Since the Night Mono Strap photoshoot of last year, where - to answer the many questions - we rode a titanium silver dream machine from UK manufacturer, Enigma, the bike has garnered almost as much attention as the shoes themselves. And that’s just the way it should be.
A few weeks back, we had the opportunity to chat with Jim Walker, CEO of Enigma, about the brand, reinvention and the challenges of manufacturing bikes in the UK. And as it turns out, we’ve all been here before.
When, and why did you start Enigma?
Around 2006. I'd had a bike-based distribution business in the UK called Jim Walker. After I sold that, an opportunity arose when a company called Omega Titanium, a UK-based bike brand went bust around the same time. I figured that there was a possibility to take what they were doing and develop something a little different.
So you inherited from Omega the people, and all of the equipment to make the same bikes?
No, no, they didn't make anything, Omega, they were a brand. It was built on, how can I put it? People thought they were made in the UK, but the frames were actually made in Russia.
But then you decided to make in the UK, which wouldn't be most people's first, second or even third choice.
And I do often wonder why I did that. But no, when I started the bike business, 40, or however many years it ago, I started with a then British manufacturer, which was Dawes Cycles. You know, Dawes made everything in Birmingham. We had lots of competition with many British manufacturers at the time - Falcon, Holdsworth and others. And you know, we made millions of bikes in the UK. Contrast that with recent times when we only made something like 20... 30,000 bikes per year. It's fair to say the decline was catastrophic. And of those 20 or 30,000, probably most of those would've been built by Brompton even at that time.
It must have given you confidence that building bikes in the UK had been done before, at volume and successfully?
That's quite right, although I felt that we would have no way of competing in terms of mass production; that was not even remotely possible. But I did think that we could compete at the higher end. And you know, I have to say that when we started, there was no way we could be at the top of the market because we didn't have any experience in what we were doing. But we did chuck a fair bit of money at it, and yeah, we got to grips with it. And you know, here we are now, and we make a world-class product here in England.
Presumably, a lot of the challenge in getting going was finding the people with the skills. Did you find people that already knew how to weld?
Well, no is the honest answer to that. And it makes me laugh when I think about it now, but my son was working with me at the time. One day I said Joe, "Mate, you're going to be a frame builder." I know it sounds bizarre, but that is the truth. That's how it was. So, he was obviously in fear of the task in front of him, but to be fair to him, he learnt how to do it, and he is pretty much entirely self-taught. He had the benefit of Mark Reilly, who was the Omega owner at the time. Mark used to build steel frames years ago, but he didn't know how to weld entire frames. So, Joe learnt it himself and did a brilliant job.
And you started with not only steel but titanium frames, too?
Yes indeed. Although, you know, 90% of our businesses is titanium; the steel side of it is still relatively small.
Is that because of what the market is dictating?
Yes, it is. It's because of the market, and it's because we have expertise in titanium, that very few other people have. There are lots of steel builders, but there are very few who build with ti.
Why is that, do you think?
It isn't easy. But once you understand it, you know how it works, and then it's a wonderful material. But getting to grips with it is difficult. And bear in mind, we had no help. There was no one we could ask and say, "Well, look, how do you do this?" That's why I say that we threw a load of money at it because we did.
You must be pretty pleased with what you're making now - the bikes look incredible.
We're incredibly pleased. It's terrific when you go to shows like the NAHBS or Bespoke over here. You're there amongst your competitors, a lot of whom are friends. But you're there amongst them, and you can see where you are relative to your competitors. And you can also see how far you've come, from what we've produced originally, to what we produce now.
Is what you're doing now just a continuation of Dawes - a modern, small-batch version of the same thing?
It's very different. Our product is vastly superior. When I was working with Dawes, I have to say that the quality of some of the stuff that we produced was not great, to be honest. It was certainly not at the sort of level of product that we create here by any stretch of the imagination.
I guess there's a danger of looking back at the past and thinking everything was perfect.
Yes, but it wasn't like that, to be honest. The quality level was nothing like what we have here. And that's mostly down, I think, to the workforce. Because the team we have here, they're all very, very passionate about what they do. They enjoy it. You know, I remember my time at Dawes, the guys, they just wanted to turn up to eight o'clock, do their work, do their shift, go as fast as possible, and go home. What we do is very, very different. And it does require commitment and passion from the team.
And now, because you can jump into someone's workshop through the eye of Instagram, there's no room for anything less than your best.
Yeah, I think that's a very good point. And yeah, you are under scrutiny all of the time now. You can't afford to cut corners, and you need to be seen to be at the top of your game all of the time.
You are a UK brand, in every sense. Is the home market the strongest for you?
The home market is the strongest, but we are certainly growing our overseas business now. We do sell frames all over the world, and enquiries are increasing enormously, especially in the last few months.