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The Register-Guard: Taking their second act on the road

Bob and Ethan Ralston already had made a mark in Lane County business with their first company. Now, they hope to make a bigger splash with their second.

Father and son had owned Feeney Wireless of Eugene, a successful firm that they sold two years ago. For their second act in business together, the Ralstons have formed a company with national ambitions.

This month, their new firm will receive its first shipment of all-electric motorcycles from New Zealand manufacturer Ubco Ltd.

The Ralstons say they have an agreement with Ubco to be the exclusive distributor of the electric vehicles in the United States.

“We are going to launch and bring to market a new and what we hope will be an iconic two-wheel electric motorcycle in the United States,” said Bob Ralston. “And that’s going to be Ubco. And that’s going to be us, with the group of investors that we put together. That’s pretty exciting.”

The Ralstons say Ubco motorbikes have the potential to revolutionize motorcycles in the same way Tesla Motors helped changed the automobile industry.

Ubco Ltd. has sold more than 200 electric motorcycles in New Zealand and Australia in slightly more than a year of operation, said Chief Executive Tim Allan.

“Oregon is an amazing base for Ubco to launch into the U.S. from, with its mix of design, technology and amazing landscape,” he said.
Ubco’s first electric motorcycles are built for off-road use, but the company is planning to start importing street legal versions to the United States later this year through the Ralstons’ firm.
The off-road electric motorbikes will sell for $5,999. A price for the road versions has yet to be established, but they will be more expensive.
Bob Ralston, managing member of Ubco Bikes US, said the firm expects to get the needed approval by U.S. regulatory agencies so the vehicles can be ridden on streets.
European Motorcycles of Western Oregon in Eugene is the first motorcycle dealer to reach an agreement with the Ralstons’ firm to sell Ubcos in the United States.
A “steady stream of inquiries” from potential customers all over the country are being routed from Ubco Ltd.’s website to the West 11th Avenue dealership, said co-owner Scott Russell.
“The brilliant thing about Ubco is that it’s a totally different approach to two-wheeled travel,” he said. Unlike gas-powered motorcycles, Ubco’s vehicle is silent, he said. With a step-through frame and only weighing 130 pounds, Ubcos are easy to mount, handle and transport, Russell said.
The motorbike has electric motors on each wheel, which makes it easy to control, especially for novice riders, he said.
“When you roll on the throttle, the front wheel pulls as much as the rear wheel pushes,” he said. “And that feels much different from a (traditional) motorcycle. And the confidence that the operator has quickly develops because the competency in the vehicle is achieved more quickly.”
In January, Ubco was introduced to Americans at the Portland International Auto Show. Russell thought it would be well received, a hunch that was confirmed by people who stopped to look at the motorbike and ask questions.
“People were asking, ‘When can I get one? Can I get one now?’ ” he said. “So that means the consumer is probably ready for this. And it’s not necessarily only early adopters.”

A company on the fast track

It’s been an intense past six months for the Ralstons, who only learned about Ubco late last year. Since then, they’ve been busy working on their partnership with Ubco, getting investors, finding out what it would take to import the motorcycles to the United States, getting legal advice and learning how to sell the vehicles through dealers.
Normally, it would take years to bring a new product to market, Bob Ralston said. But Ubco Bikes US was quickly formed to get the New Zealand company’s products into the United States as soon as possible.
“That is unheard of,” Ralston said. “But that is what we are good at doing. We are good as entrepreneurs.”
Their previous company, Feeney Wireless, designed, manufactured and sold a variety of electronic devices that allowed computers to communicate with other computers through cellular and wireless networks. By the time it sold in 2015, it also had become a software service provider in the IoT, or “Internet of Things,” marketplace, which refers to linking vehicles, appliances and other machines to the Internet.
At Feeney Wireless, father and son kept busy staying on top of the firm’s various products.
“We had to manage all of those for a lot of different markets,” Bob Ralston said. “But now we are in the electric motorcycle market, and we are very laser focused on that, which is fun.”
Launching Ubco Bikes US is an attempt at a second career for Ethan Ralston, 33, though it would be the third career for his 60-year-old father.
Feeney Wire Rope & Rigging got its start in post-World War II Berkeley, Calif., with owner Jim Feeney supplying cable rigging and hardware in the area. In 1976, the company was sold to Bob Ralston’s brother. Feeney expanded to include architectural cables, railing systems and other products.
Bob Ralston went to work in 1984 for Emerald People’s Utility District. He eventually began working on mobile dispatching systems for the utility, first using two-way radio links and eventually delving into wireless computer networking.
He left EPUD as engineering supervisor and, with the financial help of relatives, he started Feeney Wireless in 2000.
The firm, which began in a 650-square-foot space on Tyinn Street in west Eugene, grew with the help of Ethan Ralston, who worked in the family business while he attended the University of Oregon.
Ethan Ralston said his father encouraged him to work for another company.
“He wanted me to go get beat up somewhere else for a job, and I said, ‘No, this is the right company, in an emerging market.’ So we went full bore.”
Bob Ralston said his son was “pretty persistent” about working at Feeney Wireless.
“So I said, ‘OK, come on in.’ What really led from that was — and this is the important part — we complement each other well.”
Ralston said his son has business acumen and the ability to evaluate proposals in an objective manner, while he had “always been more of what you would call the serial entrepreneur,” who liked to think of new ideas.
“So we take those two talents and we have been very successful,” Ralston said.
Feeney Wireless kept adding employees. By 2012 it had moved from its second home to a pair of renovated buildings, near the closed Hynix semiconductor manufacturing plant in southwest Eugene.
About this time, Bob Ralston began to get inquiries about whether he would be interested in selling the company.
Two suitors came calling, “but after doing our due diligence, right after the end of each one of those, we decided that it just wasn’t the right fit,” he said.
In 2015, however, publicly traded Novatel Wireless, based in San Diego, made an offer to buy Feeney Wireless, which had more than 100 employees. The Ralstons then sold it for $25 million in cash and stock.

