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Who needs gas?

Minot retiree starts business selling electric bikes

June 2, 2008
DAN FELDNER, Staff Writer dfeldner@minotdailynews.com
What does a 70-year-old man do when he retires?


For most, the answer to that question would probably be spending lazy afternoons at the old fishing hole, playing with the grandkids or easing into a favorite recliner and taking a nap.


Duane Brekke, however, isn’t like most 70-year-olds. When Brekke turned 70 a few weeks ago, he already knew what his answer to that question would be.


“I start a brand new business, and I’m excited about it,” Brekke said.


The former state legislator and Marine spent about 40 years selling school-related items such as rings and most recently was a salesman for Fisher Motors for 10 years. He retired from Fisher Motors last week, only to move on to his next venture, which will officially begin Tuesday. Tuesday will also be Brekke’s 46th wedding anniversary with his wife, Jeanne, so it promises to be a busy day.


At an age when most men are probably slowing down a little, Brekke is just getting started on his new business, Electraped, which sells Wentz electric bicycles. Currently, his dealership is in the Alan Kurth building across from Roosevelt Park Zoo.


With gas prices only getting higher, Brekke believes electric bikes are poised to explode in popularity as an inexpensive alternative to cars for trips around and even out of town.


The idea of selling e-bikes came to Brekke in April and May last year when he was in China on a Minot State University tour set up by JoAnn Linrud, dean of the college of business. Brekke said he saw e-bikes everywhere and ended up buying one for himself.


“I was so impressed that I took three days and we travelled around and I saw 14 different electric bike retailers and manufacturers,” he said. “And I decided then I was going to pursue it.”


There were several reasons Brekke decided to pursue selling e-bikes. Perhaps the most important was the progression of battery technology that makes riding an e-bike practical. An e-mail in August of last year informed Brekke that battery capacity and range had been increased by 40 percent.


“That is the most significant thing ... that you could ride a bike, instead of 14, 16 miles, now you can ride all the way to Max on a charge,” Brekke said.


The new intermodal facility in Minot also factored heavily into Brekke’s thinking. Instead of going through eight different locations, the e-bikes will be shipped from Shanghai to Seattle to Minot once the intermodal facility is running.


Cheap warehousing prices in Minot and the soaring price of oil are other factors that led Brekke to start Electraped.


The bikes themselves are the same basic German design used by most bikes today, according to Brekke, with just a few additions. Much like a hybrid car, Wentz e-bikes have an electric motor that provides propulsion. A rider simply has to insert a key into the ignition, turn on the battery and take a few quick pedals to get the motor going. After that, no more pedaling is required and the rider can simply sit back and enjoy the ride. A motorcycle-style twist throttle on the right handgrip provides acceleration while disc brakes provide stopping power.


The e-bikes can of course be pedaled like a regular bike if the battery runs down or the rider simply wants to get some exercise. Brekke noted that pedaling will not charge the battery, however.


There are eight models of e-bikes to choose from, all named after Brekke’s grandchildren, and each model includes safety features such as a light and horn. The Wentz name for the e-bikes also came from Brekke’s grandchildren.


The top speed on most models is around 15 mph, and the range on a single charge varies from 12 miles up to 28 miles, again depending on the model. The battery is easily removable and can be fully charged from a standard household outlet in five or six hours. Brekke noted that the batteries have no memory effect, so charging a battery that isn’t completely discharged will not prematurely shorten its life expectancy.


Warranties vary by model, but are generally up to 90 days, with three months for the electric controller, charger, battery and throttle, and six months for the hub motor.


The craftsmanship of the bikes is something Brekke takes particular pride in. He says the bikes are built just like a John Deere tractor, and in the event there is a problem with a bike, he has three technicians on retainer and is fully stocked on parts to make sure the issue is taken care of quickly and efficiently.


“What I’m proudest of is the quality of the bike,” Brekke said. “Of the 14 different brands I looked at, this is by far the best quality.”


Initially, Brekke wasn’t going to be opening his own dealership at all. He had planned to do all the selling over the Internet on his Web site, but his warehouse space became full and he needed a place to put an upcoming shipment. Brekke is friends with Alan Kurth, and Kurth gave him use of the building throughout the summer.


“Because of that I altered my initial idea, and I’m going to be in the retail business for about 90 days,” Brekke said. “After that, I will set up a distributor in Minot other than myself.”


He isn’t limiting his presence to just the Magic City, however. Along with his Internet business, Brekke plans to have dealers throughout the United States. Currently, his plans are to have stores selling Wentz e-bikes in 40 to 45 states within three years, in all 48 states and three Canadian provinces in five years, and his long-range goal if they can hit their sales targets is to move manufacturing from China to Minot in 10 years.


“We have lofty goals, and if we hit them, we would manufacture here,” he said. “That’s something that would be really a crown jewel.”


To help protect his dealers losing potential sales to the online store, Brekke has a system in place that will give dealers a commission if an e-bike is sold over the Internet to someone in their area. He says this is an important part of his business plan that will encourage dealers to take a chance on his e-bikes without worry of their sales being cannibalized.


Although he’s knowledgeable when it comes to business, the intricacies of selling over the Internet are still new to him. This is why one of the five employees he’s hired is Brian Walz, a senior at MSU who serves as president of the company. It was Walz’s knowledge of the online space and ability to get things done that convinced Brekke the 22-year-old was the right man for the job.


“I think I should rename him “No Problem,” because every time I ask him to do something, he says, ‘No problem,’ and he does it,” Brekke said. “The guy is that good.”


They are currently working on getting the company’s Web site, (www.electraped.com), up and running. The business can also be reached by phone at 852-2453.


While college students and young, environmentally conscious people are two important audiences for the e-bikes, Brekke also believes that older customers might be interested in the Eric, which is a three-wheeled model with baskets on the front and rear that would be perfect for quick trips to the grocery store. Brekke says an environmentally friendly bike that is totally quiet should be of interest to a wide variety of people.


Brekke says he has the same energy now that he did when he was 46, and he’s taking advantage of his good health and vast experience to get Electraped off the ground. Besides, now that he’s 70 and retired, what else is he going to do?


“What do you do when you turn 70? I don’t golf, hunt or fish,” he said. “But I love to develop and I love the challenge.”

Article Photos

Dan Feldner/MDN
Duane Brekke shows how small the folding Charlie model of Wentz electric bicycle can become. While folded the Charlie is 29 inches high, 20 inches wide and 36 inches long, which is small enough to fit in a closet for storage or the trunk of a car for easy transport.

 
 

 

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