Brooks England Saddles
It is not always appreciated that until the 1950s Brooks England was the largest manufacturer of saddles in the world. Around this time the West Midlands was producing at least 50% of UK bicycles through two leading businesses, Phillips Bicycles and Tube Investments.
The business had been founded long before then though, by John Boultbee Brooks in 1866 after he left his home in Hinckley at the age of 16 to make his fortune in Birmingham by making leather saddles for the horse trade. The company’s reputation is built on quality, authenticity and a heritage that is cherished by owners and customers alike.
“It was only in 1878 after John Boultbee Brooks’ horse died and he wasn’t able to afford a new one that a friend lent him a bike,” says Steve Green, Manager, Brooks England. “The bicycle saddles at the time were made of carved wood and horribly uncomfortable, so he decided to try making one from leather. It was all about finding more comfortable alternatives for the rider and this is still very much at heart our ethos. Even today all our bicycle saddles are hand-finished. They’re being made now as they have been for the best part of 150 years.”
Brooks was acquired in 2002 by the Italian business, Selle Royal. Company turnover is in the region of £10m annually and they employ around 40 staff. Revenues more than have doubled in the 12 years since the Italians took on the business and growing by over +40% in the last five years.
Of their total turnover Brooks estimate that perhaps as much as 50% is generated by products designed in the 1800s, with their B17 Standard, the oldest saddle in the current range – having featured in the 1890s catalogue, and one of their most successful models to-date. Products designed in the 1900s generate roughly 30% of turnover, with those designed in the 2000s responsible for around 20% of turnover. JB Brooks also had the foresight to patent his designs, with his first patent gained in 1882, a process he pursued with vigour, registering many subsequent designs.
The leather saddle is a fusion of around 20 pieces of crafted metal with a leather top, produced through a process known as ‘springing up’, to form the finished product, immortalised through the words of JB Brooks, when he wrote with some foresight in his early brochures, “It is not the name of Brooks which makes the saddles good but the Saddle and its excellence which makes the name.”
“The main reason they’ve never gone out of production is simple: it’s all about practicality, comfort and style,” says Steve Green.” A total of 20 models have survived over the decades and some products have even been revived, such as the ‘Challenge Tool saddle bag’, first patented in 1876.
“It takes about 3 days to produce a saddle. We’re running at 700 saddles per day or around 3,500 per week. We’re operating at pretty near to full capacity at present unless we invest in new machinery.
“Our promise to customers has always been about producing the best of everything – The best materials, the best designs and the best constructions that experience, skill and money can procure.”
The machines in the Brooks factory are almost sculptural in appearance. And, despite their age they’re agile enough, with the operators speaking fondly of each one for its personality and temperament. There’s an oily down-to-earth rawness, the strong odour of leather and metal, and a friendly camaraderie as the craftsmen and women ply their skills and the machines cut, stamp, bend and shape the steel and leather.
Employees and Tradition
“Many of the staff have been with the business for twenty, thirty or more years.” We have a very loyal team here. We realise that our saddles depend on craftsmanship, attention to detail and authenticity – all delivered by staff, who know our machines and processes, but who also know each other.
“We choose to keep running with traditional machines – partly because this is our tradition – the heritage we’ve inherited and are proud of – and partly because if we used new machines it would change the quality and feel of the saddles we’re producing.
“We use only British and Irish cattle which have tougher hides taking the rear back or butt of the cattle hides as they have to be at least 5ml thick. We did start looking at a Swedish tannery and Swedish cattle for a select range of organically reared leather, but at present all our tanning is done in Belgium. We used to have it tanned in Bristol and Chesterfield, but they weren’t able to keep up with our volumes as they didn’t have enough equipment. During the BSE crisis we had a problem because they started to slaughter animals younger and we prefer their hides when they are older and just that bit harder.
Brooks England introduced their own accessories range in 2006, now accounting for around 15% turnover, with revenues trebling in the past three years. “We now have about 20 items in this range and we are looking at further range extensions,” says Steve Green. “We’re tweaking our price points and looking to make them as accessibly priced as we can, by bringing costs down wherever we’re able, without losing sight of our English suppliers.”
Whilst they have employed some external design consultancies, most design is produced through their internal design team and all accessory designs have been inspired by their ‘back catalogue’, drawing on their beautifully presented archives. The company has further innovated through the recent opening of its first company-owned and operated retail outlet in London’s Covent Garden.
“We-started a range of bicycle bags and accessories around 5 years ago. Initially many of these were sourced from the Far East. But now we’ve pulled production back to the UK. When we first started looking at UK sources they were very expensive, and not up to our quality requirements.
“After sometime we found a sewing shop in Salford and they make all our leather bags. We’d like to move our canvas bags there over the coming months. We feel we have found people who want to grow with us. Two years ago we had 25 staff. Today we have 34 with a further 8 or 9 working on our accessories range in Salford.
“The most popular colours are black and the darker end of the spectrum, including Sea Blue which has gone down very well. We’re constantly tweaking the colour range to meet with our customers’ expectations.”
New Covent Garden Shop
“The new shop is doing well and we’re pleased with the footfall in Covent Garden. It does seem to take a few hours for it to get going in the mornings, but by 11am each day we are seeing reasonable interest and the weekends are very busy. It does provide us with the chance to show our whole range in one place as most of our stockists do not have the full range available as well getting customer feedback which we can use for working up new product ideas. We have created some theatre and a place where customers area able to get the full Brooks England experience, with the chance to touch and feel our culture, values and ethos.
