CHARITON, Iowa - This weekend, a Chariton business will be celebrating its tenth anniversary and what a ride it's been - from small-town Iowa all the way to the palaces of the Middle East.
I built a birdhouse in high school shop class. Gary Chipp built a motorcycle.
“I didn’t really care much for the English, or math, or history classes," he laughs, "I had interest in drag racing in the time.”
That wasn’t a problem; his dad, Bob, owned the Harley-Davidson dealership in town and he had a career already lined up.
“I was working in sales on the weekends," Gary remembers, "and then I would work in the service department during the week and do performance upgrades.”
He and the others were beefing up bikes when a special request came in from a Harley owner in 2003.
“He’s like ‘I don’t want to make it go faster, I want to enhance the look of it by putting a bigger tire on the bike,’” says Chipp.
He'd found it: his own niche.
“I took that same motorcycle that year to Daytona Bike Week, and as I was riding down the road, Howard Kelly of Hot Bike magazine stopped me and said ‘I want to do a photo shoot with this bike, I’ve never seen a bagger with this big a tire on the bike.’”
Quick digression: what's a bagger? It's a cruising bike. Bags on back; rides better than soft tails or choppers.
“A soft tail—nothing wrong with a soft tail, great bike—ride it 100 miles, you’re gonna want to be home," says marketing director, Mike Cruzen. "Jump on a bagger and you can put an 800-mile day in.”
Okay, back to Gary’s story.
“8-9 months goes by," he continues, "the magazine article comes out; the bike’s on the cover of the magazine; plus there’s a six-page spread on it. We had over 200 phone calls at my dad’s Harley dealership.”
The article dubbed it the “Fat Bagger” and the name stuck. Gary and his fledgling company were soon getting bikes from all over--fattening them up, and sending them back out.
But then he got creative.
“I started thinking ‘What if we installed a product like this while you wait?’”
Fat Baggers turned a semi truck into a mobile shop and drove it to South Dakota to offer the wide tire kit to the giant crowd at Sturgis.
“We couldn’t install enough of it," he laughs. "We put on 16 conversions, hauled home a trailer full of motorcycles to convert in our shop, so we knew at that point there was a demand for our product that we were offering.”
The next step came easily: Fat Baggers hired more people and started building bikes from the ground up. At first the orders were simple--wide frames and custom paint--but then came the calls from the Middle East.
“One of those people was based out of Lebanon," Chipp says, "he was the prime minister of Lebanon for several years and (he) ordered three motorcycles from us back in 2008.”
Fat Baggers bikes began heading to billionaire Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Lebanon. He soon wanted more bikes in wilder designs, and Fat Baggers accommodated.
Hariri has gifted Fat Baggers bikes to the king and queen of Jordan, the prime minister of the UAE, and to the king of Saudi Arabia.
The custom bikes can get radical in design and outrageous in price. Hariri will pay well over $100,000 for each of his latest bikes. They are full of form, but also function.
“Museum quality, but it’s still a very rideable, useable product and that’s what keeps our customers coming back for more.”
For ten years, now, Fat Baggers, Inc has been following that creed: loud but livable.
“They have the ability to look at something and see how to make it better," says Cruzen. "They’ve done a very, very good job at that.
From shop class to first class shop. From Chariton to the Middle East; one guy doing exactly what he was meant to do.