Head of Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative is still eyeing growth
It was just supposed to be a week long summer job doing some data entry to pay for a bit of travelling.
Yet 15 years later Jeremy Miles is still at Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative. The business has changed a lot since those days while Miles has progressed to be managing director. The company a cooperative enterprise owned by its employees is now in six locations around the UK with a turnover in excess of s11 million.
Not bad for something which started out as a bicycle repair shop in Scotland's capital at the tail end of the 1970s.
Initially Miles was attracted by the left wing nature of the cooperative model although he had no interest in cycling when he joined.
He said: "That was maybe a good thing. We had lots of real cycling enthusiasts but perhaps needed people who were more focused on organisation."
A major turning point for the business came early this century when sales had been flat for three years.
Miles said: "We realised at that point we could either just exist as we were as a tidy profitable business that would provide careers for a small number of people or we could expand. There were about 40 members then and we put a proposal together about looking at acquisitions and starting in new cities.
"It was a unanimous vote to do that."
After a major reorganisation of the structure of the business which included electing a full board of directors the first part of the expansion took place in 2002.
That year Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative took over Cycling World in Aberdeen then in 2003 it acquired Hardisty Cycles in Newcastle. Since then it has opened up in Leeds and Manchester with the most recent store in Sheffield starting up last year.
There are now around 180 staff spread across those locations plus a 30,000 square feet warehouse and distribution centre on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
With retailers among the hardest hit by the squeeze in consumer spending Miles is glad to be in a specialist sector.
He said: "Our experience has been different in the sense we are in an industry sector that is a little bit more resistant to recession. We are selling a product which for many people is a budget decision by offering them the chance to get out of the car and on to a bicycle.
"We are also lucky because pressures in society to do with health, transport and environment are benefiting us.
"But while we have factors which are helping us we are not resistant to the fact the average person is spending less money. We are finding it challenging but not as challenging as some out there."
One of the difficulties Miles has is making sure the company stands out from other bike retailers. Although Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative's own Revolution brand sells millions of pounds worth of gear each year getting exclusive distribution rights to other makes is tricky.
So while Miles believes the product range is world class he admits rivals could copy much of it. As a result the company has concentrated on giving specialist advice and training. That can include staff in the shop making sure people get a bike which fits right, online guides to equipment, backing for cycling events or regular repair and maintenance workshops.
Miles said: "As exclusivity on brands is beginning to disappear you really have to focus on the other things you can provide. That can be advice, after market service, community engagement and lots of other things.
"Customers tend to fall into three categories mountain bikers, road cyclists or commuters - so you have to be three different shops as you can't afford to eliminate or put off one of those groups. It has to be a mixed offer."
Crucial to that strategy is having the right staff. Many employees have been at the business for upwards of 10 years with turnover very low by retail standards. But knowledge about cycling is not the only criteria.
Miles said: "Having passionate staff who understand the product and engage with the customer is crucial. Our recruitment process is pretty rigorous and we know the types of individual we want to employ.
"They have to blend that passion and enthusiasm with accessibility so they are able to relate to a mum buying a bike for her young children and someone spending thousands of pounds on specific kit.
"The culture of the business allows certain people to come in and flourish while people who don't fit tend to drift out. As we are a cooperative the engagement and genuine interest people have in the health of the business is so encouraging."
One area where Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative has been a pioneer is in online sales. Indeed it has had its own web store since before Google and Amazon were around.
Despite the length of time in e-commerce growth has been steady rather than spectacular although according to Miles that is a deliberate strategy.
He said: "We have tried to grow it organically rather than be aggressive. For us the internet is a doorway into the physical stores as much as it is about selling things online.
"Customers often use your website as a way to gather information and they need to feel like they are getting the same experience there as they would in a store.
"So our site is much more about information and advice rather than providing the cheapest price."
Even with a shaky retail market Miles is still looking at growth opportunities. Those include moves into Scotland's largest city and the south of England.
But as someone who is regularly planning three to five years ahead there are unlikely to be any developments in the short term.
He said: "We are committed to expanding but we are careful about it. When we opened Sheffield last year it felt like the right thing to do as we had looked at it for a long time.
"We had made the commitments before things got challenging and it has been interesting opening up in a difficult economic period. It has been more successful than we expected it to be considering where the economy has gone.
"Our model up until now has been targeting major population centres and cities which have enough of the demographic we would see as potential customers. We like big shops with a big offer.
"That model of expansion becomes challenging when you have used up many of the major cities in the north of the UK. Glasgow we have looked at often enough and we just need to find the right place but we will get there at some point. T
"he real opportunity is down south but our distribution centre is just outside Edinburgh so transporting stock to Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield once a week is challenging.
"Anything beyond that is a different ball game but that southern part of the UK is where a lot of people are. We'd like to do it but we'd like to see market be a bit more buoyant before we do it."
While Miles is candid enough to admit the next 18 months could be pretty terrifying he is still confident in what the business can offer.
He said: "We are still getting small growth but you see retailers falling over left, right and centre so it is scary stuff. But I'm confident we have a good, resilient business model.
"In this day and age being a business which people see as ethical and interestingly structured is a good thing. People are looking for businesses to be loyal to and spend money with because it gives them a sense they are doing something good.
"So it gives the business a bit of personality and character with the customer as well. I have a responsibility to the people in this business to be plotting the path for the future and that is what I am doing."
Jeremy Miles got a first class honours degree in social science and management at Edinburgh University. After that he took what was supposed to be a week long data entry job at Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative so he could afford to do some travelling.
The business needed someone to help fit out its new warehouse and transfer stock from its shop in the capital. Miles stayed a few months, went travelling and when he came back was offered a full time job in the bike shop.
In 2001 he became a director as part of a major structural reorganisation which positioned the business for growth. Since then the company has acquired businesses in Aberdeen and Newcastle plus opened up new stores in Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield.
This has pushed annual turnover to around £11.5 million. The company was originally founded as repair shop Recycles in 1977 and has been an employee owned cooperative since the 1980s.
That means all qualifying staff share equally in rewards such as shares and annual bonuses while having a say in how the company is run.
Since 1989 the business has produced its own brand of bikes and accessories with the Revolution imprint now worth in excess of £2.5 million each year.
Miles is also on the advisory board of Cooperative Development Scotland. He lives in Edinburgh, supports Aberdeen Football Club and has three children.