UK manufacturing: ten bike firms talk pros and cons

Brooks, Brompton, Enigma, Fibrax, Empire, SealSkinz, Hope, USE, Crud and Moda discuss their domestic manufacturing efforts, the sacrifices made and finding skilled labour
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Manufacturing in the Far East is what everyone in the bike business does, right? Well, no, not everyone. In fact, with costs and lead times out east still spiralling skywards, suddenly many in the business are daring to ask “are things slowly coming full circle, could UK manufacturing once again thrive?”

Green shoots are appearing, with a brighter than expected output figure on homegrown goods earlier this year tentatively signalling that Britain’s industrial heart is still beating. Within the bicycle trade, which is often (correctly or not) described as ‘recession proof’, are some celebrated examples of 100 per cent UK-made product.

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As the most decorated of the bunch by journalists, royals and politicians, thanks to its ever-growing export business among other things, this article would be incomplete without Brompton of London.

Emerson Roberts, marketing manager, told BikeBiz how the brand is now recognised worldwide: “We distribute to 42 countries around the world. In the UK, Ireland, Canada, USA and China we distribute directly; in all other territories, we work with a local distribution partner. Over the past two years, four ‘Brompton Junctions’ (brand embassies for all things Brompton) have opened in Kobe, Shanghai, Hamburg and Amsterdam.”

With a workforce now totalling 190 people, the majority of which hold assembly roles, the skills are very much still available in the UK.

“When the factory moved to its current location in 1998, there was enough room at one end of the facility to have a kick-about at lunch time. Now we are close to bursting point, despite implementing numerous lean manufacturing methods and taking on an additional site nearby since Easter,” added Roberts.

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Smaller fish are thriving too, citing the ability to react quickly to market demands and an element of flexibility as reasons why their foothold on the market is a firm one.

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Sarah Baines of Fibrax, a 111 year-old North Wales-based manufacturer, best known for braking goods, as well as recent innovations such as a double life cleat for cycling shoes, told BikeBiz: “Being a producer in the UK allows us to turn a batch of goods around relatively quickly. We either supply off the shelf, for fast delivery, or can produce quickly in the event all stock has been sold. We’ve never contemplated moving abroad, as we couldn’t cope without that level of reactivity that producing here allows.”

Making a living is key for these smaller manufacturers and celebrated British mudguard manufacturer Crud, led by former painter and decorator Peter Tompkins, says that growth isn’t necessarily part of the plan for now.

“We have tripled sales in the last five years, thanks to taking control of our distribution, and re-designing the whole range (particularly the Roadracer). We moved out of my garage some years ago into a purpose-built 500sq.m unit, and currently employ nine people. That includes my wife Jayne and myself, Jayne’s sister and husband, my daughter, plus we retain my son on contract as a designer. You might call it a family business. As it happens, at present more turnover would bring too many headaches, so we’re happy to tick along. From my point of view, trade really couldn’t be better. Our direct competitors all have a weak Pound to contend with so we have an advantage.”

Both Brompton and custom bike builder Enigma have told BikeBiz that even they, to a certain extent, do work with Asian factories on certain projects.

While Brompton simply sources a proprietary material for its Oratory jackets from the east, Jim Walker, managing director of Enigma Titanium, said that in order to allow the UK made side to grow, certain projects have to be outsourced.

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He said: “There is no getting away from it, manufacturing is hard work and it needs to be a long-term plan, certainly in our game where the skills required take years to learn. Add to this the price advantage with no capital equipment cost, or training cost, and it’s easy to see why the vast majority of people choose the imported option. It’s no secret that we also import frames ourselves as we simply do not presently have the capacity to build all that we sell. However, as our manufacturing capacity increases, so our imports will decrease. The imports are enabling us to grow our own manufacturing capability, we could not do what we do without them.”

Growth is coming for Enigma, though, with the first overseas distributor currently being appointed. Combined with this, the workforce has grown, despite difficulties in finding adequately skilled staff and the firm has made a move to a larger premises in order to accommodate further capacity and output growth.

Walker has found that discovering a skilled employee can sometimes be a double-edged sword. He explains: “It’s just not possible to hire frame builders of the calibre we require off-the-shelf, those with the necessary skills tend to work by themselves in a shed somewhere building frames. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it does nothing for the British manufacturing industry where it is vital these skills are passed to a new generation. This is what we are trying to do, but it can be soul destroying when you hire unskilled people, train them to the required level and then watch them say ‘thanks, I’m now off to build frames for myself’, which has happened on more than one occasion.”

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From one exotic material crafter to the next, USE and Eurobike UK are two firms developing a homegrown taste for carbon manufacture, with the latter having debuted a complete bike at The Cycle Show late last year. Developed in conjunction with Vekta, a Stoke on Trent manufacturer who also make bespoke parts for Formula One teams, the Moda frameset comes in at under one kilogramme and can be made fully bespoke to a customer’s measurements.

