Jim Muellner wasn’t just a child riding his bike on St. Paul streets in the 1940s; he was an American frontiersman from the 1770s. “As I child, I loved biking,” says Muellner, now 77. “It made me feel like Daniel Boone. It made me feel like an adventurer. I could go a block and then another block.”
Muellner’s pioneering spirit remained as he jump-started a floundering corporation into a multimillion-dollar international powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, and as he kindled a startup into a philanthropic shop aiding hundreds in White Bear Lake from the 1990s to today.
Wheels on the Ground
Muellner was raised on a central Minnesota farm before he moved to St. Paul and explored its streets as a teen. He earned an engineering degree and set out into the business world. As an impressionable 20-something, he sought advice from Fred Remmele, the founder of Remmele Engineering in New Brighton. Muellner, then in his 70s, asked Remmele what he would have done differently if he could restart. “If you see a product that has national or international potential, don’t pass it by lightly,” Muellner recalls Remmele saying.
Remmele’s words were in Muellner’s head when he had the chance to purchase rights to a product from Hughes Industries, a Denver business. Muellner had little investment money, so he and his wife, Marilyn, sold a rental property in St. Paul. With $20,000, he went to Colorado and acquired the rights during a bankruptcy hearing.
Muellner returned to his 37-acre farm in White Bear Lake and built a machine shop in the farmhouse basement. There he designed the first SmartCarte, a portable luggage rack that airport travelers could rent to help transport their baggage.
Muellner took SmartCarte to airports across the world and sold the business for a healthy profit in 1993. “I did well for a little farm boy from Minnesota,” Muellner says with a laugh.
Wheels Going ’Round
The kickstand on Muellner’s next go-round went up when his sister, Alice, asked him to go on the 400-mile TRAM ride across Minnesota to benefit multiple sclerosis. “She kept saying, ‘Jim, talk to me. Jim, you are going too fast. Jim, you are going too slow,’ ” he recalls of the ride.
But from Ortonville to Red Wing, Muellner saw a single recumbent bicycle—or the start of a solution. “I said, ‘I will buy two of those and nail them together somehow or another,’ ” he recalls. The following year, Marilyn and Jim rode the side-by-side recumbent bikes in the TRAM ride. They took turns pedaling so the other person could drink water or eat an apple.
That’s how Jim’s next business, Just Two Bikes, got rolling. Since 1993, he has sold about a thousand side-by-side recumbent bikes, called the Sociable, and a few hundred three-wheeled single recumbent bikes, called the Tricumbent. Muellner says he isn’t producing many these days “unless someone convinces me and is willing to pay a premium.” Instead, he’s focusing on the Recyclery, yet another Muellner creation.
As he made bikes, Muellner noticed others cast aside next to trashcans. He’d salvage, recondition and give them to churches and community organizations such as the East Metro Women’s Council. Each spring for the last few years, Muellner checks to see how many of the about 90 children at the group’s housing are in need of bikes. “When one of our moms hands us a rent check for $41, that tells you what they are bringing in a month, and there is no way she can provide a bike for her children,” says Cheryl Schindler, volunteer program manager at the council, which provides resources, training and housing at rent at about a third of recipients’ income rates, with the aim of eradicating homelessness.
Kel Shabokia’s son William, 10, received a bike last summer. “He was so happy,” says Shabokia, who adds it freed up money to buy other things for William and her other son, Demarius, 1.
“If you think about the baggage carts and the bikes, they have a similarity,” Muellner says. “They help people do ordinary things. All my inventions are to help people enjoy life a little bit more.”
Just Two Bikes: 4701 Banning Ave.. White Bear Lake; 651.426.1548.
Take your wheels to the Papa Bear Bike Ride around White Bear Lake on June 15. The YMCA in White Bear Lake runs the event founded by Jim Muellner of Just Two Bikes. For more information, visit whitebearareaymca.com or call 651.777.8103.