reWorking Michigan: Motorcycle Culture at Heart of Haslett Company’s Success

Jul 23, 2012

A unique mid-Michigan business is succeeding in keeping it loose at work.  Baker Drive Train in Haslett has carved out a profitable niche in the motorcycle business with cutting edge transmissions it designs and sells all over the world.  WKAR’s Mark Bashore reports on a married couple who left their buttoned-down GM jobs to embrace the rowdier culture of high performance motorcycles. 

There’s energy on the shop floor to start the workday at Baker Drive Train.  A little ‘liquid metal’ with your caffeine of choice is just the ticket for clearing out the morning cobwebs.

(metal music)

Baker Production Manager Andy Friar runs down some of the more common fare.         

“Cannibal Corpse, Slayer, Ministry,” he says. “It’s good stuff to work to.”

Baker Drive Train is not the workplace Ward and June Cleaver had in mind for the boys.  Images of un-clad women—some with strategically placed drive shafts--dominate the workplace.  Oh yeah, there’s a calendar attached in the event you forget what day or month it is.  Company president Lisa Baker, the engineer/spouse of founder Bert Baker is one of six women at Baker Drive Train.  She says ‘it’s all good.’

“Our culture is enough like a family that you don’t have men making comments about the women because if someone were to make a comment about one of the girls, someone else here would kick them in the shins because that would be like making a comment about your sister,” she explains. “And so it’s respectful amongst each other.”

In fact, Lisa Baker oversees production of the company’s annual calendar.

For the actuaries listening who are considering a career change, here’s some more about Baker Drive Train.  The company’s bread and butter is the Harley-Davidson “aftermarket.”  That’s Harley owners, who have this habit of souping up their rides with bigger transmissions.  Whatever vintage hog a rider owns, Baker Drive Train has that upgrade.  A rebellious, “rules be damned” mindset is part of the Harley brand, as well as related businesses like Bert Baker’s.

“We’re the kids who shoot spit wads at the teacher and don’t get caught,” he says. “That is who we are at Baker Drive Train.  And we have fun doin’ it.”

Baker says he celebrates what he couldn’t during 15 years at GM in Lansing--what he calls “wacky individuality.” At first blush, that seems to be a lot about body art, the naked and the profane.  Still, the Bakers and their 16 close-knit, ‘git ‘er done’ employees know the limits.  Again, Lisa Baker.

“It’s a place of business,” she says. “We have a free and open culture here, but you can’t take it to the next level.  This isn’t high school.  This isn’t a locker room.”

Baker Drive Train’s 14 year history has included jarring setbacks.  But lately, the company’s been riding a wave, hiring more and celebrating 18 straight months in the black. Some on the payroll say their experience shows manufacturing can be the ticket to something new.  Baker machinist Mark Wohlfert spent 30 years at GM in Lansing.

“And if somebody wanted to take their GM experience and go towards a business, they’re going to learn things like the assembly process, also working with vendors to help bring parts in that you can’t personally make yourself,” he says.      

(Harley starting and idling.)

Look beyond the tattoos and the ‘Joe Dirt’ demeanor and you’ll see Bert Baker sweating the details of business ownership. One part of his brain obsesses on the big picture---the health of the economy, competition and the future. The other part?  Well……

“My goal is not to get rich, Mark, but my goal is to have a whole bunch of fun and have less hassle per square inch and that’s about all I have to say to you.”        (Harley driving off)

That attitude has become the DNA of Baker Drive Train.  Its 18 employees wouldn’t have it any other way.

ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living a build a future.  A project of WKAR NewsRoom, WKAR-TV and WKAR Online.