Made in Britain
Pashley is a British institution, based in Stratford-upon-avon, producing bikes using the skills of local workers and resisting the rush to outsource production to the far east. Velorution visits the factory to find out how the company has stayed true to its roots
On arrival at the Pashley factory, a modest building, sunbathing in the middle of a quiet residential Stratford-upon-Avon street, we take a quick tour of the offices before heading through an unassuming door, like an engineer’s Narnia, into a suddenly very noisy, industrious workshop with high ceilings, separated into workstations by various obscure pieces of heavy machinery. Leading the way is Lee Pillinger, sales director at Pashley, who cheerily calls out above the continuous hiss, buzz and clunk of activity, “Let’s take a look around!”
Aside from the ‘health and safety’ enforced thick red plastic curtains that separate the welding areas from the rest of the factory, you get the feeling that it’s looked like this for years. Traditional methods, used by the same local people, generation after generation.
“So, if you imagine we’re pretty much manufacturing this side, and assembly and dispatch this side [indicating the areas of the factory], that’s how it works. What we haven’t got as much of any more is heavy machinery. Where we would have had the hot press, where we do all the bending and stretching of material, quite a lot of it is now done off site, still using a lot of our machines, and still done locally, or as locally as possible, within Warwickshire.”
Do you think it’s more economical to do it here?
“We should move, really, but this is where we are. We need to increase production levels but still keep control of manufacture. It’s a very tricky balance of what we do in-house. We produce around 10,000 units a year. At the moment we’re not making any more bikes for Royal Mail, although the absence of that gives us more scope to make more of our traditional bikes.
“Pret a Manger is a good example of one of the delivery services; they replaced some of their vans and motorbikes with the delivery bikes when they found after a survey how much more economical using a bicycle is. And not just in fuel – you don’t get parking tickets.”
We move on to a row of cubicles, concealed behind thick red, plastic curtains, where young men with welding masks are deeply engrossed in their work, while Lee continues to guide us through the ‘birth’ of a Pashley bike. Despite the order and routine, you sense there is a lot of spirit in the room. One man I spoke to proudly told me, “I’ve been working here in the factory since I was 18 years old.” He looks about 35. “I’m 55,” he adds.
Later, I meet ‘Pete the Painter’, (you’ve guessed his job), who is happily whistling ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ while spraying a bike frame green. I notice on the side of his booth a handmade cardboard sign with a countdown of days left until Christmas, and I make a note to self – if anyone would appreciate a Christmas card this year it would be Pete. (It’s currently May).
It was after a ‘lightbulb moment’ while stuck in gridlocked traffic on his way to the Paris Air Show in 1990 that Adrian Williams, whose previous work had been in helicopter engineering, decided that he was going to explore the technology behind electric bikes. This is where his career in the cycling industry began, which later led to him becoming the main shareholder and managing director of Pashley Bicycles.
“You’ve got to push doors open”, Adrian explains. “You’ve got to be heading in a direction and know what you want to do, and be ready to push the doors open when the opportunity presents.” So when Pashley phoned up in 1992 to talk about applying electric- assisted technology to their bikes, he decided this would be a good opportunity to learn more about the bike industry, and took up a position there, initially as a four day a week contract, leaving the other day to concentrate on his own business.
“What I saw quite rapidly was that this business needed quite a lot of work, and I saw that the bank were not at all interested in it because everybody was off- shoring manufacture, which is something that Pashley wasn’t prepared to do. I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous. This company can work. It can survive. The phones are still ringing, so people do want to buy the product.’
“In the time we’ve been here there have been many Pashley equivalents that have just gone by the wayside, and that many people coming out of engineering is just ridiculous. So for me it wasn’t really a money thing, it was an intellectual thing – I wanted to show that I could take this thing and make it work. Fortunately, I’ve got a reasonably supportive wife!
“So we did a management buyout, in December 1994. It’s been hard work since then,” he laughs, “but it’s also been a pleasure, too. It’s been a journey of survival, but once you’ve dealt with that, it’s about getting the infrastructure in place for growth, too.”
Do you think companies that off-shored their manufacturing envy Pashley’s ‘British Made’ branding?
“Basically they’re all just box shifters now. This is why it’s a bit of a misery to go around somewhere like the Eurobike convention – it’s just so depressing. Where is the originality? Where is the soul of some of these products? It’s difficult to find.
