What it's really like to manufacture in Britain by cycle firms that do

It's not what it used to be, it's better, says many producing domestically
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Normally when talking about manufacturing in the UK you may feel almost obliged to rattle out the same old “it’s not what it used to be”, “it’ll never be the same again” and perhaps “there’s just no competing with the Far East”.

Well that’s not how we’re going to begin here, because in recent years we’ve been told different by those actually producing domestically – and finally, the statistics are beginning to back the words of those at the helm of British manufacturing firms.

In what will be music to the ears of whichever government is in place by the time this magazine lands, the UK is currently enjoying an eight-month high in output, following 24 consecutive months growth. Yes, the decline in the ‘70s saw the UK free-fall down the world rankings, however the UK today sits at a respectable 11th on the world production tables. Of all the contributing sectors, consumer goods producers reported the greatest expansion in production and fresh business. So, is it still a surprise to read about a domestic manufacturer performing well? “Not at all,” says 26-year veteran of UK manufacturing Alan Weatherill of HopeTech. “What’s barmy about the whole situation is seeing companies now applying for grants to re-shore their production. Ten years ago a Government adviser told us we’d be better off producing in the Far East. 

“Needless to say we didn’t take that advice and I’m glad, because business has been growing by around ten per cent year-on-year for the past few years.”

Ten per cent is of course a very healthy growth figure for any heading on three-decade-old business, but it could be far greater, says Weatherill.

“As it happens, with exports now representing around half of our business, we could actually have grown more, but our production capacity, though expanding through investment in tooling and staff, wouldn’t allow for much more growth. We now sell to 40 other countries, with some of the largest territories – such as Hong Kong and Taiwan – actually based in the heart of the Far East where most goods are made.”

Exports are a topic for which Brompton has long been the poster boy for British-made goods. In October last year Boris Johnson took along one of the iconic London-made folders to an event in Shanghai as part of a six-day trade mission to China.

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The Kew Bridge firm, despite being immensely popular with the frustrated London commuter, actually sells the largest chunk of its bikes throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa – totalling some 13,029 bikes. The Asia-Pacific region follows, with 12,882 shipped, while bikes sold domestically total 9,184. A further 3,357 were sold to North and South America in 2014. Each of those figures are sales from February 2014 to 2015. 

Chief financial and business development officer Lorne Vary told BikeBiz: “Exports have risen from 66 to 80 per cent of output over the past five years. Over the past year the Asia Pacific region has grown by 50 per cent, with Singapore and Korea at the forefront of that growth”.

The firm’s financials are quite staggering as a result. Since 2011 the business has gone from 115 to over 210 staff by 2014, while managing to more than treble its operating profits in the same period. In a recent interview, also in this very mag, Brompton MD Will Butler-Adams said: “UK manufacturing is in the best place it’s been since the mid to late 70s. For 

the first time there is a cross party agreement, including any other party you care to imagine, that making and exporting is good news for UK PLC, both in terms of balancing the books and giving diverse job opportunities to our young children. Not everyone wants to sit at a computer, some prefer to be artistic and create things.”

There is a downside to surging growth, though added Butler-Adams.

“The resurgence of Jaguar Land Rover, which is a big deal for UK manufacturing, happened over the last six to eight years and it takes 15 years or so to create the next generation of engineers. 

“We have this lag between this manufacturing resurgence and the talent being available. The Government is being very sensitive about bringing in talent, which is a threat to the sector’s continued growth. It worries me.” 

It’s not all doom and gloom on the skills front, however, as shown by The Bicycle Academy’s sign up figures, as well as those businesses who are benefitting from the fresh crop of talent emerging.

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Director of the Academy Andrew Denham told BikeBiz: “Our courses are typically booked up four to six months in advance, with between 150 to 200 passing through each year. With two students to one teacher we give a generous amount of time and attention to making sure the skills are perfected before they leave and as a result we have students flying in from as far afield as Russia and New Zealand, among others.”

The Bicycle Academy business grew by a quarter in its second year, but leaped significantly in its third year, with a 70 per cent jump in students. Some simply want to try something different, says Denham, but most are practicing with a view to starting out on their own.

“Next week we’re conducting a folding bike specific build course and that’s on the back of student demand. They come to us as they’re aware we won’t restrict to any one territory. We’ll work with students on anything, even cargo bikes. In recent times the gravel bike has been the most popular. What’s encouraging to us is seeing guys we trained five years ago employing some of the students that leave the academy. At last year’s Bespoke show of the 80 exhibitors 20 per cent had studied with us.”

