Around the same time Grant Robinson and I traveled through the UK and visited Orange Bikes (story somewhere in this here webber), we also stopped off at Hope Technology to see what happens in a sleepy little village in the middle of nowhere. What we found was, frankly speaking, bloody extraordinary. High tech, forward thinking but with common sense old fashioned values. Somewhat different to Orange on the outside but still sharing similar viewpoints and outlooks in terms of who to run a business which is successful but sustainable.
It’s Not Rocket Science.
By Seb Kemp
Photographer Grant Robinson and I are welcomed into the reception area of the brand new Hope Technology building and we are surprised with what we see. Polished hard wood floors roll out before us and, accented by strips of copper, white walls lead to high ceilings that have a cobweb of oak beams, while a wide stairway that has been clad in checker plate metal leads up to a mezzanine. It looks and feels more like a hip downtown art gallery than a place where lumps of raw metal are cut, milled, blasted, acid dipped and laser etched.
Even after a long day of looking around the building we leave without once getting a sense of a ‘grim oop north’ mentality or even a whiff of the sooty, grimy existence of a hard days labour that has sometimes characterized this area of England. To spend a day at Hope is a fascinating insight into their pride in manufacturing, faith in the skill of the local labour force, but at the same time how they are embracing modern high tech means of production.
The building started life as a cotton mill in the last century. More recently it became a paper printing mill churning out Scratch Cards for the fortune of others before the print owners ran aground with the business gambling too close to the red. Before checking out, the previous owners swan song was to spend the businesses fortune on decking out the building in the most lavish manner (relatively speaking for a mill) available to them. Perhaps a little beyond their means. They had spent £5 million on the place, then their printing business folded and the mill stood empty for five years before Hope came in with a shrewd offer to the property owner that meant they swooped into the building of their dreams for a song. With the steady expansion of the company Hope had been looking for new places to accommodate their production and business facilities and this clean, neat spacious facility was perfect for them.
Hope Mill, like many such industrial buildings of the era, is located right in the middle of town, surrounded by row after row of back-to-back terrace houses. Uniform residences that accommodate some of the 8,000 residents of Barnoldswick. The streets are narrow yet clean, the roofs all matching slate, there are perhaps as many bicycles zipping about the streets as cars, and the pubs still serve local ales. The town high street and market place is like looking into a page from a Charles Dickens book as it retains a very quintessentially quaint English, olde worlde and local feel. Whereas most of Britain’s high streets look like a carbon copy of the next one, with the same national chain store fronts – a nationwide duplication of the same mobile phone stores, coffee shops, and chemists – every store in Barnoldswick, except perhaps the Royal Mail post office, look like they are owned and run by local people.
Barnoldswick is a peculiar aberration in the Lancashire countryside. It is the largest town in the British Isles that is not served by any A-roads. It hides away in a rolling patchwork of farmers fields, stone walls, and hedgerows. It is the town’s remote setting that, oddly, has spawned the technological industry within it. During the war, looking to find a place safer to build the Merlin engines that were being built for the Air Force efforts, Rolls-Royce moved their production facilities from areas susceptible to air raids to this quiet little mills town in the middle of Britain. Still to this day Rolls-Royce have substantial production plants in town and employ over 1,000 local staff. Rolls-Royce are not a self sufficient giant in isolation; it requires many other businesses to feed into it and because of this many more high technology companies formed or moved here, making the area a sort of hub of technical, scientific and engineering prowess.
It was at Rolls-Royce that Ian Weatherill and Simon Sharp met. Both were tool makers, producing jigs and fixtures to make aerospace parts and they shared a passion for motorcycle trials. Even as kids they had trained on bicycles to aid their motorcycle trials, in fact, Ian is quick to add, “That they said mountain biking was invented in america is a load of rubbish. Loads of us had been doing it for years over here on Tracker bikes. We all did it but it’s just that we didn’t have the marketing tools behind us to sell that sort of thing.” But that’s another story altogether and perhaps left for the historians to delve into.
It was that riding background that got them into bikes but it is was their jobs in the aerospace industry that helped them have the know how and the tools to make the product.
At first they started with a disc brake, taking a disc brake off a motorcycle and retrofitting it on a mountain bike. The first full product they built themselves from scratch was a mechanical disc brake. They had to build a hub to go with it and before they knew it the hubs were far out selling the brakes. The Hope hub has become an iconic mountain biking mainstay and even though it has been in constant evolution and had a few facelifts, the original was better than many other brands hubs are almost twenty years later.
