Detroit's Shinola Fulfills Career Dream of Romanian Immigrant

Shinola's Stefan Mihoc: Achieving His Dream After 37 Years
In the massive shadow of the General Motors' former headquarters, more than 200 people from as far away as Romania and as close as Nine Mile and Woodward Avenue are reimagining American manufacturing -- and in the process reawakening their dreams.

Shinola -- a company founded in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, the former CEO of Fossil -- is on the surface a brand that riffs off the increasingly popular "Made in America" movement and the gritty resurgence of the once grand Detroit. The company's distinctly styled bicycles, watches and leather goods are assembled in the city.But spend a few days at the company's assembly lines and the tough realities of manufacturing in Detroit slip away and reveal a deeper story behind the glossy brand.

It's a story of people who have found labor that fulfills dreams and inspires new ones.

Josh Franer/Man Made Content

Chapter One: The Master Watchmaker

Stefan Mihoc works as Shinola's master watchmaker, a skilled trade that has all but died out in America. Watchmaking -- once a major U.S. industry in the 1800s with every single part manufactured here -- was already in decline by the early 1900s.

But in Romania, where Mihoc was born, watchmaker was still a profession as late as the 1980s, and his uncles were skilled at the trade. During summer holidays, Mihoc would spend more time playing with broken watches than with his cousins. One day his uncle gave him a table clock. "Take it apart, put it back together and make sure it works," his uncle told him.

"It took me a day, but it worked," Mihoc remembers.

Eventually, Mihoc went to school to be a watchmaker. He dreamed about working in a Swiss watch factory. He also dreamed about coming to America. But Romania in the mid-1980s was more a nightmare than dream as the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu deepened and became even crueler.

Mihoc tried half a dozen times to leave the country and every time he was caught. After his last attempt, he was headed for a Romanian jail. "But the jails were full," Mihoc says. Instead, the government took 60 percent of his paycheck as punishment.

Then the revolution came. The Ceausescus were executed. The Berlin Wall fell. Romania began to change, but still Mihoc dreamed of coming to America. Finally in 1996, he immigrated to Detroit, but not without cost: his profession.

"I tried to find a job as a watchmaker, but there weren't any. Plus my English was limited to 'thank you' and 'Coca-Cola.' "

For 12 years, Mihoc worked as a machinist in an auto factory. Then in 2008, he was laid off as the auto industry imploded during the financial crisis. He worked construction for a while and then saw an ad for work in a watch retail store making repairs and changing batteries. "I worked there for a year and realized I wanted to do this again."

So Mihoc opened his own shop and began teaching his son the profession. Working together with his son was another dream come true, but there simply wasn't enough money to support them both. Fixing watches was a one-person business, Mihoc realized. "I decided to let him work in the shop. I'd find another job."

So Mihoc rewrote his resume -- putting watchmaker as his trade three decades after he had given up on his chosen profession. Three days later, Shinola called offering him his dream job -- Master Watchmaker.

Chapter Two: From the Line to Leadership

Lakishka Raybon grew up less than 10 miles from Shinola's watch factory, just a few blocks from Detroit's now-famous 8 Mile Road. But she didn't dare to dream big like Mihoc.

"I worked at McDonald's closing at night and going to school during the day," she says. "That was my path. I was just living right then and there."

For the next decade, Raybon went from job to job-working in fast-food outlets, auto factories and assisted living facilities. Then she heard about a job putting together watches on Shinola's assembly line. The pay -- around $15 an hour -- was better than minimum wage.

It also was a skilled trade, but it came with a tough test before the job was hers. Every worker on the movement line has to assemble dozens of tiny parts and gears to create the watches' inner workings. And they have to move fast, as hundreds of watches come off the line every week to fulfill demand.

Raybon passed the test and spent the next year perfecting her skills. After this she moved to the casing line, the final step where metal backs with the Shinola name etched on them are joined to the glass watch faces with tiny gaskets. Just a year and a half after she had taken the first test, she was asked to be a team leader on the movement line.

"I've never moved from doing a job to overseeing other people doing the job so fast," she says. And that transition -- from being a worker to being a leader -- has started Raybon dreaming. "Actually I'd like to move over from the other side of the glass," she says, referring to the glass wall that divides the watch assembly lines from the open office space where the president, marketing heads and designers work.

"We would love to not have a wall there, if it wasn't for dirt and dust. We need a clean room for the watches," says Heath Carr, CEO of the private equity firm Bedrock, of which Shinola is a part. "They may look at the other side but we do as well and are inspired by them on a daily basis. There's opportunity there for whatever she can and wants to do."

Chapter Three: My Dream Bike

"I'd never thought I wanted to make bikes in America," says Sky Yaeger, director of bicycle product development, who joined Shinola in 2012 when it had just 10 employees. In 25 years of designing bikes for companies such as Bianchi, her craft had taken her to Italy and China, but never to the dream of building bikes in her own country.

It's no wonder. The U.S. cycling industry had moved offshore many decades before Shinola arrived in Detroit. The vast majority of bikes bought in the U.S. are made in Asia and come off manufacturing lines every few minutes. Shinola, however, assembles only 80 to 100 bikes per month on a three-person assembly line at its Detroit retail store.

Like its watch line, Shinola's bikes also represent the rebuilding of at least part of an American manufacturing process that broke down during the late 20th century. From the 1950s to the 1990s, American bicycle manufacturing moved abroad as labor and natural resource costs rose at home. Today Asia is the center of the industry, with companies such as Shimano from Osaka, Japan, holding the major patents for most bicycle gears.

"They are 75 years old," Yaeger says. "They aren't going to move to Detroit."

But even if Shinola can't rebuild American bicycle manufacturing, it can help pull together key parts of the supply chains that still exist here. Shinola wheels are assembled in California, the frame tubings come from Mississippi, the spokes from Colorado and the brand decals from North Carolina.

And perhaps most importantly, Yaeger turned to Waterford Precision Cycles for its frames and forks. The Wisconsin company is run by Richard Schwinn, the great-grandson of the founder of Schwinn Bicycles -- a name once synonymous with American cycling and quality. "The frames are the hearts and soul of a bike," Yaeger says. "It was never an option to import them."

Fulfilling dreams -- even creating new ones -- may not have been what Shinola set out to achieve when it began reimagining how we make watches and bicycles in America. But in the end that, more than anything, may be its legacy.

Directed by Josh Franer/Man Made Content
This Built America - Shinola
To learn more about AOL's "This Built America" program, click here
Read Full Story

From Our Partners