Denham also argues that the wider industry is helped greatly by having more enthusiasts practicing frame building.

“Cyclists are spending more on their purchases nowadays and really doing their research. Because it’s an artisan product they’re more likely to part with yet more cash. One of our students won last year’s NAHBS people’s choice award and he’s now got a reputation for quality and is able to make a living doing what he loves.”

Stanforth Bikes is one business to have benefitted from a graduate of the academy, with boss Simon Stanforth telling BikeBiz: “The number of frame builders in the UK is on the rise again, a lot of which is to do with the great work the The Bicycle Academy are doing. So availability of skills is improving.”

So recruiting the right people aside, are the commonly assumed downsides still the main thing preventing UK manufacture taking off? Stanforth suggests that the financial implications are the only negative remaining.

“The only downside is cost – British made is unfortunately more expensive, but the quality of the build is worth paying for. 

“Although there are more frame builders available, I feel that currently the capacity for producing affordable 

frames on a mass scale is limited in the UK. Cost is a challenge undoubtedly. I’m hoping this will change with more trained frame builders and increased confidence by the current larger manufacturers to increase their capacity and build British frames at a more affordable price for the smaller manufacturers. I really hope this becomes a reality.”

Despite current manufacturing limitations, Stanforth Bikes has entered its second year with a forecast to triple the number of bikes sold this year, as well as add a Rohloff clad build to its line up. So what are the key advantages for the British upstart? 

“The main advantage is flexibility. Closer collaboration with the frame builders mean that ongoing refinements can be made to constantly improve the design without lengthy lead times. The ability to do this is much more limited when importing from Asia. Our Kibo bike is an expedition bike, so designed for all conditions, a range of terrains and for heavy loads; so it’s absolutely crucial that the frame is built to the highest standard. Frames are only as strong as their weakest link, so the tubing is just one element. Customers are becoming more knowledgeable and increasingly more aware that it’s just not about the quality of the tubing, but how it’s built.”

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So with even those in the Far East heartlands of production buying our goods, does a product bearing the British flag actually influence sales?

John Cookson, USE and Exposure Lights marketing manager, thinks so.

“Export is a key part of our current sales and plan for growth. The Australian and US markets are our biggest for turnover and the Asian market is significant for USE hardware. Feedback shows this is in no small part due to the desire for the Made in the UK badge.”

Like each of the aforementioned manufacturers, USE has posted some very respectable growth in recent times, moving to a much larger facility last year to cope with production and stock demands, as well as coincidentally being one hill closer to the firm’s favoured trails on the South Downs. 

The emergence of 3D printing is further helping small firms develop their own product without outsourcing, something which USE has been taking advantage of in recent times.

“Over the years our processes have changed and we now use a 3D printer for a lot of our prototyping which has sped up our development time. We embrace technology and this has again helped us develop innovative products,” said Cookson.

Seemingly it is now both easier and faster than ever to go from a quick sketch to production with less outsourced help. This opens the doors for anyone who had been tossing around the thought of going it alone. Minus the 3D printer, a very rare skillset is also handy when it comes to going it alone.

One such person to have made the leap, although almost by accident, is Lee Wickens, the mind behind a brand that is now found in the Dianomi stable – Wickens and Soderstrom. 

Once more this is a brand going after the high-end customer, though this isn’t a frame builder you’ve not yet heard of, but instead an innovator in the lubrication and sealants market. Developed for his own bike and eventually handed to a local bike shop, Wickens’ business began by chance and based on some overwhelming feedback.

Working alongside some top UK industrial chemists, Wickens has developed a sealant that “never dries”, as well as a lubricant that will not only lubricate, but actively smooth micro imperfections in bearings and parts.

Wickens tells BikeBiz: “We’ve spent a lot of research and development time in the lab, creating as many as 100 formulas spanning two years work to reach a conclusion on the best blends. Our tyre sealant is a complex mix that we’ve developed alongside some experts in the field, including the RAC’s specialist in tyre sealant. Our unique blend of sealant can be installed with a track pump, which most mechanics will be thrilled to hear. What’s more, our testing has shown it to be as good as 98 per cent air tight, with the solution fixing holes by weaving tiny fibres into a patch when exposed to pressure and air.” 

Another blender of bike relevant cocktails is Muc-Off, which continues to flourish, growing business some 28 per cent last year with more of the same forecast.

Though odd items such as brushes and cloths are now been outsourced to the far east, that nice pink stuff that keeps your customer’s bikes and more or less anything else you apply it to shiny has always been made in the UK, where it is now sold exclusively by Fisher Outdoors.

