By Nicole Formosa
Bob Martin has worked at the Brooks saddle factory outside Birmingham, England’s once gritty industrial heart, for 52 years.
The 67-year-old with white hair and the well-worn hands of a factory worker smiles as he talks about the old days. He started at Brooks at 15 because his parents worked there, and that’s just how things happened back then. As the factory’s longest tenured employee, he remembers the boom days in the ’70s when Brooks had a half-dozen locations in the area, and hundreds of workers, and the lean years when the company was sold to Raleigh, then spun off as part of Sturmey Archer and eventually acquired by Selle Royal in 2002.
“We’re like a family here,” he said, pausing as he wrenched on an old stamping machine on the factory floor, the clamor of machines in the background and a strong scent of leather wafting through the air.
But it’s different now. Brooks has trouble recruiting young workers, despite its location near the UK’s second largest metropolitan area and the onetime center of England’s industrial revolution. The work is specialized, and even basic assembly jobs are physically demanding and require at least six months of training. Workers are paid 6.20 pounds ($10) per hour for a 39-hour workweek, but the British youth aren’t interested in factory jobs anymore.
These days, about 40 percent of the workforce at Brooks is Polish.
“It’s a symptom in the UK,” said Steven Green, longtime office manager for Brooks England. “Youngsters aren’t into it.”
In labor-intensive factories like Brooks, which staffs about 40 people to produce as many as 140,000 saddles per year, finding and keeping workers can be one of the most challenging parts of manufacturing domestically. But, in the UK, much of that depends on where your factory is situated, wages and how much work can be automated. And if companies can find a business model that works, many believe that a rebirth in small-scale British bicycle and bicycle parts manufacturing is a reality in today’s world of rising Asian labor rates, skyrocketing shipping costs and unpredictable currency fluctuations.
“The fact is, whether you’re paying Western Europeans or Americans, the wages become less and less important. The advantages of being able to make immediate changes, the quality control. You might save a bit on labor, but all the other costs which aren’t directly related to making one product are much cheaper,” said Henry Rosenthal, co-founder of Renthal, a manufacturer of motorcycle and cycling components near Manchester.
In that Northern England region, manufacturers like Renthal and Hope Technology pull a steady pool of workers from the automotive, mill and aerospace industries, and because they’re making components, over time they have shifted more production to state-of-the-art CNC machines.
Hope has spent 1.2 million pounds ($1.94 million) in the past year on new machinery as the company expands, said Alan Weatherill, Hope’s sales and marketing manager. One person can run six or seven machines, which cuts down on labor costs, even though Hope still employs 95 people. With its proximity to Rolls-Royce, it’s able to attract highly skilled engineers. Hope makes its entire line of lights, wheels, disc brakes, hubs, headsets and seat clamps in its Lancashire factory, with 98 percent of parts sourced domestically.
Another reason Hope can stay local is nearly all its sales are aftermarket. That means no OEM margin to worry about, allowing it to remain price competitive.
Weatherill acknowledges Hope’s model doesn’t make sense for everyone.
“Because it’s a very niche product at the top end of the bicycle trade it’s worked for us. I wouldn’t like to do at the low end,” he said.
Clarks for years made its cables, grips, chains and brakes in Birmingham when it was part of a larger company that also manufactured motorcycle parts. In 2008, managing director Tony Wright set up a factory in China and all production moved there. With the cost of space in the UK, 45 percent of its business OEM and its competition already situated much closer to OEs in Asia, a more global approach made sense.
“We were sitting in the wrong place, so we had to change our strategy,” Wright said. Clarks maintains its head office on an old dairy farm in rural Staffordshire, where a small staff of six works, but also employs four people in China and one in Taiwan.
On the bicycle side, British manufacturing is a skeleton of its former self. The industry has long since said goodbye to the heyday in the 1960s and ’70s when Raleigh employed 5,000 people on a 60-acre compound in Nottingham. When Raleigh closed its last UK factory in the early part of the decade, production levels plummeted from 1.2 million units to 350,000 units in 2002, according to the European Industry and Market Profile released by Colibi/Coliped. By 2007, the number had dropped to 27,000 units and came in at 28,000 in 2009.
Those units can be attributed primarily to boutique brands Pashley and Brompton, which have remained committed to producing in the UK. Orange Mountain Bikes welds about 2,400 frames a year at its factory near Manchester and sources its lower-end frames from Taiwan.
Adrian Williams, owner and director of Pashley Bicycles in Stratford-upon-Avon and a passionate proponent of British manufacturing, said building bikes in Britain works because of Pashley’s philosophy to keep overhead low, stay close to developments in the marketplace, invest in the future, employ good people, and keep the soul of the brand intact.
Pashley, which designs and makes stylish English town bikes, isn’t trying to do anything too revolutionary, he said.
“Everybody went offshore and there’s a growing tendency to come back into Europe and bring localized assembly into Europe. They all lost the integrity of the brands because they’re all doing the same thing,” said Williams, who is also reviving Gerry Burgess’ vintage GB Cycle Components brand with a line of British-made bars, stems and seatposts that will launch at Interbike.
One difficulty in handbuilding bikes domestically is finding highly skilled craftsmen to delicately braze frames. What was once a common skill in the 1970s and ’80s is now rare, said Shaun Moulton, who runs his uncle Dr. Alex Moulton’s revered folding bike brand.
“We don’t make things in this country anymore. We don’t have those skills anymore; we don’t teach those skills,” Moulton said. Pashley builds Moulton’s entry-level TSR range, but the high-end frames are made at Moulton’s headquarters at an old English manor in the quaint village of Bradford-on-Avon. There, brazers spend 70 hours on one frame, sometimes working with tubes as thin as a half-millimeter in diameter.
At its factory in London, Brompton brazers undergo a two-year apprenticeship program before they torch on their own because there’s nowhere else to learn the skills, said Will Butler-Adams, Brompton’s managing director. The company recently spent $200,000 on a proprietary semi-automatic brazing machine with six torches, not to replace humans but to complement their work.
Brompton, the largest UK bike manufacturer with about 26,000 units sold a year, many of those exports, has remained successful by retaining control of its business. It has no debt and focuses on making long-term decisions. Its uniqueness has comes in its IP; Brompton makes nearly all of the 1,200 parts that go on its bikes in-house.
Butler-Adams thinks it’s possible for other manufacturers to see the same success in the UK with careful thought put into the right value-added product.
“There is potential for the cycling market to have a renaissance in the UK. Not on a mass market volume, that’s pie in the sky. We’re not going to go back to the Raleigh days,” he said.