TWMX All Access: White Brothers’ Mike Bell

After racing high school motocross races back in the L.A. Coliseum, and winning a CMC number 1 plate in 1994 when Saddleback and Carlsbad were the breeding ground for nearly every factory rider, Mike Bell signed with Yamaha in 1977. The following week he won he got fourth in his first-ever 250 Supercross, won the Supercross Championship in 1980, and stayed with Yamaha all the way through 1983. He also finished second in a total of five championships, which, in typical racer fashion, Mike now says, “…Sucks. Some of them were very close points races, too. I lost the 1979 500cc National Championship to Danny LaPorte by three points. I won a total of 11 250 main events, and 10 outdoor nationals.”

But the story doesn’t end with Mike’s racing career. He’s one of the rare breed of national championship-winning riders who has made the jump from retired racer to successful businessman. After spending 18 years at Oakley, Mike is now a Vice-President at White Brothers, which is where we got to quiz him about what he’s up to now.

How about a little White Brothers history?

I think it’s a well-known fact at this point that Tom and Dan White started White Brothers 28 years ago. They started out of Tom’s garage, and moved into a storage unit, then moved into a 1,000-square-foot building. It’s a pretty typical American success story…two brothers working side-by-side, and doing what they really loved to do. They both had real jobs long enough to know that working for somebody else can be trying. Both of them wanted to race, and are very passionate about all forms of motorcycling. Both of them were more dirt track guys that learned to have great fondness for motocross. Tom is still out racing at REM, nearly every weekend. He’s a regular competitor out there.

Over the years they played with all different areas, whether it was suspension, motor work, exhaust, to wheels, to brakes. Basically everything you could change on a bike, they pretty much went through it. Tom told me at one point he was doing service work—his bikes always ran good, so people wanted their bikes worked on by Tom as well. The story goes that one day someone asked, ‘Hey, can you replace the chains and the sprocket as well?’ He said, ‘Okay, I guess.’ He called around to get some parts and discovered, ‘Oh, you’re a wholesale account, we can give you dealer cost.’ By changing some parts and actually made more on the markup of those parts than he did on his labor, and scratched his head a little bit and said, ‘Ah, I get it…profit…this is how businesses grow, and maybe I can get out of my garage by doing that.’ That’s what happened. Lo and behold, the distributorship grew out of all of that as well.

Later on is when he worked with some other exhaust manufacturers to make thing that he wanted, and it evolved into what we know today as our exhaust department.

What’s your role here, and how did you move from racer to businessman?

I retired officially in 1983 because of injures, and that was my last year of racing. I took a year off, and then I actually got a call from the guys over at Oakley. Jim Jannard and Greg Arnette, asking me if I wanted to come over and be involved in sports marketing programs, support the riders and help with development of product. They were also involved in some new sports like cycling and triathlon, and didn’t really know anything about it. They’d signed Greg LeMond, but didn’t really know how to support him, and what to do with that. Through all the years of training and riding and motocross, I was pretty educated on those sports, so it seemed like a good deal to me. I spent 18 years doing that at Oakley. The cool thing about it was that I didn’t just stay in marketing. I also was in sales, in product development, the engineering department, manufacturing, design, and advertising. I really was lucky to be part of Oakley through those years, and I learned a lot.

Abouthree years ago I was approached by the management at White Brothers, and they said that they were looking for a vice-president to help guide the brand, and White Brothers products to the next level. That’s been three years. All those things I learned at Oakley, I learned a whole bunch more when I moved here.

Maybe that was the smartest thing that I ever did, was to never think that I was ever entitled to anything. I was never entitled to a factory ride. I was never entitled to a career following that. You have to work for everything, no matter what. You don’t get to be a good motorcycle rider or a champion in any sport without a lot of hard work. After that, you’ve got to reinvent yourself. You’ve got to have something, and bring something to the table that companies or society…whatever it is that you want to accomplish.

For me, the transition from rider to businessman was easy, because the way that I came in through marketing at Oakley. Had I been a rider and thrust straight into an executive type role, I’m sure I would have failed. As riders, whether in my day or current, you can’t help but kind of become prima donnas, and you really do get served up. From the time I was 19 years old and had a factory ride and I never had to worry about my flight arrangements, or hotel, or rental car. I didn’t have to worry about any of that stuff. You get treated like a rock star. So you go through that for almost eight years that I was a factory rider—to get thrust straight into having to be somewhere at a regular time, to be responsible for other people—to really a complete role reversal. I was barely responsible for myself? How could you throw a guy like that into a management position, whether you had one person to manage, or a hundred. There’s no way…you just can’t do it. So I was lucky to have to only manage myself, still continue to go to the races, work with motocross riders, mountain bike riders, triathletes, cyclists…everything you can think of. It wasn’t that bad. It was really quite enjoyable, because I still got to play. Then, as time went on and I got older, and got married, start a family, the maturity helped. I thought it was somewhat seamless. I don’t know if my employers will say that… (Laughs)

Where’s White Brothers at today? From the outside it looks rather multi-faceted, with the distribution, the hop-up stuff equipment you guys make, and distributing Alloy riding gear.