Started in 1991 by the Trimnell family, Muc-Off has heading on for 25 years experience managing the ups and downs of domestic production. Alex Trimnell, MD told BikeBiz: “We are seeing rapid growth in our export markets and are now selling to over 80 customers in 40 Countries. We’ve sold over 4 million bottles since 1998 and in that time it’s been incredibly important to be in control of our lead times, as well as have a greater level of quality control and flexibility.” 

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Also enjoying a bit of market crossover is DP Brakes of Nuneaton, originally a motorcycle brake pad manufacturer, now using its experience to make inroads into cycling via distribution from Claud Butler.

Formerly Dunlopad, the business has over 30 years experience in the production of brake pads and with the expansion into slightly slower bicycles is revelling in an entirely fresh set of challenges.

DP’s original project engineer Frank Edwards said: “We continually invest in the latest techniques and will be looking to significantly increase production over the next few years by investing in robotics and enhanced production techniques. We could have taken the easy route by using overseas companies, but I feel you are then lose the ability of control your own destiny. 

“We wish to continue to provide secure employment with career opportunities’. By developing product and continuing investing in research and development, we can explore new markets, whether it is bicycles or racing snowmobiles.”

Formerly a staple of the Midlands’ factories, clothing manufacture in the UK is a rarity nowadays, yet in the 80s the region was one of the wealthiest places in Europe thanks to the trade. 

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Chris Puttnam’s Velobici does Leicestershire proud, producing 100 per cent of his garments in the UK – and he’s no fan of those who only apply the finishing touches here and try to pass it off.

“My father is a knitwear mechanic by trade and owned a small factory when we were growing up,” says Puttnam. “He really began to struggle from the mid-‘80s and ‘90s as everything was moving abroad. I have such fond memories of factory life as a boy, so it seemed to be the logical way to go if it was at all possible to 

produce the quality that Velobici demands. I think we’ve proven that the machinery and make up skills are still alive and well. We find it a tad frustrating that certain companies bring in finished garments from outside the UK, put an embroidery on and pass it off as made in Britain!”

One label where there’s absolutely no mistaking where the heritage lies is Stratford Upon Avon-based Pashley, who have been making cycles domestically since 1926. 

Proving the quality of the product, the Royal Mail’s tender process originally involved eight European companies, shortlisted to three. Those three makers supplied 180 bicycles for test, with Pashley putting forward the step through framed Pronto. Coming out on top after a year-long test programme, the Pronto became the Mailstar. 

Royal Mail has since largely turned its back on delivering post by bicycle, though the Pronto lives on as the bicycle of choice for numerous other albeit smaller delivery firms worldwide. Though the impact of less delivery bikes has affected the firm, the slack has been taken up by new builds such as the traditional ladies bike, for which the firm is boosting sales with promotions alongside collaborative partners, such as Country Living and Mulberry.

The 160 plus products rolling off the production line require some 4,270 component parts, all of which are produced and stocked in the West Midlands warehouse. 

With near 90 years under its belt, Pashley has sailed the often stormy seas of manufacturing with a determination like few others, says managing director Adrian Williams.

“In order to remain competitive, we have to keep our overheads as low as possible, so our office staff wear six hats and are kept to a minimum, while we have over 40 production-based employees. 

“Of course we do know it would be cheaper to shift our production overseas, but we are committed to producing quality products for our customers and do not to wish to sacrifice quality for quantity.”

Supporting over 90 UK-based suppliers and subcontractors, Pashley’s support for the local economy extends beyond its four walls and staff are repaying the firm’s loyalty to domestic production, with some retained by the firm for as long as 45 years.

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With skills retained, the firm has had no problem producing 10,000 bicycles annually in recent times. But the next generation of engineers is filtering through, says the Pashley boss.

“We have a good age mix of employees and are fortunate that local school leavers are keen to be involved with bicycle manufacture and will take up apprenticeship opportunities with us. 

“Where we cannot find them, we train them up and we are currently busy investing in staff and equipment. We have recruited a design and development team, who use the latest computer aided design software complete with finite element analysis.”

Further filling the void left by the Mailstar, exports have become a significant part of Pashley’s business, with a jump from just 15 up to 40 per cent of sales in recent years.

“We are now exporting to 50 countries worldwide and we are getting enquiries all the time from some far flung places, such as Australia and Qatar. Just recently we shipped 50 bikes to Abu Dhabi, so our international sales manager ‘Export Dave’ is being kept very busy,” concludes Williams.

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Trek UK I Milton Keynes I Competitive Salary I Date Published Wednesday 20th March 2018