Raleigh and the British Bicycle Industry: An Economic and Business History, 1870-1960

Article excerpt

Roger Lloyd-Jones and M. J. Lewis, Raleigh and the British Bicycle Industry: an economic and business history, 1870-1960, Aldershot, Ashgate (2000), 303 pp., L47.50.

At a time when the British car industry has come close to collapse, Lloyd-Jones and Lewis provide us with a valuable and long-overdue analysis of the extensive Raleigh archives held at the Nottinghamshire Record Office. These records hold the key to understanding the successes and failures of one of the world's major cycle manufacturers from the time of its incorporation in the 1880s up until 1960, when the company lost its independence in a merger with the TI engineering group. The book sets this story within a history of the British cycle industry, tracing the dynamics of mergers and acquisitions which left the industry dominated by just one large corporation. Lloyd-Jones and Lewis focus especially on boardroom decision-making at Raleigh and other firms, where cycle manufacture was carried forward from a batch-produced luxury product for a small elite to mass production for transport and leisure users, and then back again to a primarily leisure-oriented product as car ownership grew in the 1950s. They consider how Raleigh managed to hold on to its position at the forefront of the industry, its brand name eventually becoming synonymous with the British bicycle. They conclude that overriding any shortcomings in management strategy or external setbacks, the Raleigh commitment to quality was crucial to its business success.

The book starts with the industry's origins in the 1870s, when bicycle production first moved out of the workshop and into the factory. This history of the industry is interwoven with that of Raleigh itself, founded in a Nottingham workshop in the late 1880s by two engineers and a financier. Within a few years, the company had been expanded substantially by entrepreneur Frank Bowden, whose experience of the benefits of cycling following ill-health led him down that familiar entrepreneurial path of loving his Raleigh bicycle so much that he bought the company. Raleigh's fortunes then followed a common pattern in the 1890s cycle industry of capitalisation and profits during the first big bicycle boom, followed by more fluctuating fortunes up until the First World War.

Many of its earlier competitors had by this point either fallen by the wayside or shifted into car and motorcycle production - a case in point is Rover, whose founder, J. K. Starley, was largely responsible for the design of the modern safety bicycle. Whilst Raleigh diversified into motorised products at a number of points in its history (and has done so again recently with power-assisted cycles), it always had bicycles, and Sturmey-Archer bicycle gears, as its core products. This strong identity formed part of the company culture at Raleigh that also included a commitment to innovation and high quality products, a management style of paternalistic benevolence towards the workforce and a financial structure based on the `personal capitalism' of Frank Bowden and later his son Harold. Lloyd-Jones and Lewis argue that it was these features that ensured Raleigh's success through modernisation and flotation in the inter-war period; through the diversifications into motorised products and then munitions in both World Wars; and through the concentration of the industry on largerscale operations from the mid-1940s onwards. They see Raleigh's management culture as having become central to its difficulties in the 1950s, when changing markets, both at home and abroad, compounded problems with productivity in a highly competitive climate. The result was the merger with TI, Raleigh's last big competitor.

The book's main strength lies in the detailed accounts of the management decisions of both Raleigh and its competitors in trying to realise organisational goals. This reflects the quality of much of the Raleigh archive. Whilst the authors occasionally express puzzlement at the motivation behind a decision, for the most part they are able to trace what was done, why, and by whom, often providing fascinating insights into boardroom tensions. …