We’re a manufacturer/distributor. We manufacture some of our own products, primarily our exhausts. We do our own wheels, brakes, air filters…a multitude of products that are White Brothers branded. We distribute a lot of other key off-road performance products, and that’s the focus of our business, off-road performance components, whether we build them or distribute them.

Alloy is part of that. We have an exclusive distribution agreement with Alloy for the United States, and multiple other countries. It is part of our family, which is part of a bigger family, the MAG Group, which is the Motorcycle Aftermarket Group. They own companies like Vance & Hines, Kuryakyn, Progressive Suspension, and a few others that fall into our family of companies. Alloy is one of those companies as well.

Normally companies seem to specialize in either manufacturing or distributing, so this looks a little unique.

There are other companies that are very similar to ours, but smaller in scope. They may be a really big exhaust manufacturer, and they do distribute other products, but those products may consist of only Renthal bars and sprockets. It could be a specific kind of fork or shock spring. Or rev boxes, or it could be Tokyo Mods. It could be a lot of other things. We’ve just done that on a little bit bigger scale. We distribute a lot of products. Our business is going the opposite direction as the norm. People start out manufacturing their own stuff, and then add other products. We started out the other way, distributing other products, and then adding our own proprietary products, as well as manufacturing them. It’s definitely a different business model, but it’s one balance sheet.

On the exhaust side, has the sound testing presented any challenges?

No it hasn’t. The sound is really a very simple problem to solve. The biggest thing is having a line in the sand to say, ‘This is what it has to be.’ We can get the performance back, and I think any exhaust manufacturer you speak to will say the same thing.

Short answer, it doesn’t really present any problem, except to know specifically where that line is, and how it will be measured. The FIM has one process, the AMA has another, and then there are random other testing procedure that tend to be a little bit subjective.

The other challenge is for us, especially being a supplier for Factory Honda and Factory Yamaha, and MotoSport Outlet, if you say we have to be at 102, they want to be at 101.9. They want to push it right up to the limit. So that does present its own set of challenges for sure. I firmly believe that we have to be quieter, especially in the off-road. We meet all the FIM requirements. We’ve got some really cool stuff, and have been working really hard on all of those challenges, and I think we have some very unique solutions. We’re actually excited about it, and look forward to the challenge. To not only provide the sound levels, but also have very little compromise on the performance, which is what everybody wants.

How unique is it that you managed to be a team supplier for Honda and Yamaha.

I’d say it’s a very unique situation. As with a lot of things within our world, a lot of these things are based on relationships. It has a lot to do with trust. We’ve had a great relationship with Honda over the last few years. A lot of those relationships were founded on knowing some of the people who are involved for 20 years or more. So to be able to go in and speak as Mike Bell, as a representative of White Brother, it helps. It helps to give it some credibility.

When Yamaha asked if we could provide them with systems, Honda was more than okay with the situation. We still had to prove ourselves. As they say, saying it and doing it are two different things. Easy to say, harder to do. I hope that we’ve done a lot to prove ourselves to both of those companies, because their programs are different, their people are different, and the performance requirements are different. It’s not like we do one thing for one factory, and it instantly translates for something better for another team. So I’m really proud of those relationships, because they’re extremely important to our business, and I know it’s extremely to those teams, and I think we exceed their expectations. That’s a great feeling.

Jim Lewis is our Director of R&D. I refer to him as our mad scientist. He really is a clever guy, and he really understands not just how to bend pipe or just how to make a cool exhaust, he understands it from soup to nuts. A lot of time it goes beyond head pipe length and expansions and steps and perf core and s-bends. There’s a lot more that goes into than that. We’re grateful to have him. It’s all part of a team.

The cool thing is our system works better off the bottom and still provides more on the top, so it’s not like you have to give up something to gain something. We were able to help it all the way around, and I know that when Yamaha tested last year and basically had an open audition on what they might use, it was simply the best system to ride. People really liked it overall. Some of the other pipes hit harder on the bottom, or had more on top, but ours did everything very well. That’s exciting for us, because that’s stuff that translates directly back into what the consumer can buy, and everybody wins. Especially on the 450s. They have so much power. It’s no secret that we can make thhe other way, distributing other products, and then adding our own proprietary products, as well as manufacturing them. It’s definitely a different business model, but it’s one balance sheet.

On the exhaust side, has the sound testing presented any challenges?

