A Simple Quaker Business

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Photo by Rick Seifert (2014). Ilsa Rowntree beside a row of Ilsabikes.The rain has swept in from the Pacific, drenching bike-crazy Portland’s inner eastside industrial district. A rainbow arches over the airy Islabikes warehouse, where twenty-six-year-old Tim Goodall assembles and sells children’s bikes. It’s the British company’s only outlet in the United States.

Founded and owned by Isla Rowntree, a Quaker, Islabikes is a British company that specializes in children’s bikes in an array of sizes to fit growing children. You pay more for Islabikes, but the money gets you a lightweight bike, ergonomically designed for kids, and equipped with quality components, such as light-action brakes. Isla founded the company eight years ago, when she learned that her sister and friends were having trouble finding quality bikes for their children, especially bikes that didn’t have problems with their brakes. The smallest model Islabike is sized for two-year-olds and sells for $190. The twelve subsequent sizes top out at $700 for a model built for fourteen-year-olds.

Like most bikes today, the components are manufactured and partially assembled in Asia (in this case, in Vietnam), then shipped to the Islabike facility in cardboard crates. Tim says Vietnamese manufacturing makes the bikes more affordable for more people. He has visited the manufacturing plant in Vietnam many times and likens the working conditions there to those at responsible firms in the West. With time, Tim says, manufacturing will return to the West as wealth is redistributed around the globe.

The 5,200-square-foot Islabikes space is situated just a half block from Portland’s next light-rail line (set to open in 2015) and three blocks from the city’s newest bridge, which will carry trains, pedestrians and, of course, bikes. Trucks and cars will be prohibited.

Tim and Isla met as members of a bicycling club. Both are accomplished, competitive cyclists, but Tim is quick to exclaim, “Isla is far more than I am.” Tim was first person Isla hired in 2006; she now employs thirty people.

Like Isla, Tim is a Quaker. The two of them readily explain how Friends’ values infuse Islabike’s ethos. “A bicycle by its very nature is simple,” says Tim, “and speaks closely to the testimony of simplicity.” Isla goes further to explain that simplicity is linked to integrity. Her way of doing business is to keep contracts simple. “Complexity is a way to dupe somebody,” she says.

Integrity also means “delivering on your promises to employees, suppliers, and customers” says Isla. For example, Islabikes strives for “a balance between running a profitable business and ensuring that the personal needs of employees are met.” The company’s package of benefits includes good health-care plans, generous annual vacations, and paid sick leave. Tim adds, “We have high expectations, reward good work, and nurture those whose potential is not being fulfilled.”

Isla believes that most business people act with integrity. She doesn’t negotiate on prices. “I trust suppliers in giving me the best price.” She doesn’t give discounts to customers either. “I don’t mind their asking, but we don’t negotiate on price because someone else will have to pay more to make up for it.” She finds that trust is built with strong relationships.

Community is another Quaker testimony that guides Islabikes. For Tim, community is linked to the Peace testimony through open, inclusive communication. One-on-one meetings are common at Islabikes. “It’s vital for everyone to be heard,” he says.

Islabikes seeks a community bond with its employees and customers, too. “Our aim is to become a resource for family cycling – beyond just the bicycles,” says Tim. “By becoming a respected voice, we can help build stronger communities where children share experiences on bikes and encourage others, too.”

Born into a far-removed branch of a long-standing Quaker family (which made the name “Rowntree” famous in chocolate), Isla holds Quaker values instilled in her by non-Quaker parents. The active Quakers in her family were her paternal grandparents. Isla joined the Religious Society of Friends just a few years ago, after discovering, “I could share things with Quakers. Things that were already in my head.”

However, Isla also found, “Most Quakers are in the ‘nurturing professions.’ Business people are ‘different.’ . . . Quakers don’t encourage their children to go into business.” This uneasy fit between Quaker culture and business culture is something that Isla actually appreciates. “You can’t be a perfect Quaker in business.  . . .  [But Quakers] led me to think how can I do it better.” For example, she worries about “shipping goods halfway around the world. You do the best you can. When the opportunity presents itself, you change.”

Islabikes is a business that is growing through good reviews – in the bicycling press and by word-of-mouth. Most of its sales are online. Letting the business “speak for itself” means letting customers proclaim Islabike’s virtues, which Tim lists as “intelligent design, exceptional quality, and first-class customer service.  . . . If we deliver these,” he adds, “word will spread.” Providing great products and service to customers is also a way that Tim can follow the biblical advice his father often repeated to him growing up – the familiar words from Mark: “Treat thy neighbor as thyself.” ~~~

Rick Seifert has been a Quaker for more than fifty years. He's the past clerk of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, OR; a co-leader of Quaker Quest workshops, and is on the board of Western Friend. Recently he helped found a new worship group in his Hillsdale neighborhood in Portland.