Brooks England attaches a very high value to their heritage both in terms of their brand and how they draw on this in developing new retrospectively-inspired product innovations.
“Retro trends have certainly helped our business and recently we have produced options with pre-aged leather and have been producing saddle frames with ageing effects. Quality leather is very important as the saddle top provides a comfortable ride by moulding to the individual rider’s shape, unlike modern saddles made from contemporary materials.
“Having been bought by Italians in 2002, they have really focussed on telling our story. They’ve seen that value can be created through innovative approaches to marketing, promotion and reinforcing our identity.
“They’ve drawn on our unique heritage, creating striking advertising campaigns and new point of sale materials and most recently opening a new shop in Covent Garden, all focussed around emphasising our authenticity. It’s been interesting to see how they have looked at the business, finding value in much that could have easily been taken for granted.”
Recently the company launched their first news sheet, The Bugle, packed with character and quirky features on items about bicycle polo, bike film festivals, vintage cycling events such as the Tweed Run and Eroica sponsored or supported by Brooks England, with book reviews on cycling and features with designers, such as ‘Ron Arad Reinvents the Wheel’.
New Product Introductions
Their most recent ‘Cambium’ saddle range was launched in 2013, with the Cambium C17 introduced after seven years of design work by the company’s internal design team. This is quite space age in look and design featuring a vulcanized rubber base – 60% natural and 40% synthetic, combined with an organic cotton cover, treated with a liquid glass water repellent seal on a hollow aluminium tubing and plate structure and screwed together with a 9 Torx screw system. This is to Brooks England what the Aeromax has been to Morgan Cars. More recently the Cambium 15 was launched in May/June 2014 with this range enabling them to cut into the racing and lightweight saddle markets. “Sometimes we can sell these alongside our traditional ranges and sometimes we are having to break into new outlets,” says Steve Green.
“We have never accessed any business support within Birmingham. We tend to work with Italian agencies when it comes to design inputs. The most important links we have with Birmingham and the West Midlands are through our supply chain. We have about 15-20 suppliers providing different crucial parts –including chrome plating, nuts, screws and bolts. The other vital element is our staff with the skills and tacit knowledge they have in making the Brooks England product.
“I don’t think we have ever had any contact with the Black Country or Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnerships. We occasionally hear from the FSB offering legal and HR advice and support. But in general we are very self-contained. We have enjoyed working with Birmingham Made Me to promote our products and to meet some of the other businesses involved.”
Summary and Conclusions
Founded in 1866 by John Boultbee Brooks after he left his home in Hinckley at the age of 16 to make his fortune in Birmingham by making leather saddles for the horse trade. The company’s reputation is built on quality, authenticity and a heritage that is cherished by owners and customers alike.
They are very much a niche manufacturer producing around 3,500 saddles a week, with many staff who have been with the business a long time and have strong bonds with the business – and with some of the machinery, which is in itself, very distinctive! “We realise that our saddles depend on craftsmanship, attention to detail and authenticity – all delivered by staff, who know our machines and processes. We choose to keep running with traditional machines – partly because this is our tradition – the heritage we’ve inherited and are proud of – and partly because if we used new machines it would change the quality and feel of the saddles we’re producing,” says Steven Green, Manager.
Brooks was acquired in 2002 by the Italian business, Selle Royal. Company turnover is in the region of £10m annually and they employ around 40 staff. Revenues more than have doubled in the 12 years since the Italians took on the business and growing by over +40% in the last five years. Surprisingly around d80% of sales come from products designed and introduced in the 1800 and 1900s – but that doesn’t imply a lack of innovation. Their focus on innovation has been on improvements all the way through the business with new products such as the Cambium 17 providing range extension, a new store opening in London to show off the whole range in one place and in promoting and developing more meaningful relationships with their customers.
The leather saddle is a fusion of around 20 pieces of crafted metal with a leather top, produced through a process known as ‘springing up’, to form the finished product. The business introduced their own accessories range in 2006, which is all made in the UK and accounts for around 15% turnover, with revenues trebling in the past three years.
Heritage is considered one of the business’ most important assets. “Having been bought by Italians in 2002, they have really focussed on telling our story. They’ve seen that value can be created through innovative approaches to marketing, promotion and reinforcing our identity.
“They’ve drawn on our unique heritage, creating striking advertising campaigns and new point of sale materials and most recently opening a new shop in Covent Garden, all focussed around emphasising our authenticity. It’s been interesting to see how they have looked at the business, finding value in much that could have easily been taken for granted, “ explains Steve Green.
This business has recreated itself by sticking to its roots and by continuing to do what it does very well. Innovation has been led by its past successes and by building on these firm foundations. There does appear to be a parallel with Morgan Motor Cars with the new product extension into the Cambium saddle range and it will be interesting to monitor progress here as the company seeks to enter new market space through this lateral product extension. It faces the challenge that so many brands have operating in the B2B space in how to usefully extend their relationship with their customers through direct interface with them. Whether the Covent Garden shop remains a long term feature in its current format remains to be seen. It may be that Brooks needs to collaborate in this space with other similar brands – Pashley, Brompton, or others…or it may be that a store is opened in a less expensive space but with other destination features. But it certainly marks their quest for greater customer contact and direct relationship building, which will be very important for future extension and growth.