Meet Britain’s cycling entrepreneurs

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Cycling is enjoying a renaissance in Britain thanks, in part, to a greater focus on health, investment in infrastructure and Olympic success. Yet 98 per cent of bikes sold in the UK are made overseas. We look at the boom in cycling, the campaigns to build safer cycle lanes and meet the British entrepreneurs bidding to get cyclists to buy British…

Cycling in Britain is booming. Earlier this month, Transport for London revealed that the number of cyclists in the capital has reached a record high, with 610,000 people a day getting in the saddle last year – up five per cent on 2013.

The provision of kerb-protected ‘Dutch-style’ cycle paths are among Bristol’s plans to double cycling from 2013 levels by 2020, while Cambridge is expanding cycle lanes. A 2013 Department of Transport survey found that the distance travelled by bike was up 28 per cent in eleven years. However, last week’s announcement by George Osborne of £4.5bn in government cost-cutting measures will see £23 million slashed from the money promised to boost cycling cities.

Under mayor Boris Johnson, London is currently building a network of kerb-protected cycling superhighways. The 18-mile east-west and five-mile north-south superhighways (plus ‘Dutch-style’ upgrades to some other cycle lanes) are due for completion next spring.

The proposals were met with concerns from some quarters including the Canary Wharf Group, the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) and Westminster council. However 170 employers voiced their support to the new segregated superhighways after a spirited social media campaign – Cycling Works – was launched by five commuter cyclists including Chris Kenyon, a senior vice president at software firm Canonical, his lighting designer brother Jono, and Danny Williams, a managing director at Euromoney Institutional Investor. Major companies that backed the proposals included Unilever, RBS, Coca-Cola, Baker Tilly, Microsoft, Cemex UK and Land Securities.

Cycling, it seems, is back in vogue in the UK. The triumph of eight Olympic gold medals at London 2012 turned the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy into national heroes, while major newspapers have joined the campaign for better cycling infrastructure. As Director has reported cycling is also becoming a popular way for directors and business leaders to network.

“It is the normalisation of cycling, it is the cool-isation of cycling,” says Will Butler-Adams, managing director of Brompton, the London-based folding-bike manufacturer. “The fact is this isn’t a poor person’s activity; it’s an intelligent person’s activity and it’s bloody good fun.”

A 2010 report by the LSE for Sky and British Cycling found that cycling contributed £2.9bn to the UK economy. It forecast that just a 20 per cent increase in cycling levels by 2015 could save the economy £207m in reduced traffic congestion, while health benefits could save the economy £128m a year.

“People are getting too fat and the simplest way to have a positive effect on that is 20 minutes light exercise a day,” says Butler-Adams.

While the many benefits are obvious, with all but a fraction of the manufacturing being done overseas, the UK isn’t capitalising on the cycling boom as fully as it might. Like so many industries, British cycling suffers from a shortage of engineers.

“It’s a massive problem,” says Butler-Adams. “There is no quick fix. You have to unlock the ability for us to bring in engineers from abroad, which we are doing, but you have to get engineers going into schools to educate pupils at a young age on what engineering is.”

“Only two per cent of all bikes sold in England are manufactured here,” explains Adrian Williams, managing director of Stratford-upon-Avon-based Pashley Bicycles. Famous names like Raleigh, now owned by Accell of the Netherlands, moved production to Asia in 2003, and even renowned saddle and bag manufacturer Brooks England fell into international hands a year earlier, although its Italian owners have kept production in Britain.

Fortunately, alongside firms producing accessories, clothing and parts, other UK bike-makers have sprung up to join stalwarts of the industry such as Pashley and Brompton in bringing innovation to the market. We profiled some of them in the June 2014 issue of Director. Read their inspiring stories here…

Will Butler-Adams, managing director, Brompton Bicycle

Brompton has manufactured folding bicycles in London for 38 years. Managing director Will Butler-Adams describes how the business he joined in 2002 has grown from 24 employees to 225, upping turnover from £2m to £27m in 2013

Will Butler-Adams Brompton Bicycle cycling and business“When I joined, I was amazed this type of business existed in the UK. It was making a profit, but not enough bikes. Machinery was old and the business wasn’t lean. Brompton’s founder [and technical director] Andrew Ritchie is a phenomenal inventor and an incredible man of detail. That’s an enormous strength, but in growing and running a business it’s also a weakness because he took every decision, signed every cheque. In my previous job running a chemical plant, I learnt that my job was not to do, but to enable… I get the best people and allow them to do what they are good at.