Next project wasn’t obvious

Bob Ralston left Feeney Wireless in January 2016.
Ethan Ralston, who had been CEO at the time of the sale, remained at the company, helping in the transition to Novatel management.
Then 58, Bob Ralston wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
“I took some time off from my very busy 31 years of nonstop life in the work sector to spend some time figuring out what it was like not to be working,” he said.
During the next several months, Ralston and his wife, Karen, started working on plans to build a home south of Eugene.
By last fall, Ralston had started to think about where to turn his attention to next.
He said he had long been interested in renewable energy and electric vehicles.
“I started to do more research on what was becoming more of a passion for me,” he said.
“As an individual I began thinking, ‘You know, how can we all continue to keep doing what we have been doing?’ We all have been participants in this industry of using fossil fuels. And I saw that, for the planet and everything else, there needs to a wake up call. At some point, we all have to be honest enough with this thing that we better make a change. We better do something. So I thought wouldn’t it be fun and wouldn’t it be useful if we could participate in the renewable energy, electric vehicle space. How could we do that?”
After reading about what it took Tesla to get started, Ralston concluded that it would be too time consuming and expensive for him to get involved in building electric cars.
He then read about a wide variety of electric two-wheel vehicles, ranging from electric-assist bicycles to electric motorcycles that can exceed 200 mph and cost more than $100,000.
Neither end of this vehicle spectrum appealed to Ralston, mainly because there are plenty of electric- assist bicycle makers and super fast electric motorcycles would not have broad appeal.
He said he thought of the Honda CT90, a small gas-powered, on-and-off road motorcycle that became popular worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s.
“And I thought, ‘What if we could develop this iconic two-wheel motorcycle that had that durability and usefulness and adaptability, like an old Honda 90 trail bike,’ ” Ralston said. “Everybody who is old enough can remember if they had the chance to ride one. If you were a kid at a campground, it was like, I want to go ride that. It was just fun. And you could ride it on road and off road.”

New Zealand bikes hit the mark

Ralston didn’t know it at the time, but a pair of New Zealand electric bike experts had already developed that type of vehicle.
In about 2010, Anthony Clyde and Daryl Neal began collaborating after talking about developing an electric motorbike for farm use, according to New Zealand newspaper articles.
Clyde and Neal introduced their first version of what they called a farm bike in 2014, which led to the formation of Ubco Ltd. in Tauranga, New Zealand.
In late November, while conducting research on the Internet, Ralston found Ubco’s website and saw photographs of the electric motorcycle.
“When I saw it, I just sat back and said, ‘That’s the bike. If I could build it, that would be the vehicle.’ ”
Immediately, Ralston called Ubco and asked if he could buy one of the motorbikes. He was told that the company only sold them in New Zealand and Australia.
He then called a New Zealand motorcycle dealer hoping to buy an Ubco and have it shipped to Eugene, but the dealer told him that they were prohibited from importing it to the United States.
Within a few days of discovering Ubco, Ralston had spoken in a Skype call to Allan, Ubco’s Chief Executive. They agreed to explore the possibility of working together to bring Ubco two-wheelers to the United States.
“I said if we could figure out how to meet the requirements to bring the bike into the United States, we would become the distributor for your bike,” Ralston said.
Allan recalled being impressed with the elder Ralston’s “passion and level of detail.”
“There was a strong alignment between what we had tried to achieve and what Bob was looking for, so the fit was natural,” he said.
In early December, Ethan Ralston left Feeney Wireless and jumped into the Ubco project.
He and his father started discussing the possibility of forming a new company to import and distribute the vehicles through established motorcycle dealerships.
The Ralstons grew Feeney Wireless slowly over 15 years, not taking on debt or investor money.
But they realized they needed to act fast to bring Ubco to the U.S. market, before other motorcycle makers started selling comparable electric motorbikes in the United States.