No it hasn’t. The sound is really a very simple problem to solve. The biggest thing is having a line in the sand to say, ‘This is what it has to be.’ We can get the performance back, and I think any exhaust manufacturer you speak to will say the same thing.

Short answer, it doesn’t really present any problem, except to know specifically where that line is, and how it will be measured. The FIM has one process, the AMA has another, and then there are random other testing procedure that tend to be a little bit subjective.

The other challenge is for us, especially being a supplier for Factory Honda and Factory Yamaha, and MotoSport Outlet, if you say we have to be at 102, they want to be at 101.9. They want to push it right up to the limit. So that does present its own set of challenges for sure. I firmly believe that we have to be quieter, especially in the off-road. We meet all the FIM requirements. We’ve got some really cool stuff, and have been working really hard on all of those challenges, and I think we have some very unique solutions. We’re actually excited about it, and look forward to the challenge. To not only provide the sound levels, but also have very little compromise on the performance, which is what everybody wants.

How unique is it that you managed to be a team supplier for Honda and Yamaha.

I’d say it’s a very unique situation. As with a lot of things within our world, a lot of these things are based on relationships. It has a lot to do with trust. We’ve had a great relationship with Honda over the last few years. A lot of those relationships were founded on knowing some of the people who are involved for 20 years or more. So to be able to go in and speak as Mike Bell, as a representative of White Brother, it helps. It helps to give it some credibility.

When Yamaha asked if we could provide them with systems, Honda was more than okay with the situation. We still had to prove ourselves. As they say, saying it and doing it are two different things. Easy to say, harder to do. I hope that we’ve done a lot to prove ourselves to both of those companies, because their programs are different, their people are different, and the performance requirements are different. It’s not like we do one thing for one factory, and it instantly translates for something better for another team. So I’m really proud of those relationships, because they’re extremely important to our business, and I know it’s extremely to those teams, and I think we exceed their expectations. That’s a great feeling.

Jim Lewis is our Director of R&D. I refer to him as our mad scientist. He really is a clever guy, and he really understands not just how to bend pipe or just how to make a cool exhaust, he understands it from soup to nuts. A lot of time it goes beyond head pipe length and expansions and steps and perf core and s-bends. There’s a lot more that goes into than that. We’re grateful to have him. It’s all part of a team.

The cool thing is our system works better off the bottom and still provides more on the top, so it’s not like you have to give up something to gain something. We were able to help it all the way around, and I know that when Yamaha tested last year and basically had an open audition on what they might use, it was simply the best system to ride. People really liked it overall. Some of the other pipes hit harder on the bottom, or had more on top, but ours did everything very well. That’s exciting for us, because that’s stuff that translates directly back into what the consumer can buy, and everybody wins. Especially on the 450s. They have so much power. It’s no secret that we can make them faster. We can give them more power, but who wants to ride that?

What’s next for you guys?

Sound is probably the biggest thing for us. There are also other markets within the dirt world. We’ve stepped up our ATV program, and sponsor Tim Farr, who’s one of the, if not the premier ATV riders. He rides in three different series, and he’s the guy to beat. He’s running White Brothers products, as well as Alloy. So that’s a big thing for us.

The rest of it, there’s always so much to do within motocross and the off-road market. We’re always involved there, so sometimes it relates more back to personal stuff. With as much motocross as I do, I also do a lot of trail riding, too. I’m getting a new WR450 for myself to do more of that kind of riding. I also have my kids to go riding with.

I also want to do a couple quad races myself this year, which is something I’ve never done. Quads are a very significant part of our business. We’re all pretty hard-core motocross riders between Gary Jones and myself and Tom White. We’re all pretty fanatical about getting out and riding.

Contact:

White Brothers
24845 Corbit Place
Yorba Linda, CA 92887
(714) 692-3404
www.whitebrothers.com

e them faster. We can give them more power, but who wants to ride that?

What’s next for you guys?

Sound is probably the biggest thing for us. There are also other markets within the dirt world. We’ve stepped up our ATV program, and sponsor Tim Farr, who’s one of the, if not the premier ATV riders. He rides in three different series, and he’s the guy to beat. He’s running White Brothers products, as well as Alloy. So that’s a big thing for us.

The rest of it, there’s always so much to do within motocross and the off-road market. We’re always involved there, so sometimes it relates more back to personal stuff. With as much motocross as I do, I also do a lot of trail riding, too. I’m getting a new WR450 for myself to do more of that kind of riding. I also have my kids to go riding with.

I also want to do a couple quad races myself this year, which is something I’ve never done. Quads are a very significant part of our business. We’re all pretty hard-core motocross riders between Gary Jones and myself and Tom White. We’re all pretty fanatical about getting out and riding.

Contact:

White Brothers
24845 Corbit Place
Yorba Linda, CA 92887
(714) 692-3404
www.whitebrothers.com