“There is no question [now] that we would not have set out to manufacture bikes in London, but being based in the capital has its advantages – intellectual property being one of them. We don’t patent because there is more knowledge in how we make the bike than the bike itself. Our staff aren’t suddenly going to move to China and no other fruitcakes are going to make bikes in London, so that knowledge is safe.

“Manufacturing and engineering requires a very long-term view. You have to invest in the next five or 10 years. Because we only make one bike we can get anal, not just about the bike, but about how we make it so we’re offering value to the customer. We’re trying to design the leanest process – we have Raspberry Pi on all our production lines, thermographic cameras and programme logic controller systems – and venture capitalists with nonsensical three-year turnarounds don’t have a role to play in our business. Eighty per cent of our bikes are exported to 44 countries and this long-term view gives us a freedom to innovate and make the product competitive in the global market.”

Adrian Williams, managing director, Pashley Cycles

Cycling entrepreneur Adrian Williams holding one of his Pashley Cycles
Aeronautical engineer Adrian Williams bought Britain’s oldest bicycle manufacturer in 1994. From its factory in Stratford-upon-Avon, the 88-year-old business boasts a £45m turnover

“When I led a management buyout of the family business started in 1926 by Rath Pashley, the banks weren’t interested in our British-built classic bikes. Mountain bikes were all the rage, as was offshoring. I hated this short-term approach. The phone was ringing off the hook [with customer enquiries], the workforce was willing. Fortunately 3i invested and were paid off five years later, and a new investor shareholder was brought in.

“The shift towards cycling, a return to favour of the classic commuter bike and the 2008 downturn actually saw an increase in demand for British bikes. Export has jumped from 15 to 45 per cent with distribution in more than 50 countries. We sell small quantities – 10,000 units a year – but we keep overheads low and, fortunately, with 160 products, pricing can vary.

“We always had two divisions: consumer and commercial. Supplying Royal Mail traditionally accounted for 60 per cent of sales, but as it phased out bike deliveries, we had to replace that business. Now 15 to 20 per cent are commercial. Overseas postal services, oil refineries and car manufacturers are among 250 customers. Of consumer sales, 70 per cent are ladies’ bikes.

“We might be seen as traditional but creativity, innovation, design and technology matter. There is a huge temptation to outsource, but despite competition from the ‘box shifters’ selling cycles made in Taiwan, I won’t. Pashley employs 54 people and has 92 local suppliers – we have a social responsibility to them all.”

Isla Rowntree, founder and director, Islabikes

Cycling entrepeneur Isla Rowntree holding one of her Islabikes

Shropshire-based Islabikes is the UK’s market-leader for quality children’s bikes, appealing to design-savvy parents and youngsters alike. At its helm is Isla Rowntree (World Masters cyclo-cross champion, 1999) who tells how her company has scaled over the last 10 years

“Islabikes formed to fill a gap in the market. My friends and family were all having kids, and because I’ve been involved in cycle design all my working life, they were asking me what to get. I couldn’t recommend anything as most children’s bikes were heavy, awkward and not ergonomically designed with the child in mind. I set out to change that, founding Islabikes in 2005.

“Our growth has gone alongside increasing concerns about children’s health and activity levels, plus the cycling boom. Today, we’re the market-leader for quality children’s bikes (ages two to 14) with turnover increasing by around 30 per cent each year for the last three years. “We have high margins, thanks to our consumer-direct distribution. We design bikes ourselves, get initial manufacturing done in south-east Asia, then we do the final assembly before selling them directly.

“Promotional expenses are low – our main marketing tool is word of mouth. Parents of young children are sociable with other parents, aided by chatter on Mumsnet. If we do a good job, parents just tell each other.

