This past March while on location in Detroit, I had the good fortune of being invited to take a look around one of my favorite brand’s headquarters. Having been following the resurrection of the once ubiquitous brand since 2011, I was eager to see behind the curtain. Was Shinola in fact a company hell bent on restoring faith in American manufacturing or was it simply another attempt to capitalize on the “Americana” movement? My assumption was that no brand based in Detroit would survive if it were the latter and having a look at Shinola’s inner workings confirmed what I had hoped to be true – Shinola is the real deal.
Starting a company that builds luxury watches and bicycles is an ambitious endeavor. Starting that company in post recession Detroit and keeping all the manufacturing of said watches and bicycles in house sounds like a recipe for disaster. Three years after setting up shop in an old GM design building above Detroit’s College For Creative Studies, however, Shinola is thriving, a shining example of what can be accomplished when quality is put above all else. During my tour of their facilities I saw first hand that a commitment to quality is what drives the company.
Everyone was eager to share how he or she had come to be working there and what each enjoyed about the brand. When you have employees that actually believe in the work they are doing it shows. You cannot fake it and trust me I have seen how that can look. For example, one of the employees I met was testing an applicant on his movement installation skills. I asked our guide where they find such skilled people that they can be trusted with such an important job. After all, these are not exactly simple movements; assembly and installation require extensive knowledge of horology as well as a very, very steady hand. The guide explained, “Oh, he was the security guard for the building when we moved in. He asked us what we were doing and when we told him, he said he wanted to be a part of it.” Not at all the answer I had been expecting, but I soon found that it made perfect sense.
Here was brand that had been brought back from the dead not to trade on its name but to restore faith in American manufacturing. The purpose is not just to make a quality product, but to also have that product be a symbol, a blueprint, a story. This is the type of thinking I admire, the type of risk-taking that I respect and I hope to see a lot more of it. The people working at Shinola take great pride in their work and Shinola takes great pride in its people. To reinvent oneself is perhaps the greatest freedom we enjoy and on the 5th floor of a grand old building, in a city most of the country has dismissed as defunct, there is a company reinventing itself, one employee at a time.
Special thanks to Peter Shin for showing us around and Dylan Malone for “making the call”.
*Across the street from the retail store you’ll find Motor City Brewing Works. You’ll be having a Ghetto Blaster and any of the pizzas.