bag.
Rice is cooking in the kitchen on the second floor and below are some 20 workers. Chinese magazines lie on the kitchen table.
The manufacturing workers are paid competitive wages along with “full and comprehensive health care benefits, company-funded dental and vision plans, a company-matched retirement program, paid vacation, commuter benefits, tuition reimbursement and a company bonus program,” said Meneghetti, who declined to give an exact wage amount.
The process itself begins when the fabric arrives at the tables — distributed in two different units to produce two bags at the same time — and ends when the bags are ready for delivery.
A machine with colorful thread rolls embroiders the logo. The workers sew the pieces together carefully, cutting the excess material with scissors. In the end, the bag stands inside out and has to be turned out manually before it is ready to be shipped.
Several white wide-brimmed hats adorn the spaces between the tables. Hui Wu, who has been working at the company for 14 years and whose photograph hangs in a big promotional sign on the ceiling, explained that sunlight shining through the glass windows in the wood ceiling used to bother the workers.
Some fabric covers the windows now, but it is likely to be replaced by a better solution, Fallows said during a tour around the headquarters. One that she hopes will be developed by a local company.
A Local and Biking Culture
Supporting local vendors and manufacturers, she insisted, is important for Timbuk2. Indeed, Mighty Leaf tea, Ritual coffee and Bi-Rite food fill the kitchen. The sign on the building’s facade was made by Arc Metalworks, and the bike racks in the office by metalworker Alan from Almost Scientific, she said.
The company’s other hallmark is clearly its biking culture. Timbuk2 — called Scumbags during its first year — was created in 1989 by Rob Honeycutt, a San Francisco bicycle messenger. Although the company now produces laptop cases, suitcases and backpacks as well, its emblem is still the bike messenger bag.
Despite the numerous racks in the entrance to the office, several bikes remain on the floor. The envelopes where the orders are delivered are biking maps of the city of San Francisco, and the headquarters has a shower for folks like CEO Mike Wallenfels, who rides 30 miles from Novato to get to work.
Employees are fans of the company’s products.
“I got my bag 10 years ago and I still use it. I didn’t know I would work here,” Fallows said just before displaying the different fabrics, such as the ballistic nylon, which is the “bread and butter of the business.”
It’s all very homey.
On the lower floor, also surrounded by bags, Wallenfels and sales representative Dominique Schwartz discussed the pros and cons of the new products. Finance operations employees joke nearby, and upstairs, Lita, the little dog belonging to customer service representative Heather Stockwell-Ferreira, rests in an old Timbuk2 suitcase converted into a tiny bed.