Investors climb aboard

To help finance their venture, the Ralstons invited a group of Eugene-based investors to a meeting in mid-December to hear about their plans. They invited Allan to come to Eugene and speak at the dinner meeting at Marché.
The trip allowed Allan to meet the Ralstons and their potential investors.
Also present at Marché: an Ubco motorbike that was allowed to pass through customs because it was not to be sold in the United States.
“We had the bike on display next to a Christmas tree,” Bob Ralston said. “And the investors at that point showed legitimate interest.”
As Ethan Ralston learned more about the potential electric vehicle market in the United States, he said he become more enthused about becoming Ubco’s national distributor.
“The annual global growth rate of electric vehicles since 2012 has been over 50 percent a year, so it’s a very fast growing market,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity. It’s an emerging market, and you just have to jump in.”
The Ralstons in January formed Ubco Bikes US, LLC. The company with 14 investors, themselves included, raised $1 million, the Ralstons said.
The Ralstons declined to name the investors, though corporate registrations on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website show that a Eugene based firm called Ubco Springs LLC and led by Thomas Connor, Jr. formed in April.
During the past few months, the Ralstons learned a great deal about importing vehicles into the United States and selling them.
Their firm is counting on selling street-legal Ubcos, starting with the 2018 model, through its yet-to-be established dealer network.
The Ralstons had to familiarize themselves with U.S. Customs regulations and myriad vehicle requirements from different government agencies before Ubco motorcycles can be ridden on roads, including the federal National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In addition, each state has its own regulations for vehicle titling and registration.
“You turn over one rock, and you find another,” said Ethan Ralston, managing member and president of Ubco Bikes US.
On May 1, the Ralstons signed the agreement with Ubco Ltd., giving them the exclusive right to distribute the motorbikes in the U.S.
Ubco Bikes US will buy the electric vehicles from the manufacturer for a certain price and then sell them to dealers for another price.
Ubco Bikes US and Ubco Ltd. are separate companies, but the companies will work together. Bob Ralston is a member of Ubco Ltd.’s board of directors and Allan belongs to the Ubco Bikes US board.
The first shipment of 60 Ubco motorbikes is expected to arrive in the Port of Seattle in about mid-June. They will be loaded on a truck and brought to a warehouse in Eugene, and distributed from there.
Ubco Bikes US has three employees, including a distribution manager who will run the Eugene warehouse and a California-based sales manager.
The company plans to use social media to spread the word about Ubco motorbikes. The firm also has purchased two Mercedes Benz sprinter vans to take sales people and the motorbikes to different venues.
“You have to get out there and create a brand,” Ethan Ralston said. “You want people to be able to visualize the motorbike at a lot of U.S. locations, different camping grounds and well-known landmarks around the U.S. One of the important things is visualization for the consumer.”
Russell, the Eugene motorcycle dealer who hopes to start selling Ubcos later this month, said the off-road version will likely appeal to farmers, hunters, recreational vehicle owners and rural property owners.
Russell said he expects demand to be strong for street-legal Ubcos, when they make their way to the United States.
The Ralstons are busy working to line up other dealers to sell Ubcos.
Bob Ralston said he and his son are enthused about their new careers. “We are excited about personally being involved in the electric vehicle revolution,” he said.

What is an Ubco?

Ubco, the Utility Bike Company, describes its first production electric motorcycle as a rugged, two-wheel electric vehicle ideally suited for farm and other outdoor use.
The Ubco 2×2 is made with extra-strength, X-frame aluminum alloy tubing capable of carrying about 330 pounds, including rider.
The frame has luggage racks above both wheels, accessory lugs and 12 volt sockets that can be used to power electric tools.
The motorcycle’s power train consists of two wheel hub-mounted electric motors.
Power is supplied by a 43.6ah lithium-ion Panasonic battery that can provide a range of about 60 miles. The batteries can be removed from the frame and recharged in standard 110 volt outlets. The motorbikes can carry a spare battery, extending the vehicle’s range.
The motorbikes are designed in New Zealand, but made in China.