Stepping onto the factory floor of Hope is more like stepping into a surgical space. Sure, there is swarf and metal shavings sprinkled around but it isn’t too long before someone sweeps it up and the floor is back to a state which would make many kitchen chefs blush. The factory is bright and airy, and although there are dozens of machines cutting and sluicing chunks of metal at an extraordinary pace, the noise is far from deafening.
Lined up and down the one whole side of the factory are six identical Matsuura five axis multi pallet milling machines. Each one costs £470,000 and there is a column of six of them. These machines only make up a small number of the total machinery in the room, but they sure do dominate. These are some of the most high tech milling machines available. It is the exact same machine F-1 teams and the aerospace industry uses. Incredible beasts that can churn out terrifically intricate pieces. Take for example a Hope brake caliper: it starts as one solid lump of metal, gets jigged up on a pallet and pulled into the machine where it whizzes and whirls all over and around the lump, sometimes swiveling the tool head, other times the pallet itself, and often both at the same time. After 15 minutes 30 different cutting tools will have done the work required to form the exquisite shape of a Hope caliper. Oh, and it does three calipers at a time and there are 32 pallets all jigged up ready to go, one after another, almost 24 hours a day.
The machines can create shapes and complete tasks that, for a lay person like myself, begs belief but for Ian and co-owner Simon Sharp the process of production is as fascinating as the end result.
Ian refers to Simon as, “An engineering geek who goes to bed at night reading engineering magazines because you can’t just be into bikes and stuff, but the processes involved.”
It seems to be as much about the means as it does about the ends. A pride in knowing how things work and being able to make and fix things yourself which is typically British northern character trait. No bull, just getting on with it. Ian is quite adamant that all that they do isn’t that complicated and that he can’t understand why more people don’t just try and make stuff themselves rather than outsourcing.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s quite simple engineering…People have lost that skill to just do things themselves. Why does everyone think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to Asia and pick it out of a catalogue’? Why can’t people just go slower and think, ‘Why don’t I get my own tools, take on a few lads and try make it at home’. Just start small and make a few good frames rather than loads of crap. They can start off small and as things get busier they can just expand slowly and evolve properly.”
Ian has a typically straight forward and no nonsense way of looking at things but he isn’t brusque, rather he is just exacerbated that other people don’t walk the same path Hope have taken. The Hope products which are available today – of which there are so many thousands that Ian is unable to give a clear number due to the massive number of sizing and color combinations – have all been developed because the guys that work at Hope became fed up with buying products that didn’t work properly or didn’t last. So with the technical know how and the machines available to them they decided to make their very own. It is only some time after a personal project has proven itself and been refined by the owner that it is even considered as becoming a commercial item.
Which is why 99.5% of the value of Hope product is made in-house. It’s not just the big stuff that Hope make and then buy in the rest. They make everything they can themselves; bolts, pivots, even the complex anodizing baths were made in-house with the help of a book borrowed from the library.
“The reason we make everything is that it is a lot easier to make stuff yourself than to rely on someone else. If we run out, then we make some more. We don’t have to order more and wait. In some cases we make it the same day as it is shipped out. A disc that goes out might of been made that morning,” says Ian.
So even if you have the knowledge to make high tech goods and have the equipment to do so, wouldn’t it be far cheaper to get someone else to make it? Ian is quick to stamp that thought out, “Not really. So take the little screws that hold the brake pads in for example. Someone wanted to charge us £1.50 for each of them but we could invest in a machine that can make them and even though that might be expensive, those bolts only cost us 20p now and in 8 years the machine is paid off. Besides if we decide to change the design, we can do it ourselves every quickly and efficiently.”
Indeed where else can you get unusual fitting pieces made to order? Ian used the example of a recent customer who rang up and who had an old Coda four bolt hub but wanted a new disc. They found out what the dimensions were and then programed the machine to laser cut one to this specification in a usual run of discs. “Easily done. Of course we charge a premium for that service. It’s 2 quid! If you went to the local machine shop it would cost hundreds of pounds!” says Ian.
Furthermore, “A lot of people say we are expensive, but we are not. With the actual machining that goes into our stuff it isn’t. If you got that made at your local machinist it would cost you more than it would if you bought it at full retail price at a shop. You can’t buy stuff that is made like ours that cheap. Everything else is cast or made in cheap labour areas.”
“Over in Asia there’s a million workers and they don’t have any care what the end result is. Here we care deeply. Each of the guys on the floor have a pride in what they do. They don’t want to produce any old crap, they want to be proud of everything that leaves this factory.”
Hope have a simple way at looking things. If they are going to invest in the machinery then the only way to keep the price down is to keep those machines running around the clock. Each machine runs for an average of 23 hours and 50 minutes each day, seven days a week. Rather than have the machines sitting there gathering dust, Hope’s idea is that they can just keep them producing, therefore bringing down the cost per unit of the machining. Simple really.