“What we have at Pashley are real people, as you’ve seen, who have real families. We buy from as many companies as we can: 95 suppliers in the UK with 85 service sector people supplying into us. The whole aspect is of community, and actually putting something back into the local community, as well as making our product, which is what manufacturing is all about really; trying to inspire people, but also serving the community.” But manufacturing in the UK is expensive.
“It’s true, and I’m not blaming the likes of Raleigh. It became incredibly difficult for them to compete with the Far Eastern suppliers. So I’m not blaming them for doing what they’re doing because it was difficult. I think if it wasn’t about money they would have kept the Special products division in the UK and offshored other things.”
Over the past four years Pashley’s percentage of export sales has grown from 15 per cent to about 45 per cent. Is that because the demand is for ‘Made in Britain’ products?
“It is that; I think it’s also people wanting individuality. If we were 90 per cent export, I think I’d be a lot more keen to lift our prices. We’ve only put our prices up a little bit, and from what I can see the market can stand that.”
In Holland 40-50 per cent of journeys under three miles are made by bicycle, compared to roughly 2 per cent here. What do you think we need to do in Britain to change that?
“I think it’s a combination of things. The whole cultural environment has to change – and this has started to happen. Ten years ago, when people asked what I did and I told them ‘bike making’, it was a bit of an off subject, whereas now people listen. A cultural change is happening in London; you have the incredible ‘Boris Bikes’, as they’ve been dubbed, which are really changing people’s perception. And what’s interesting is to see the American take on it, where their whole infrastructure is so car-orientated. It’s picking up now. They’re lagging behind us, but it is happening.”
Do you think your typical customer is changing?
“Yes, I do. We sell predominantly to women, and also the typical age group is coming down. Also, other people coming into cycling are slightly more mature, but do have disposable income, and while we don’t do racing bikes, there are those who are looking for something a bit distinctive, different and with style.”
How do you think your product and design team will change to accommodate this new customer?
“I think doing classic bikes to a certain extent is fine, but I think it’s good that we now look at the more contemporary sort of product with a classic feel to it. The thing about Pashley is that what is important for the future is design and innovation, but obviously paying respect to where we’ve come from.”
And given your background, would you ever consider making any electric-assisted Pashleys?
“We’ll look at doing a few electric things. We’ve got a couple of items that I’d like to see come into use, but we can wait on that. We did do a bit of work with electric assist in the last year, and I was rather shocked to see that the technology is still pretty rubbish in certain areas. After all this time people haven’t developed it. So I’m being cautious on the electric side, as far as Pashley is concerned. There are some potential applications, but remember we are a company that does consumer bicycles too. We’ve also got tricycles and work bikes in there, so we’ve got other areas that we can apply technology to. We’re a reasonably small team, so we’ve got to focus on one area, then the next, then the next.”
Are you on the design team yourself?
“I like to have a say. I listen to what people want, and the way that works out is Lee will say, for example, ‘We really need a red bike,’ and that red bike will turn into a range called the Britannia, offering red, white and blue. There is a rationale behind these concepts.”
So there is a meaning behind the names of the bikes? Am I right in thinking that the Guv’nor is you?
“Well yes, that came about because I needed another bike to ride to work, and because we moved just three miles up the canal from here. I really liked the idea of a simple bike, and so set about creating it with the team. Then people saw it, and liked it, and it sort of took off by itself. I loved the whole creative process with it. It’s not just the creation of the product, it’s everything else that goes with it; how is it going to be presented to the market place? So the imagery that went with it.
“The name came about because we were sitting in the office bouncing ideas around, and it was John who said, ‘What about the Guv’nor? You’re the Guv’nor!’ Each name has a reason behind it. This is the sort of ‘soul’ that goes into our product.
“With the Poppy, that was different in that Pashley had just turned 80 and at an exhibition we displayed a tongue-in-cheek ‘birthday cake bike’, which had pink in it. I was surprised how many people liked it, as it’s not the sort of bike I’d think of selling. We were very traditional – mostly black at that stage. But three years later people still remembered the pink bike. So I found a pink and a blue that worked together. I could appreciate that this appealed to a younger audience. This also came around the time of the credit crunch in the UK, so we decided, as a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing, let’s get this into the market place at a lower price point, and actually lighten up things a bit. Let’s say, ‘Don’t worry’. It’s a statement. It just felt right.”
Having spent the day at the factory, practically hugging our new friends goodbye, I thought to myself, ‘I really will send a Christmas card to Pete the Painter, and I really must buy myself a Pashley.’ It’s not just bikes they’re selling, but a real piece of history, tradition and heritage. A bike that will not only stand the test of time, but says, ‘This is England’.