Small business

Company finds niche by building unique parts

Zipper's Performance Products helps make Harley-Davidsons better

Howard Business

June 12, 2000|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

For many motorcycle riders, there's nothing quite like the pulsating hum of a Harley-Davidson engine. Well, almost nothing.

A company in Elkridge, Zipper's Performance Products, produces Harley-Davidson engine clones that have what the company says is the same roar as a Harley but with more zip. The company invents, manufactures and improves parts for Harleys and "Harley-style" motorcycles, bikes manufactured to look like custom Harleys with similar engines.

"A lot of the Harley culture is about pretty, glitzy, shiny, chromey stuff - we don't do any of that; we're the performance guys," said Zipper's chief operating officer, Steve Woods, whose old motorcycle was modified in 1987 and is still being raced.

Danny Fitzmauriceand Dave Zehnerstarted the now $4 million business as teen-agers with a modest goal: to raise enough cash to support their pastime, drag racing.

Fitzmaurice, 42, had been working on motorcycles since he was 13 years old, mostly for free back then. In 1977, the pair built a garage by Fitzmaurice's parents' house, and, with $500 in the bank and some tools and equipment, Fitzmaurice and Zehner started a business repairing and restoring Harleys.

Fitzmaurice worked on bikes full time and Zehner part time while holding down another job because "somebody had to make money," Fitzmaurice recalled.

But the business quickly exploded, outgrowing the garage and three other shops before landing in Elkridge in 1997. In fact, it grew so fast that Zipper's was incorporated by 1981, and the company took on a third partner, motorcycle enthusiast John Kitzmiller, in 1985.

Today, Zipper's products are sold to 2,600 dealers around the world, Japan being its largest importer. Its products range in price from a few dollars for an air filter to more than $20,000 for a hand-built racing engine.

The company builds its own 45-degree, V-Twin, Harley-style engines that Fitzmaurice says will make a motorcycle "accelerate faster, run smoother, shift easier, stop better."

With about 25 employees, Zipper's also modifies Harleys and "Harley-style" motorcycles. It sells and manufactures engine kits, sells specialized tools to build engines, manufactures and modifies transmissions, and sells carburetor modifications and cams, which tell the motorcycle's intake and exhaust valves when to open and close.

Zipper's fills a 17,000- square-foot building, where the scent of motor oil and gasoline taunts customers as they enter the showroom. A white leather racing suit and championship bikes adorn the store, vestiges of Fitzmaurice's bygone racing days.

Its customers are doctors, lawyers and other middle-aged, educated, affluent men and women, Woods said. They ride for the escape, the fun and the mystique, and they want to ride Harleys or bikes like them because without one, Woods said, "You won't get the feeling, you won't have the sound and you won't be a rebel without a cause."

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