Customers from around the world line up to pay $10,000 for one of Rob English's bicycles
Rob English doesn't have much doubt about what he'll be doing 18 months from now. It'll likely be the same thing he does now: building custom bicycles that he sells for about $10,000 apiece.
How can he be sure? Customers have him booked solid for the next 18 months to two years, and it's been that way for about seven or eight years, he said.
Working from his home in rural Lane County, English is heading into his 10th year building custom bikes that he sells to buyers worldwide. He makes about 30 bikes a year. The 41-year-old wants to keep his business going at that pace. He doesn't particularly want to grow the firm. He has no employees, and he wants to keep it that way.
"I love being in control of my destiny and running my own business," said English, who happens to be English. "In America everyone thinks you have to grow all the time. You don't necessarily make more money by doing more stuff. You just have more people to manage, and your overhead goes up."
Thanks to the Internet and word of mouth, English has no trouble lining up customers. He recently built a bike for a customer in Australia. And he's now working on one for a man in Singapore.
English grew up west of London and moved to Eugene in 2006 to work for bike maker Bike Friday. He left Bike Friday to devote himself full time to his own business in 2011.
His manufacturing shop is on his rural property on Bailey Hill Road southwest of Eugene, where his wife, Misha, operates a bed and breakfast, Velo Bed & Breakfast.
Built from scratch to custom specs
English said his typical customers are ages 30 to 50. Some may be very wealthy. He said his Singapore customer already has about 10 custom bikes. "Clearly he doesn't worry about dropping that kind of money on a bicycle," English said. But other customers may not be particularly well-heeled.
"Some people have saved up and it's their dream bike and they are going to do it once," he said.
English designs and builds each bike from scratch to fit the customer's body and needs. He makes the frame and wheels in his shop, and buys parts such as gears and brakes. All painting is done at a Springfield paint shop.
He's working in custom bike building at a very good time for the industry. The past decade or more, custom builders have been busy as Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers with money to spend take to bicycling, which can be as low impact and laid back or as intense and competitive as you like. English predicts, and hopes, that the trend continues.
English said he doesn't look at the market in terms of himself competing against other manufacturers. Rather, he focuses on working closely with customers and building them an ideal bike.
English said he has to understand the customer and what they need and "translate that into the bike."
"It's fortunate that people like what I do, and I hope that continues," he added.
Customers seek out bikes from him for a wide variety of uses, he said. "It's the full range, from commuting to racing. Anything you can do on a bike, I probably have built a bike for it," he said.
Small player in huge industry
English is working against the backdrop of a massive industry that is undergoing continuous change.
The global bicycle manufacturing and sales industry is colossal, estimated at $45 billion a year, and growing steadily.
English said he and other custom bike makers are helped in part by increased consumer interest in how and where products are made.
"More people are thinking about where they buy their stuff from and who is making it and how it is made," he said.
Sales in U.S. bicycle stores are dominated by a handful of big brand names — Specialized, Trek and Giant — but more manufacturers are selling directly to consumers, bypassing retail outlets, English said.
In the market hierarchy, beneath the big brand names "you've got hundreds of very small manufacturers, because anybody can start a bike company now. The factories in Taiwan and China have got so good at doing small-batch manufacturing that anybody can do a design of a bike and get a couple of hundred made and start their own bike company. That's happening all the time. People trying to fill niches within niches," English said.
"It keeps everyone on their toes with new stuff appearing all the time," he said.
So far, the market in English's micro-niche — premium, custom-crafted bikes — seems to be strong.
"Compared to many other things in life, bikes are relatively cheap, and once you've got the bike, the activity is free," he said. "If you buy a nice bike, you can keep it forever."