By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Dad is one of the most forward-looking men I've ever met in my entire life," says Rucker's daughter Erin, who helps run the business. "He always has a plan five, 10, 15, 25 years down the road...But at the same time, he doesn't always think of what to do today, tomorrow or the next day to get to 15 years down the road."
The son of a Bell Helicopter sheet metal worker, Rucker says he has always been interested in motors. In high school, he worked as an automotive machinist before he got a job as a mechanic at Northeast Lincoln Mercury and, later, Arendale Ford. But he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug at 21, and he opened Rucker's Speed Shop, a venture that specialized in repairing and customizing hot rods. Later he opened his own filling station and garage.
Rucker hit the entrepreneurial big leagues in 1986 when he started rebuilding diesel engines and transmissions for garbage trucks. He quickly discovered there was huge demand for the rebuilt diesels in the Far East countries of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. During a building boom, developers discovered they could slash their construction costs by attaching backup power generators to Rucker's relatively cheap rebuilt engines. He called his company Tracom, and Rucker drove it from $500,000 in annual revenues in 1989 to some $5 million in 1995, grooming it into one of the world's largest suppliers of rebuilt diesel engines and component parts.
Rucker used his Tracom resources to incubate other companies. In 1997, he launched Texas Environmental Technologies, a firm that conducts engine emissions tests. He also launched Shadow Geometric imaging, a company that used laser copying and computer transference technology to build molds for engine parts no longer available from after-market manufacturers.
But perhaps the most viable company Rucker created was American Ironhorse Motorcycles, an enterprise he says he launched out of frustration. Flush with cash from his Tracom success, Rucker wanted to get himself a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. But when he strolled into the dealership, he found that all his money could buy was the back end of an 18-month waiting list for a $2,000 price tag. "He had a list as long as his arm of people waiting to get motorcycles, and he was selling them at three or four thousand dollars over MSRP [suggested retail]," says Rucker of the salesman. "And I said, 'Well, I'll build one faster than that.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you go do that?'"
Rucker's motorcycle company didn't take formal shape until a bike builder named Tim Edmondson strolled into his office trolling for a job in sales at Tracom. Rucker couldn't fill his bill, so he asked Edmondson what else he would like to do. Edmondson said he wanted to build motorcycles. Rucker asked him to draft a business plan.
American Ironhorse was launched in 1995 to cash in on the motorcycle craze Harley-Davidson so masterfully exploited as a swelling herd of baby boomers graduated from Japanese crotch rockets to low-slung, V-twin thunder beginning in the early 1980s. With Rucker as chief executive officer and Edmondson as president, the pair slowly built American Ironhorse into what would become a $70 million company churning out more than 2,500 bikes a year, according to Rucker (American Ironhorse no longer releases sales and production figures).
But Rucker abruptly left the company in May 2003, and Edmondson, who could not be reached for comment, left in February 2004. Rucker, who held a 51 percent stake in the company, says he left because his job had become a tedious exercise of messaging suits instead of designing and building motorcycles. "Ironhorse got to the point where I was spending all of my time meeting with investment bankers and attorneys and outside CPAs being prepared for Sarbanes Oxley [the 2002 corporate accounting reform act], and it really pulled me away from the things that I love doing," Rucker says.
Court records suggest a different reason. In late 1998, Tracom went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Rucker says the company was strangled by the Asian currency crisis that struck in late 1997. "We just couldn't hang in there," he says. The bankruptcy was converted to Chapter 7 liquidation in January 2002. Among Tracom's assets were 45,000 shares of preferred stock in American Ironhorse, which the company bought back from Tracom for $250,000 in 2004 as part of the bankruptcy settlement. Then in August 2003, American Ironhorse filed a damage suit against Rucker, alleging he was relieved of his CEO duties for misappropriating company funds "by submitting false expense reports, submitting duplicate and triplicate expense reports for the same expense, and maintaining a secret 'off the books' cash account," among other infractions. The suit was quickly settled, and neither side would comment. "He felt like his company was stolen right out from underneath him," says Rucker Performance manager Richie Lamb. "His feelings were hurt toward Ironhorse."