Interview: Andy Smallwood, CEO, Ribble Cycles
Ribble Cycles is one of the longest established bicycle manufacturers in the world. As they celebrate their 125th anniversary, we talk to CEO Andy Smallwood to find out more.
Tell us about your background
I have always been a keen cyclist. I remember, when I was about 14/15 years old, my first ‘proper bike’ was a Ribble. I’d saved up for it and initially just started out with a frame, but over time I built it out with different components and then used it as a racing bike. After school, I went on to do a degree in product design, innovation, and marketing and then as part of my post graduate degree, I went on to design a bike for disabled children. That was the start of a 30-year career in the bike industry.
I started out as a bike mechanic, then moved to a shop manager position and then at Halfords, I worked my way up to senior product manager. I moved to Boardman Bikes; a growing premium brand and at that time, a significant player in the UK industry which we took into international markets. I joined as the Operations Director and left as Managing Director almost 8 years later. I’m now CEO for heritage brand Ribble Cycles.
What’s the journey at Ribble been like so far?
When I joined the business in 2017, the focus was around selling third party parts, accessories and clothing both direct and through our website. The market was incredibly competitive with some big players who were aggressive on pricing. We are a mid-sized player, and we were selling exactly the same products as everyone else. It came down to where you ranked on Google and digital costs were going through the roof as consumers were looking for the cheapest option. The bike brand had been around for over a century and yet 80% of what we sold was other people’s brands. We had this incredible bike brand that needed some love and so we had a complete change of strategic direction.
Looking at the UK bike industry, there were lots of niche players, but none were pushing out into the international market as a premium brand – really driving innovation, technology and product design. We felt we had an opportunity to reinvigorate Ribble and transform it into a number one premium British bike brand.
That was the change in focus five years ago and following the transition, 97% of what we now sell is our own range. It’s been quite a journey and as we look to the future, it’s an incredible exciting place to be.
What do you make of the ‘bike boom’?
As a result of the pandemic, many people rediscovered cycling and the good thing is that it was societal-led rather than event-led. I’ll give an example; successful sporting events like the London Olympics motivated people to cycle more and created a boom in bike sales, that’s event led. Societal-led changes tend to have longer term impact.
There is a lot more positive awareness around the mental and physical benefits of cycling too, which is great, and the significant environmental benefits which is why I think the ‘bike boom’ will stick. With the rising cost of living and the expense of running a car, cycling can offer significant savings and a lot of people are now using cycling as a means of transport – which is great.
What’s unique about Ribble Cycles?
It starts with the product. We invest heavily in R&D and differentiate ourselves by thinking about our products in a different way. The industry has not innovated very much for many years – bikes tend to look and be built the way they do because that’s ‘just the way it is’. We look at things differently. Design can make a radical difference, offering the rider significant benefit for performance, comfort or efficiency. We’re all passionate about cycling and we usually start with ‘what would we want to ride?’
The customer journey is very important to us and despite being 125 years old, we’re a digital first business.
We know that every cyclist is different and that’s why we offer full customisation with our bikebuilder tool which is unique for our industry. You can choose elements which you wouldn’t normally be able to do such as sizing, components and colour. There are literally millions of colour combinations available to help our customers create a one-of-a-kind dream bike.
If customers don’t complete their journey online, they can visit us in one of our showrooms. Next to each bike is a touchscreen which takes you directly to where you left off from your online journey, connecting the two. You also have access to a team of experts who can give you advice on all your cycling needs as well as fit, size, customisations and personalisation.
If customers can’t visit our showroom but want advice, we offer a hybrid version of the online and in-store experience through a live one-way video call with one of the experts. This is an interactive way for customers to see a demonstration or have questions answered from any location across the world.
What have been some of the challenges?
Like many businesses, the supply chain is probably the biggest challenge that we have in the cycle industry. We are seeing improvements, but it’s definitely not been plain sailing! Luckily, we have a very strong, very talented team, and we have navigated our way as best as we can be.
What has helped you transform successfully over the last 5 years?
The team is fundamental to the success of the business and I’m proud of them.
They are incredibly talented and passionate, and everyone seems to strive to go that extra mile, to push things forward. To achieve what we have is down to our people and a clear vision, a clear direction. This vision has unified us, we’re all swimming in the same direction.
Culture is important. You need to care about customers, you need to strive for better. It’s a mindset.
125 years is an incredible milestone … Congratulations.
Yes, thank you! There aren’t that many heritage bike brands out there, and we have stayed true to what we do well. When we started out in 1897, we were fabricating our own frames that were different to the rest of the industry. Today, we’re still innovating in this way to make it better for the cyclist.
It is an important milestone, and we can proudly look back and reflect. Now, we look to ‘what’s next’ and that’s what we are really excited about. How do we continue to really push this brand forward into the future?
We have some really exciting product launches coming up over the next 18 months but really, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.
As we continue on our transformation journey, we’ll be looking to learn more about our physical retail. We have multiple showrooms now and we’re learning from them as we continue to evolve. The same for our digital proposition. We’re going to continue to develop and push that. The important thing is that we keep pushing forward, challenging ourselves, challenging convention. That’s our approach.
To commemorate this special milestone, Ribble have crafted three limited edition designs with unique features that celebrate the 125 year anniversary and showcase their meticulous attention to detail. Find out more here.
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