Interview: Andy Smallwood, CEO of Ribble Cycles
Premium British cycle brand Ribble had lost its way by focusing on selling third-party brands but a refocus on its own-brand bikes and leveraging its long-standing direct-to-consumer (DTC), vertically-integrated model is driving the wheels of a turnaround.
Under the guidance of Andy Smallwood, CEO of Ribble Cycles, who joined the business in late-2017 the company has been undergoing a transformation that interestingly returns the company to its roots, which he experienced as a young customer when he bought a high-end, frame-set from Ribble.
Returning to its roots
“Thirty years on I got a call from [new owner] True Capital. Although the company had moved on from mail order and embraced digital it had also moved from selling frames to components, clothing, and accessories from third-party brands,” he says.
This was causing Ribble some grief as 80% of its sales were being generated by these brands that had to be priced very competitively, with constant discounting, and the fortunes of the company were effectively determined by Google algorithms and rankings.
It was not sustainable. But there was still an underlying premium bike brand, which had been neglected. The brand could be great again. It could be the best premium British brand,” says Smallwood, who joined the company armed with significant experience from his time as MD of Boardman Bikes.
He set about implementing a transformation strategy touching all parts of the business and which gave the brand “paramount importance”. The parts business was rationalised and the Ribble brand became the focus.
“There was an exit from stock holding [of third-party brands] to instead have 100% focus on the integrity of the Ribble brand. We stopped discounting on complete bikes because they are our USP, and are designed in-house for customers,” he explains.
There was a “massive” investment in R&D with infrastructure changes and a push on the company’s digital focus that helped boost the DTC and vertical integration at the core of the business. Ribble sources materials, designs and manufactures, thereby removing middlemen. This helps it deliver optimum value. “There are no distributors, retailers and other brands adding in costs,” says Smallwood.
Creating rich customer experiences
The digital-first approach has been a key component of the customer experience that has been worked on over the past 18 months and helped drive strong growth pre-Covid-19. It has since accelerated with triple-digit growth in sales being experienced this past year. To deal with this the team at Ribble has doubled in size.
An integral part of the Ribble experience is the ability for customers to customise and personalise their bikes and so enabling this digitally has been important. “Every single bike is built from the ground up by one mechanic who helps customise everything,” says Smallwood, adding that this experience has continued through Covid-19 with the help of technology.
The team can talk to remotely located customers about frame selection and detailed specificications via phone, live chat and also video link-up using a solution from Go Instore. The latter has enabled a rich personal service to be delivered to customers at their home by employees working in the Ribble ‘dark store’.
Importance of physical stores
Despite this focus on the digital, Smallwood is keen to point out that physical stores are also an important part of the transformation strategy. Rather than being seen as traditional outlets they are designed more as destination showrooms.
“They offer a broad experience that’s an extension of the digital customer journey, with a team of experts [in-store] to help customers. There are also very large digital touchscreens with website access,” he says.
A store roll-out was in place and although Covid-19 has pushed the timing back it remains an important part of the strategy. “We’ll be launching more stores as we see physical retail as important. One new store [model] in particular is very exciting,” he suggests.
Building a rich experience around the customer is vitally important as Smallwood likens bike buying to the purchase of a car where the customer is selecting wheels, tyres, and colours etcetera and the financial value today can be comparable with that of cars in some cases.
Cultural moves driving cycle sales
As well as tapping into this trend for greater spending on cycles, Ribble is also benefiting from the broad increase in demand for cycles: “It does not feel like it is a fashionable trend but is more cultural; driven by benefits it brings to physical and mental health, people finding public transport challenging, and the positive environmental impact.”
Demand is not only coming from the UK as the company also has a burgeoning international footprint. “We sell into multiple locations as the brand travels well. There will be more from the international business. There will be more emphasis on the US and Europe also looks interesting,” suggests Smallwood.
Latterly Europe has been a challenge as Ribble has suffered from delays at the port for imported materials and components. But the vertically integrated model, with its very regular forecasting, has at least given the company the ability to react immediately and adjust its stock and orders accordingly.
Words by Glynn Davis
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