Seven years on from founding the breakaway steel and titanium frame building workshop, Jim Walker is growing yet another cycling business into something rather unique in the market. BikeBiz asks Walker about UK manufacturing ‘coming full circle’, retaining highly skilled artisan framebuilders and much more…
By definition, the word Enigma is ‘a person or thing that is difficult to understand’, which from an outsider’s point of view in a way perfectly describes the small, yet fast growing, Hailsham frame manufacturer. The more questions we asked of 35-year trade veteran Jim Walker, the man who sold the self-titled distribution business some seven years ago, the more astonishing it seems that such a business can exist, let alone thrive, in the UK.
“It’s something I had in my mind to start a UK-made bicycle firm all those years ago. I’ve always wanted to contribute to the British industry. With labour rates having increased in the Far-East and the fact that workers out east are more aspirational than ever before, it almost seems like manufacturing could come full circle. I feel that now is a good time to produce here. The comparative manufacturing costs are certainly becoming better value, though it’s not without its challenges.”
As we all know, the high-end road market is really performing at present, allowing specialists in the area to run with some bold ideas and actually make some money from a trade in which, during the past few years, many would have been happy to simply survive.
Inside a relatively short period of time, the brand has become synonymous with quality and that really is quite an achievement. But it’s not been an easy ride, as Walker explains: “It’s hard to retain such skilled staff. That’s always been an issue, yet we can’t really hold it against the staff that do train here and ultimately become ambitious enough to start their own projects. What I am lucky to have now is an excellent core of staff, many of which have worked with me at my prior business. The people in this workshop now are either naturally talented, or have trained hard to earn the title craftsman.”
There’s not a whole load of training available to those who want to turn tubing into bicycles and that too is part of the challenge that has faced Walker.
“My youngest son has taught himself how to weld titanium and we now believe him to be the only person in the UK hand making titanium frames.”
Such a rare skill does of course present problems for a business with a strong forward order book. At present there’s a 120-day lead time for custom UK made frames. But increasingly, the service offered by Walker and his team is worth the wait for the 200 customers per year getting their hands on their dream, domestically-made frame or bike.
“We’re able to do some incredible things in-house now, most recently having set up our own paint shop. We’re now able to offer the custom paintwork, for any customer, whether they want their Enigma sprayed, or simply want to send us another bike of theirs for respray. Unlike many other paint shops, we can even spray on to carbon without any heating processes involved. I was half expecting other brands to be sending their bikes here to be sprayed, that’s how tidy a finished product we can offer.”
The firm’s ambitions are one by one being ticked off, with Walker talking to BikeBiz about his hopes and current discussions to analyse the feasibility of adding carbon production to a space within the same building.
“We’re currently taking on some expensive outsourced knowledge,” jokes Walker. “It is of course going to be costly to set up, but it’s an investment we’d like to make as soon as possible. Like the rest of the things we make, we’ll only use the finest materials, it’ll be a high-grade carbon. If it proves cost effective, we could soon have more than the team of nine currently here.”
If you count the Australian distributor also appointed this year, the firm’s first international partner, the Enigma family is already branching out.
“Exports are very strong and we get orders from all over the world. Even China, funnily enough. It’s a British guy importing our frames to the other side of the world and business is booming, the Australian’s love the product. We’re looking at select dealers in France and Benelux in the near future. It would be nice to link with a distributor in the USA, but it’s not as straightforward as we’d like it to be.”
Domestically, the need to appoint retailers has never been more urgent. Being popular is proving difficult to manage, explains Walker.
“It’s excellent to have customers who want to know our story and come along to see things first hand, often taking an active role in their project where possible. The problem with having customers visit the factory is that it ties staff up who otherwise would be on the shop floor producing. It is for this reason we are actively on the lookout for retail partners now. We have around 20 nationwide, but I’m open to appointing another ten strong road dealers, who will benefit from our referrals and will be tasked with measuring a customer up and assisting in placing their order.”
Positions are sought particularly in Scotland, Wales and the north of England. Dealers with bike fitting equipment and expertise is preferred.
With an average spend of £3,500 and around 80 per cent of customers having their frames built into complete bikes via Enigma, Walker believes there’s an opportunity to build a network of retailers and has already begun designing point of sale material in order to develop relationships.
“Just last month we had our highest value order, a build costing the other side of £9,000. What’s interesting is that this was the particular customer’s second or third bike from us. We actually have customers who have had as many as six of our bikes, so there’s certainly a brand loyalty developing. If I had to pick a goal for the next five years, it would be to be known worldwide for our engineering within the cycling business.”