Triumph manufactured its 500,000th motorbike this year. That’s impressive for a company that closed down, not once but twice. Lord Digby Jones trumpets a company close to his heart at a London reception celebrating the rise of a famous British marque that is beating the world, and now, expanding around it.
In the early 1980s Triumph was a basket case – run down, underinvested and a brand slipping down the league table.
It had always been a strong name in the motorcycling community, both on the road and the track, with bikes like the Daytona having a pedigree of racing success especially in the British Supersport Championship.
But, pushed into receivership, construction industry supremo John Bloor picked it up for a song in 1983.
Bloor knew that the Triumph name was still a powerful brand. Its fortunes began to change. Recognising that the Japanese were very good at building motorcycles, the new company arranged a delegation to visit Kawasaki in Japan. Some members of the team spent a week there, poring over the processes and techniques for finessing engineering with assembly and testing. The company simplified its supply chain – some incumbent British suppliers were substandard and delivered late – by bringing much subcontract manufacturing in-house. Director and deputy chairman John Eastham, one of ‘The Originals’ who visited Kawasaki, says that more than 50% of a Triumph bike is manufactured by Triumph, a higher proportion that any other motorcycle manufacturer.
Fast forward 25-years and Triumph is a staggering success. If you don’t believe me, ask chairman Lord Digby Jones – he’ll persuade you. At Triumph’s London reception (Tues Nov 15) to celebrate the company’s latest figures, as well as to acknowledge the 500,000th motorcycle made in Britain, Lord Jones laid the foundations for managing director Nick Bloor to summarise the company’s success on the world stage. In characteristically ebullient mood, “Diggers” as he is known to some of the assembled VIPs, waxed lyrical about the importance of UK manufacturing and companies like Triumph to UK plc.
Revelling in front of a captive audience, he expounded one of his favourite philosophies: that all tax revenue, direct or indirect, eventually comes back to business and wealth creation. Yes we may have heard some of the anecdotes before. He rolled out the Airbus one; that the smart stuff, the engines and wings, are built in the UK, while the ‘simple’ fuselage is made in Germany (“not a lot of technology in a tube”) and meanwhile “the French just screw it together”. “The world likes doing business with Britain,” said Diggers. “Others talk about it, but in Britain, we actually do free trade.”
On Triumph, my favourite was the disparaging but good-spirited quip about the lawyer (in the audience) behind the receiver’s sale of Triumph’s assets to Bloor. “So if anyone here ever wants to buy a large company, go to Birmingham and ask Joe Bloggs to sell you a small one,” he said. There were one or two references to God’s own city of Birmingham thrown in for good measure. And he couldn’t resist taking a pop at the Government’s decision to make Siemens its preferred bidder for the £1.4bn Thameslink train contract, in preference to the good men and women of Derby (Bombardier UK).
But, taking nothing away, this is what Diggers does best. He stirs the patriotic blood and, as a compelling ambassador for UK manufacturing, is hard to beat.
Nick Bloor, by comparison, was a little less theatrical. John Bloor’s son and Triumph’s chief executive ran through the numbers to put his company’s achievements into scale.
The company is the number one motorcycle brand, by volume, in the UK – one in five bikes on British roads are Triumphs, amazing really when you think about the dominance of the Japanese names. Last financial year, Triumph posted operating profit of £20m on sales of £345 million – again, much larger than one might think, unless you’re part of the motorcycle industry cognescenti. Its global market share is 5.9%, which has doubled in the last two years. The key markets looking ahead are in Europe, despite its troubles, as long-time top market the US is in decline.
And Triumph is investing in new markets, Brazil and India, by building new assembly facilities there. It already has a subcontract engineering and distribution facility in Thailand.
Nick Bloor said that recruitment is a challenge. The company has worked with North Warwickshire and Hinckley College, under Dr Michael Motley, to develop its apprenticeship scheme. Triumph helps with the tuition fees and the apprentices receive an accredited qualification. Its apprenticeship scheme received 300 applications for 10 places. As well as the oversubscription, quality is important when competing with the world’s best companies and Bloor stresses that it is a constant challenge to find good people with the skills required to make good employees.
Triumph has a top-heavy R&D base – it makes 27 models and market tastes for power and style combinations are constantly evaluated. In 2011 the company took on an extra 50 people into R&D, bringing the total to 240 people – a high proportion for a company with 2,000 staff.
Triumph now exports about 80% of its output and it has 750 dealers in 35 countries. In the US, fans of cruiser bikes are evangelical about both Triumph and arch-rival, Harley Davidson; you are simply either in one camp or the other. And in September the Hinckley manufacturer celebrated the 500,000th motorcycle rolling off the production line. Not bad for a company that was closed – twice.
With tales like this to tell, I could listen to Lord Jones’s pontifications any time.