It’s not often you have a dream to run a business in something you have always had a passion for. Tracy Hargreaves talks to one man whose dream became a reality
Andy Smallwood is at the helm of Ribble Cycles, a British cycling stalwart, which has been trading in Preston since 1897. Born in Morecambe, Andy had been into bikes from an early age, always tinkering and trying new things. He studied for a degree in product design, innovation and marketing at Derby University, followed by a post graduate in enterprise at Nottingham Trent University which led to his first entrepreneurial success in his early 20s, when he designed a tricycle for disabled children. “I looked around and found that all the specialist trikes on the market were very boring, grey and not really fit for purpose. I wanted a bike that anyone could use and when the children rode them, they didn’t feel different from any other person riding a bike,” says Andy. After receiving a grant from the Prince’s Trust, the bikes went into production and on to the market.
From then on, Andy worked in various bike shops as a mechanic and then store manager before getting itchy feet and decided he needed to concentrate on a career. He landed a job with Halfords, the UK’s largest cycling retailer, as an assistant buyer of accessories, before working his way up to product manager within the bikes team and finally in 2007 becoming senior product manager. Halfords was the biggest bike retailer but had predominately focused on mainstream bikes. However, he saw an opening to lead the company into a more premium bike offering. “The premium market was dominated mainly by the American and Far Eastern brands, due to their breadth and quality of range combined with large footprint of independent retailers,” says Andy. “I knew we had a great opportunity here but to compete with the dominant independent retailers we would have to develop our own brands, design world class products and optimise our direct to consumer commercial advantage.”
By chance Chris Boardman, the British former racing cyclist who won an individual pursuit gold medal at the 1992 summer Olympics, had aspirations for a bike brand of his own and saw Halfords as a potential partner to make this a reality. Right from the first meeting it was clear that there was a shared passion for bicycle design and Andy saw the perfect opportunity to work with Chris and his company to develop an exclusive brand for Halfords that would take them into new markets and secure their long term position within the premium sector. “We literally sat round a kitchen table, shared our insight and ideas which developed into a strong business plan. It was very exciting and challenging, but successful and it grew quickly,” says Andy. “Within the first 12 months of launching our first product range one of our bikes won gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, we won multiple awards for our bike range and quickly became the fastest growing British premium bike brand.”
After establishing Halfords as a major player in the premium bike sector and building the Boardman brand, in 2010 Andy left Halfords to take up the position as operations director with Boardman Bikes to concentrate on developing the brand and business, taking the brand international, into the independent sector with the higher end Elite range with further Olympic and World Championships being won on bikes designed under Andy’s leadership. In 2014 the brand sold to Halfords and Andy stayed with the business to lead the multi-award-winning bike brand as managing director.
Through Andy’s creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, he played an integral part in giving the Boardman brand a legacy, which still continues today through the world class Performance Centre with cutting edge wind tunnel and athlete performance lab.
In 2017, he was head hunted by True Capital the owners of Ribble Cycles in Preston. His inspirational vision has seen the brand already refocus and concentrate on being a world class bike brand with a forward-thinking approach to bicycle retail.
“It was important to take the company back to its roots as a premium bike business and I want to take Ribble beyond this and into a world class bike brand. Over the years many British Cycling legends have ridden a Ribble during their careers, including Chris Boardman, Geraint Thomas, and Sir Bradley Wiggins. In recent years though it had been known for direct to consumer parts accessories and clothing, but with competition growing within the e-commerce sector and acquisition costs increasing, ultimately profitability was reducing.”
Talking to customers, it was clear that there was a historic connection with Ribble as a bike brand with many having owned a Ribble bike. The name resonated with lots of people, but it had been forgotten about or tainted by the recent aggressive retail focus of the business.
“I want cycling to be accessible and affordable to all, whether they are new to cycling, an experienced cyclist, aspiring Olympic champion or a retired professional rider who wants to keep enjoying cycling. We had to have a world class product range and this meant establishing our own internal R&D team to ensure our product is market leading in terms of technology and design. Every bike is 100 per cent built to order (with one mechanic per bike) and we offer customers an unparalleled ability to personalise and customise their bikes. We are putting significant focus on the customer journey and experience. E-bikes in-particular are becoming more popular and revolutionising many riders’ cycling experience. We have the world’s lightest electric bike range (from 11kg) which is ideal for those who want to ride further, higher and more comfortably or maybe have limited ability due to returning to fitness, injury or illness benefitting from the controlled power assistance when needed making cycling accessible again. Gone are the days of the big battery pack bolted to the frame, you wouldn’t even know our bikes are electric as they look and ride just like a high-end non powered bike.”
Today as chief executive, Andy has a clear vision for the Ribble business and with his team, have positioned it as a leading British premium bike brand with a world class product range and innovative approach to bicycle retail. The Ribble business looks set to enjoy another 100 years at the forefront of the cycling industry.
It just shows that with hard work and commitment, dreams sometimes do come true.