Produced in the Sussex hills, Roger Sparrow’s USE and Exposure continue to innovate. With a penchant for aerobars, USE’s latest R1 brings with it new patents for its ‘Inline’ brake levers and light but rigid construction. The firm states that in wind tunnel testing that there is ‘A 39 per cent energy saving over the previous USE Tula aerobar and up to 69 per cent energy saving at 31mph over other 3:1 bars tested.

One of the perks of building here is the marketing angle, proudly used by each and every brand to draw domestic customers to brands iconic of Britain.

One such brand, often described as iconic within cycling circles, is saddle, clothing and luggage maker Brooks. Few sit up and beg style bikes are complete without a Brooks saddle, widely specced by OEM manufacturers and as an aftermarket choice alike. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this is something the Brooks label suffers, with copycat brands attempting to replicate a style and quality associated with the British label, in business since 1866.

The firm, despite copycats, is expanding too, having branched into leather pannier–ready satchels, knapsacks and saddlebags, rain jackets and merino jerseys, many of which have come highly lauded by the consumer press to date.

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To the all important issue of cost, Barnoldswick manufacturer Hope believes the Far East isn’t necessarily better value for money. Alan Weatherill, Hope’s sales and marketing man told BikeBiz: “Overall, manufacturing in the UK doesn’t really work out to be much more expensive. The guys in China use the same machinery and their raw materials costs are the same, as they often obtain it from the same steel consolidators. Here we have a very skilled and efficient workforce too; our staff can work up to eight machines at a time. They are very productive so the overall labour costs really aren’t that different to what you’d find in China.”

Supporting local people has always been important to Hope and was part of the reason the firm came to exist. With co-founder Ian Weatherill noting a large unemployment rate locally, the firm now employs nearly 90 people, the majority of whom live within two miles of the factory. These staff now operate over 50 CNC machines, 24 hours a day, to produce the stems, bars, sprockets and many other goods that so many of us sport on our bikes both here and overseas.

Currently there’s very little that Hope Mill cannot take from the drawing board to the sample stage in the space of a week. For example, when SRAM released the XX1, Hope had the drawings for a compatible freehub body done within a day. The first working sample was also completed in under 24 hours. With the market still favouring lightweight products, Hope tells BikeBiz that in the near future they will look to bring carbon fibre production in-house, beginning with the simple bits and pieces. Knowing Hope, it'll likely go far beyond in time.

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On to perhaps the ultimate British pastime – avoiding sudden downpours. Alternatively, if your customers are kitted out with Seal Skinz goods, 50 per cent of which are manufactured in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, they may be tempted outdoors through our typically long winters.

Having a keen eye on quality control is something the firm particularly prides itself on, says David Jesson, sales and marketing director: “The production staff are all passionate about making the products with a close attention to detail including several visual checks and stringent quality testing on every sock and glove. Our water leak testing is done by hand on every knitted sock and glove to ensure that every product leaves us 100 per cent waterproof.”

But that’s not all, having a team all under one roof is another perk of in-house production, explains Jesson.
“Also having this operation in one building encourages much more interaction and learning between the technical teams and the sales and marketing teams.”

Seal Skinz, like many of the aforementioned labels, isn’t content with standing still. Recently the firm has secured the exclusive rights to sell the brand into the Americas, New Zealand and beyond.

“Focus is currently given to setting up the USA operation to tap into this huge market opportunity. In continental Europe we have an extensive network of well-established distributors, which account for just short of 20 per cent of total sales for the business. We are continually expanding our export markets across the world to new territories like China, Japan and Russia.”

Dealing with the mud and grime equally as well, is Empire Cycles, who have been manufacturing here in the UK for a while now, but only recently have announced that they’re looking to broaden the business with a number of retail partners.

The UK manufactured mountain bike label’s current range of bikes is made up of the race-proven AP-1 Downhill bike and the MX-6 trail/Enduro bike.

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The firm does, however, have plans to expand the line and, in the process, grow awareness of the products among riders and up their presence within the industry, as owner Chris Williams explains.

“Our aim now is to make the wider mountain bike riding world aware of just how great our products really are and to work with retail partners to achieve increased sales for both parties.”

So what have the ten manufacturers mentioned here got in common? We at BikeBiz think it has been best summed up by Enigma Titanium’s Jim Walker. Put simply, he says that despite the obstacles to producing goods here, the key to success is simple.

“I do see a time when the price advantage of buying from the Far East shrinks as the demands of their labour forces increase, but the danger is that we as a nation will have lost so much of our manufacturing infrastructure, not to mention manufacturing skills, that we will be unable or unwilling to take advantage of such a situation. You have to have the will to do what we do, without it you will never succeed.”

The Wheels of Industry from hopetech on Vimeo.

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i-ride.co.uk I Burgess Hill, Sussex I Competitive Salary Plus Commission I Date Published Tuesday 20th November 2018