“We employ 25 to 30 people in Shropshire and opened in Portland, Oregon [seen as the US’s most cycle-friendly city] last year. But the industry is under-resourced in terms of specialists. We find it difficult to recruit qualified mechanics so we don’t try, training people via in-house programmes [instead].

“Parents have always bought bikes for their kids. Riding a bike is a rite of passage, like learning to swim. We want to continue that tradition, providing a better cycling experience for children through intelligent designs and exceptional quality and keep on being the innovator.”

Nick Larsen, founder and global GM, Charge Bikes

Cycling entrepreneur Nick Larsen with one of his Charge Bikes

© Jay Brooks

Somerset-based Charge Bikes was established by ex-Pashley designer Nick Larsen in 2005. Since then, it has been acclaimed for its sturdy, fashionable bikes – such as 2007’s popular Plug, which kick-started a recent trend for user-friendly cycles

“At Charge, we’re focused on non-enthusiasts, the biggest emerging market. [Cycling] manufacturing doesn’t do entry-level bikes as well as high-end ones. You can make a really amazing BMX for £250, so why can’t you make a single-speed bike for an adult at the same price?

“Just after starting Charge, fixed-gear and single-speed bikes suddenly became fashionable. Luckily, we were there two years before the big brands. When I first presented Plug, people were like, ‘What the hell is that? That’ll never sell’ because it was so simple, with only one gear. But it took off because it was there at the right time, met the needs of consumers and nobody else had it. By volume, it’s our biggest seller.

“To target non-enthusiasts, Charge builds brand awareness by aligning ourselves with brands like [shoemaker] Vans. But awareness is hard in the cycling industry, because the route to market is through bike shops, which aren’t based in city-centre locations with beautiful displays.

“Sales grew by 25 per cent last year [2013] with half of our turnover in parts and accessories like saddles. We manufacture in the Far East – for a global distribution network it’s difficult to do this in the UK – and export worldwide, with Japan and the US currently our biggest overseas markets. Cycling’s image in the UK is improving. If I went to dinner 10 years ago and told people I was a bike designer, they would look at me like I was a freak. Now they say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’”

Rob Bodill, founder, Jyrobike

Rob Bodill Founder of Jyrobike

The Jyrobike promises children they can learn to ride a bike in one afternoon via the innovative technology in its front wheel. And it’s set to transform people’s lives, according to the Australian (but UK-based) entrepreneur behind it

“In late 2011, I was looking online for innovative products that had good patent protection, when I stumbled upon the first version of the Gyrobike (as it then was), which had been developed by four students at Dartmouth College [US Ivy League university]. At that time, it was just a front wheel and I thought, ‘There’s something missing here – the bike!’ I flew straight to San Francisco, bought the patents (which took a year), later securing funding from a Dragons’ Den event in London in 2013, where I met a Belfast-based investor [Jyrobike is split between Belfast and Philadelphia].

“The Jyrobike is the world’s first ‘auto-balance’ bicycle, with a unique control hub sitting in the front wheel, which uses gyroscopic technology to keep the bike upright and balanced. When riders start to wobble, the bike resists and straightens the rider up.

“Kids can learn to ride in one afternoon without stabilisers. It’s not just children – we want people back on bikes who haven’t ridden for a long time, such as the 28 per cent of Britons who haven’t cycled since childhood. There are also people who have never ridden because they find it difficult to master, such as people with autism, muscular dystrophy and amputees. We’ve applied for a grant as part of an EU initiative to improve cycling for seniors, too.

“We sold out of our first shipment of version one (1,200 units) and have spent the last 12 months on R&D. We now have the first prototype and will go to Kickstarter this month [June 2014], aiming for $100,000 (£59,000). Our aim is to ramp up production and deliver the first Jyrobikes before Christmas.”
Update: Since this article was first published in Director magazine, $185,818 was pledged to Jyrobike on Kickstarter.

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About author

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett

Richard Dunnett is an associate editor who writes about entrepreneurs, SMEs, FTSE 100 corporations, technology, manufacturing, media and sustainability.

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