INTERVIEW: Jim Walker

Conquering mountains: Having trebled the company’s size in five years and hitting 50 per cent growth in difficult trading conditions this year, Jim Walker is constantly hitting new peaks. But it’s not just the finances reaching the pinnacle, as Mark Sutton finds out...
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Expansion during a recession is no mean feat for any business. Though, despite the pound’s freefall, Jim Walker has managed to do just that over the past year, and even broadened its portfolio with several established brands in the process. Living legend Eddie Merckx’s own brand was perhaps the icing on the cake.

Long-time customers of Jim Walker will remember a period when the business catered exclusively to the top-end road market, specialising in lightweight, niche products aimed squarely at the motivated cyclist.

Five years ago, current CEO Ian Wilson significantly invested in the company, bringing with him a firm business background, built up both in the UK and in Hong Kong, and plans to expand and diversify, all the while staying true to the heritage and reputation the distributor had earned within the cycle trade over the years.

With Wilson’s arrival came a new era for the business – weighty investment in new property, new IT systems and new people. It is the people that make the business, says Wilson: “Most of the guys here are cyclists, meaning each is passionate and knowledgeable about what they do. It’s really good for me to work among this bunch. They’re an enthusiastic crowd who really care about what they do.”

It was the sad loss of a member of staff to a brain tumour earlier this year that has really united the company, explains Wilson: “Having lost a young member of staff to a brain tumour earlier this year, the business now donates a proportion of sales to cancer charities, something which has united all our staff, in a cause we believe in outside of the cycle business, but something that hopefully our daily efforts can help with.”

The staff aren’t simply enthusiasts, either. Some are competitors, including recent recruit Jaco Erhlers, who has been having a really successful season, taking a win on the Serrl three-day stage race and bagging first place in the Dragon Ride as well. Wilson has also had a crack at competitions previously, including taking part in this year’s Etape, climbing Mount Ventoux, before suffering what he describes as the ‘mother of all bonks’ at Chalet Reynard on race day.

BACK TO BUSINESS

So what exactly is the company’s recent growth attributed to? Wilson tells BikeBiz: “I am sure our firm’s performance has been down to the fact that we have tried to find new and innovative ways to approach doing business, being more professional and very focussed and commercial on what we do. We are just about to launch a really exciting new project, which is going to be incredibly beneficial to all dealers. It will be completely new and innovative, and again, it is very much relationship driven and rewards dealers for their commitment and business. There will also be increased promotional support for participating dealers in-store, through our advertising and on our website.”

Wilson’s aspirations for a stronger business presumably don’t end here? “Who knows quite what the future will bring.

“It may be that we will add more products to the portfolio, but only if they fit well with us. Maybe we will look at growing, through acquiring another business that fits well with ours. Growth has to be for the right reasons and not just for the sake of it.”

With a shortage of top-end road models in the UK at present, being approached by legendary road racer Eddy Merckx with a view to distribute his brand in the UK must have been a dream come true for the business, especially given that two 2010 models are set for early delivery.

ROADIE RETAIL BOOSTED
“It’s true. The demand is really strong, and the appeal of Eddy Merckx is incredibly far reaching. The line has been completely revamped after receiving financial investment,” says Wilson.

“We also had a strong start this season with the addition of Argon18, the Canadian bike brand. It has a particular emphasis on TT and is well known in the triathalon and Ironman markets. With great value and great performance, sales of Argon18 have exceeded our own expectations, even for the brand’s top road bikes, not just the TT models. We sold out quickly, so orders for next season were placed early and in much bigger numbers.”

As part of the firm’s plans to diversify, Sunn Bicycles has been brought on board to offer dealers a freeride solution. Having been unavailable in the UK for some time, the brand has also diversified and is moving with emerging market trends, offering both city-suited bikes, downhill models, 4X race bikes and dirt jump builds.

One of the reasons behind offering a more comprehensive catalogue is simply down to Wilson’s belief that there has been a substantial increase in people turning to cycling.

“People want good kit to help them perform to the best of their abilities. There is a definite increase in people participating in sportives; maybe the Etape is their new challenge after having turned to road cycling from doing XC mountain biking.

Obviously, events like the London triathlon are growing like crazy and maybe people are doing triathlons as a challenge instead of marathons.

HOLIDAY IN THE SUNN?

“On the mountain bike side, there is a definite increase in the number of Brits going abroad to the Alps for bike holidays, just as they would for snowboarding or skiing – which is a particularly key market for Sunn mountain bikes.”

With further investment in high stock levels of each brand, dealers can be assured of a steady supply going forward.

Wilson adds: “Obviously, we spend a lot of time ensuring that we supply quality products, then market and promote them well to the consumer.

“It is also important that we be commercial about what we offer and so we also take a lot of time to ensure that they are priced well, ensuring our dealers can make good margins on them. Then our dealers can have confidence that not only have we selected our products to be desirable, and they will sell-through, but also that they can make good profits selling our products.”

Tel: 08707 528 777
Web: www.i-ride.co.uk

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