In the rural wilds of Bedfordshire is one of the oldest distributors, nay, oldest companies in the UK bicycle business.
This company has enjoyed long term relationships with many of the brands in its portfolio, has employees that have spent decades with the firm and the family business has only ever moved three times despite being just four years short of its century – and one of those moves only took place thanks to a fire that almost killed the business off.
We are of course talking about Chicken CycleKit, best known as a distributor of high-end road brands to the bike trade.
In the corner of its Leighton Buzzard meeting room there’s an odd football-sized blob mounted to a plaque, which on closer inspection turns out to be a number of coins that were fused together in the extraordinarily high temperatures of the fire eight years ago. They were inside a safe in the Kensworth office at the time of the blaze and are virtually the only surviving item.
“The fire was so intense that bricks actually cracked,” Cedric Chicken tells BikeBiz. “We lost everything – it could have broken us. But our computer records were off-site so we were actually up and running the next day.”
Thanks to rock solid supplier relationships, the distributor was back in business in a surprisingly short space of time: “We wrote to all our suppliers and they re-routed consignments to us. In the end we only lost two weeks turnover.”
The fire, which took place back in November 2007, is also the reason there’s not as much paraphernalia on the walls as you’d expect, the bulk of it consumed in the blaze.
“Pro cyclists have big crashes but they come back. It’s a gritty old sport, you have to dig in.”
Post-fire, Chicken moved to its present Leighton Buzzard site. Mike Catlin, commercial director and Chicken Cyclekit employee of around 23 years tells BikeBiz the firm has gone on to virtually double staff numbers in each of its departments, from sales to workshops and beyond, with around 38 staffers now in the ranks.
That depth in people has meant the firm can now do more bike building on-site, with three full-time bike builders. It used to offer just Tifosi bike frames, but now Cinelli and Deda are part of the service. “We offer an ‘a la carte’ service – you can choose what colour bar tape, type of bar you have, whatever… and we can do it quickly,” Chicken says.
It’s not just bike building, infrastructure has been a focus for Chicken too. A fully fledged new computer system has now been installed – Microsoft Navision. “It will have a major impact for us. We used to have a number of smaller systems but now it is all rolled into one.”
Service has necessitated the growth, the distributor boss explains: “The trade needs to be looked after. So many shops are understaffed but they have to be competitive – it’s really tough.
“We have a lot of staff fully trained up in product and brands and that’s an enormous help to retailers. We’re lucky to be in an industry where there are a lot of technical advances, but that often means a big jump in knowledge is required – our staff can help with that – like the first time electronic gears were introduced.”
That expansion has also come from growing trade. Chicken Cyclekit’s business has been on the up since about 2006 and ambitious targets have been set for 2015 “which I am sure we will meet”.
“We have seen a bubble in the trade. You often see a wave that lasts seven years or so and then it goes down, but there has been no sign of that.
“If you look at Europe there’s no big growth in France and Germany and quite a lot of distributors over there have been looking to get into the UK market as they see it is expanding here.”
Closer to home there are interesting things going on at the front line of bike retail too. Chicken tells us: “All the shops are improving and the press are backing them by talking about cycling all the time. The standard of retailing is definitely going up. People with money have come into the trade and are good entrepreneurs.
“There’s a huge number of retailers coming in – we have had around 400 new accounts in the last two years.”
Catlin adds: “They aren’t tin pot shops either, there are very creditable ones coming through and it’s not a case of seeing ten new retailers and then ten closing, we’re simply seeing more dealers.”
Those shops are being serviced by an increasingly popular B2B site but there’s still lots of phone contact, we’re told (and when we visited the Chicken sales floor it was quite the hive of activity, we can confirm).
“Three years ago we had one field sales guy,” Chicken says. “Now we’ve three and a sales director. We’ve got a new sales person in the office too and then there are two brand managers recruited to contact customers. The whole business has really ramped up. You have to reinforce the foundations after a while.”
Despite a number of new brands coming on board recently, there are no new distribution deals in the works, the firm claims, with the intent on growing sales for existing brands instead.
Science in Sport (SiS) was amongst the latest to join the coop, joining as Gatorade’s owner Pepsi decided to put more emphasis on marketing in Europe.
“There’s big potential for SiS. They’ve got a far bigger range and we do tend to do well with big brand names.”
Other signings over the last 18 months or so include Zefal, Flinger Mudguards and Superior Bikes. There’s another reason for keeping the portfolio tight: “We don’t like to have a lot of overlapping product, it is confusing for retailers. There is colossal choice out there.
“We’ve been working with Selle Italia for decades, 30 years ago there were about ten saddle brands globally and now look at it! I may be exaggerating slightly,” Chicken admits, but the point is a solid one. “It amazes me how Selle Italia manage to bring out new ideas, using new materials and designs, when there is just so much already out there.”
Tifosi is among the brands that have benefited from the surge in road cycling: “There’s more people watching racing on the telly and reading about it – that has helped push the brand.”
Tifosi now has a good number of cycle to work-friendly models to complement its high end lines. This year the range is completely updated with new models and livery for the first time.
Catlin agrees: “Tifosi has been very strong for us. We’re seen as a high-end road distributor and we have ridden the crest of the wave with road cycling.
“Looking ahead, road disc brakes are becoming more important and we’ve got some in the ranges already, but the 2016 models will have more disc options. Campag are obviously working on something too, so that will be big.
“Campagnolo continues to grow and grow every year – it’s very important to us,” Catlin adds.
“There’s such a big Campagnolo range now,” says Cedric Chicken. “Maybe 60 or 70 per cent of the range wasn’t there five years ago. It’s been a massive sea-change. More pro cyclists are happy to use Campagnolo and it is getting better and better.”
This year saw Fisher start to share distribution duties for the prestige brand: “The market is expanding and Fisher can help open Campag up to a different part of the market for us and help get it in the hands of younger riders.”
Other brands with expansion in their sights include Sapim. Now with a new factory in Antwerp the firm will be able to get more product into the hands of Chicken and its dealer network.
And what about the future for Chicken Cyclekit? “2014 was a year of consolidation for us, and now with new IT and phone systems and improving marketing…this year is all about the sales. There’s so much potential in the UK cycle market. You see a lot of big companies now have subsidiaries opening here and that’s indicative of their belief in the UK market.”