Katelynn Kozlowski wearing a hot pink “wheels to surf” t-shirt and a big grin pedaled her matching tricycle up a gravel road accompanied by about 70 of her friends. Kozlowski struggles with balance issues due to a traumatic brain injury, but on her new Worksman cycle, she was riding high.
Wayne Sosin wants a billboard as people come into Conway that reads, “Conway S.C., Home of America’s Oldest Bicycle Manufacturer.”
That honor is a point of pride for Sosin, the president of Worksman Cycles, and he believes it should be trumpeted in a community that is seeking more manufacturing jobs.
“That’ll create an image for Conway. That’s a claim, a pretty cool claim to be able to make,” he said.
Tucked away in a nondescript warehouse off Bulk Plant Road, about 50 trades people are steadily building industrial bicycles and tricycles that are being used in plants and factories all over the world, and have been since 1898.
The storied history of Worksman Cycles
In 1898, Morris Worksman owned a dry-good shop in lower Manhattan at what would eventually become the site of the World Trade Center. He had just started selling chain-driven bicycles which were relatively new in the United States.
Watching New York vendors selling their wares from carts that were pushed by hand or pulled by horses, he recognized a new use for the vehicles. Worksman patented the first three-wheeled delivery cycle.
Worksman moved to a production facility in Brooklyn and started making cabinets that could be mounted on the back of the tricycles, including an insulated box for ice deliveries.
His little business was doing well selling delivery cycles locally to ice cream vendors who were beginning to sell their frozen treats from the bicycle-mounted coolers when Worksman got his first big break. His invention caught the attention of a new startup company called the Good Humour Ice Cream Co. that would eventually become a top-selling brand in all the major U.S. cities.
“The rest is history,” said Sosin. “They bought a lot of ice cream tricycles and it was the first time that Worksman Cycles started shipping all over the country to Good Humour destinations.”
The next big benchmark in evolution of Worksman Cycles came during war production years of the 1940s when a second generation son went into the Air Force and worked as an engineer in a Boeing aircraft plant in the Midwest. Recognizing the need to move tools and parts more efficiently across the expansive facility, he had one of their tricycles shipped to Boeing.
Now, Worksman’s primary business is producing industrial grade bicycles and tricycles to major manufacturing and warehouse facilities, including Boeing, General Motors, Tesla and Amazon distribution centers.
Worksman Cycles are also exported worldwide to industrial complexes in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Australia and other countries. Sosin said oil refineries and petrochemical plants are significant users of the theirindustrial cycles.
Why Worksman stayed in the U.S. while others went overseas
In the late 1980s and ‘90s, most of the legacy bicycle manufacturers moved overseas to China and Taiwan, but not Worksman.
“I was so committed to staying in the United States that for a while Worksman was the laughing stock of the bike industry,” Sosin said.
“I said I actually believe in the American workers. I believe in what we’re doing,” he recalled telling skeptics. “We’re more of a niche business and I think our customers, if you think of who our customers are, appreciate the fact that it’s made here. So we’ll take our chances.”
Sosin said most of those legacy bicycle companies that left the United States are gone now but Worksman has survived. He credits the their continued success on the niche role his cycles fill within the manufacturing industries and his customer’s demand for the highest quality product.
“The American manufacturers that remained had to become more lean and instead of putting people on expensive golf carts…they could buy a tricycle for $800 that did the same thing and require less maintenance,” he said.
Sosin admits maintaining business in the U.S. has been challenging - many of their suppliers for parts like wheel rims, tires and pedals moved overseas and that maintaining good relationships with Asian manufacturers has been crucial.
“Our customers are appreciative of the kind of quality we are giving them so they are willing to pay the prices that we charge and at the end of the day when you consider freight cost and everything else coming from overseas we were able to maintain a competitive pricing structure anyway,” he said.
The move from New York City to Conway, S.C.
Worksman Cycles factory was located for more than 100 years in a multi-story building in New York City. But the challenges of operating a factory - moving parts between three floors, traffic congestion that affected trucking, and New York’s rising costs of living and doing business - made him consider a move.
Frustrated with the city’s business policies, Sosin recalls being quoted in local papers saying something like “New York City obviously doesn’t appreciate the 55 to 60 jobs we’ve had here for over a 100 years and doesn’t support it’s own companies.”
Calls began to come in from city leaders all over the country offering to host the business. One of those calls was from the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.
Sosin had been to Myrtle Beach many times on golf trips with friends but until that trip in 2015, he hadn’t considered the area for his manufacturing facility. “Because when you come here on your golf trips and vacation, you don’t see where people really live and what life is like,” he said, “and I really immediately fell in love with the area.”