What’s more the kind of stuff they are doing in this little village in Lancashire is something that still can’t be done in Asia yet. Asian factories have undoubtably become very good at how they produce certain things using some processes but they aren’t that innovative. It still takes the companies who are outsourcing to tell them how they want it made.
“They can’t really produce stuff themselves. They can just copy stuff or make stuff they are told to make. We aren’t worried about what they do over there. We will do our lot, keep doing it our way and then we are going to be fine.”
All of Hope’s products are designed and built to very high standards the workers set for their products. They do tend to last longer and certainly suits the rigors of the wet, abrasive riding conditions of the north of Britain.
“It’s designed for here as well. It’s wet, mucky and people do bash their bikes about. A lot of other stuff is designed in California for their good weather. That some companies make hubs with no seals is a joke. You have to make it last. Simon has a thing that he never wants to see it back again. Once it’s out the door that’s it. Our warranty desk doesn’t have to do much. We don’t often gets things back, but if we do we can sort it here right then and now. We have never had a recall either. The recalls you see now is awful. It seems everything is getting recalled. Any product, you name it, is being recalled. All this stuff made in China or Asia, that no one knows where it’s from or who is accountable,” proclaims a very proud Ian.
“It’s a common sense thing. It works, you can service it and it keeps going. People might buy another product but then when all that stuff slowly breaks down they remember the Hope one they had ten years ago that is still working. All this Tiawan and Chinese stuff is throwaway. We want to make it solid so it lasts,” adds Neil Arnold, the chap in charge of marketing.
Ian is keen to point out that his views are not meant as a one sided diatribe against producing in Asia, it’s more that he hopes more people will just settle down and think about doing things sustainably. Ian prefers to satisfy the demands of the core customers who know that Hope products work better and last longer, and also to just support the local workers with jobs and security. A very old school ethos.
Hope doesn’t have plans to expand to become a large corporation. In fact Ian would much rather it stayed as things are. Ian surprises me when he says something that would make any business manager’s chin hit the ground, “Safe. All we want is to be safe and have a job. Safe in employment, making decent money and having a good lifestyle for all our employees. Not become a mega corporation and then sell the company to the highest bidder.”
Many companies have a philosophy about building a brand up and then selling it on, but each time this happens a company changes and becomes something else entirely. Sometimes it dies completely. Examples within a similar branch of the industry could be Race Face, Syncros, and Nuke Proof. All of them were at one time innovative industry leaders in producing radical and timeless products with skill and care on home turf just like Hope does now, but all of them have been sold, died and perhaps resurrected by bigger companies keen to cash in on the brand image of old but not retain the ethos, instead resorting to producing product of a lesser overall value.
“All the advice we get, business wise, is to build up the brand, sell it and get onto the next project. Why? This is our project,” says Ian.
So where is Hope heading? Stagnation? Hardly. Hope have got a bunch of product that is in the testing stages and which give clue to a potential larger project. They have a pedal that is nearly complete and ready to hit stores; they are working on a 9 speed, a 10 speed, and a 6 speed downhill cassette; there are cranks in early prototype stages with a smaller four-bolt spider diameter so that it will be possible to match up chainrings as small as 30 teeth; there is a bash guard floating about on staff test bikes; and two chainguides, one top guide only and plans for a top and bottom guide are hiding in computer programs. What else? Well with so much development going towards drivetrain components why not finish it off and build a complete groupset? “Yes, one day there might be a British drivetrain,” smirks Ian and steals a sideways glance at Neil.
Maybe they are exercising another great northern British trait, that of sarcasm but maybe, just maybe, they aren’t. What is for sure is that it won’t happen overnight but when it happens it will be done with calm and quiet self assurance like they have always done here in the industrial North of England.
As we pack Grant’s camera bag into the car we look back at Hope’s new base of operations from the outside, knowing what is inside the building, and perhaps a little more about what is inside the heart and mind of the company. Everything we have seen today reminds me of a matryoshka doll. There is the town, hidden inside the valley of green Lancashire; then inside the little old town is the many old mill buildings which surprisingly contains such high technological innovation, one of which is Hope Mill; then there is all the old fashioned common sense thinking that hides inside every perfectly formed product that rolls off the factory floor. Each layer protects or supports the next.
Everything we had seen, heard or experienced that day retains characteristics which often feel deserted in modern times, those of self reliance, prudence, practicality and canniness. But juxtaposed against this was an assurance that Hope is very much forward-looking, bold, dynamic, and innovative. A little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.