Now, all of the manufacturing of bicycles and tricycles - from the welding of the frames, to painting, to building the wheel, and final assembly and shipping is all done in the Conway plant.
Fifteen employees continue to work in the New York facility machine tooling certain parts and making the food vending carts, but the majority of manufacturing is done at the Conway plant.
The challenge of finding reliable workers
The biggest challenge of moving to Conway in 2016 was finding a reliable workforce, Sosin said. He initially hoped that his loyal staff of factory workers would come with him to Conway for what he perceived as a higher quality of life. He was surprised when most of those workers, many immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad, were not willing to make the move away from their well-established communities.
But Percy Remsammy, who is originally from Guyana and has worked for the company since 2008, moved to Conway in 2016 and is now the floor manager at Worksman.
“He give me a push in life,” said Remsammy, who has since purchased a home in the Conway area and rides his electric tricycle to work alongside his wife, Serojoni, who also works for the company building the wheels.
Realizing that many of the jobs he needed to fill, like wheel building and packaging, were jobs he could train people to do, Sosin decided he needed to get “more creative,” he said.
He began hiring workers from the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation program. “I saw this as an opportunity to do something that I can feel good about, and the company could feel good about,” he said.
The first worker referred by vocational rehab was hearing impaired. “It turned out he did a great job and it worked out so well we said ‘why don’t we try that again.’ So we made the accommodations we needed to deal with that population and it worked out really really well for us.”
Nine workers from the program are currently working in the facility.
Sosin has also turned to Horry Georgetown Technical College for some of the more skilled workers like welders.
Ryan Huddleston, a welder that graduated from HGTC, said there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with building the bikes. Huddleston was particularly proud when his father called him after taking a tour of a Tesla factory and noticed a worker riding a Worksman tricycle.
“Seeing these out in the real world puts a smile on my face,” Huddleston said, “knowing that I made that, leaving it behind and letting other people ride the equipment that I made.”
Building cycles that help riders overcome physical challenges
As it turns out, the heavy-duty nature of Worksman tricycles make them ideally suited for applications beyond industrial use-work with a direct human impact.
Sosin says their tricycles have become a popular option as older adults have become more active but may be concerned about stability on a two-wheeler. Heavier riders can get bikes with much more support than can be found at a traditional bike shop.
Additionally, Worksman has two-seater tricycles with the seats placed side-by-side making them perfect to ride with a partner that has physical or emotional challenges. The Worksman catalog lists special needs bicycles and tricycles with a lot of different options like backrests and adaptive pedals that allow riders to customize for their particular needs.
Sosin says one of the most rewarding aspects of building these cycles is when people with special challenges come into the shop try them out.
“So firsthand, we’ve gotten to experience the actual riders working one on one with them to see the success that they’ve had. It’s pretty cool”
“That’s probably been the most rewarding, not financially, but emotionally of everything we do,” he said.
Worksman bikes are used in Adaptive Bike rides in the Myrtle Beach area.
Dozens of Worksman Cycles in various colors and configurations are pushed and pedaled at the adaptive bike rides hosted monthly at the North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex where as many as 70 physically and mentally disabled riders take to the trails.
These empowering events are only are made possible by volunteers and specially designed equipment, according to Luke Sharpe, director of the Adaptive Surf Project.
Sharpe said his organization started using Worksman cycles when he realized how useful the two-seat side-by-side tricycles could be for riders, allowing one person to help another overcome any challenges with pedaling or steering. That was well before Worksman moved their factory to Conway. “I went to visit the shop and Wayne, the president, was just totally into our vision,” he said.
Sharpe’s organization now has more than fifty of the locally made cycles, some purchased and many donated.
“It’s a beautiful partnership,” Sharpe said. “The place has a big heart and they give us a huge discount when we buy them… I’m just blown away by how sincere they are at Worksman’s.”
Katelynn Kozlowski has attended the adaptive sports events since 2018, often riding a Worksman Cycle provided by the organization. This year, her family gave her her own Worksman tricycle and were one of those families that Sosin mentioned who stopped by the shop and tried out different models.
“They assessed her needs, and what they thought would be good for her,” said Katelynn’s mother Carol, “we had the option of having her get on it and see if it was comfortable for her. That was awesome.”
The events, she said, have a big impact on both the participants and the volunteers, “Just the smiles on these kid’s faces, it’s making them feel a part of something, making people who have been told they can’t do something actually be able to do something,” Kozlowski said.