Tue Mantoni: Triumph's triumph: the rebirth of a British icon

The Business Interview: Twenty years on, the company is a model of 21st century manufacturing, its chief executive tells Sarah Arnott

The Triumph factory smells of hot metal and petrolheads' dreams, the end of its production line stacked floor-to-ceiling with gleaming motorbikes in evocative colours like "tornado red" and "blazing orange".

But the iconic British brand popularised by Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen nearly didn't survive. "A lot of people said motorcycle production was dead in this country," says Tue Mantoni, the resurrected company's Danish-born chief executive.

"But we have proved we can survive and we can compete with the biggest brands out there."

It is quite a story: a 100-year saga of domination, decline and rebirth that is emblematic of the metamorphosis of British manufacturing as a whole. This year is the 20th anniversary of once-bankrupt Triumph's return to production. And with UK sales up by 26 per cent last year alone, there is much to celebrate at the factory tucked away on an industrial estate just outside Nuneaton. "We have gone from being a romantic heritage brand to being a serious contender in [the] global motorcycle market," Mr Mantoni says.

The company produced its first motorbike in 1902, and by the 1950s it was a world-leading motorcycle brand, seared into popular culture by Hollywood's bad boys. For nearly two decades, Triumph's dominance looked unassailable. But the Japanese were coming. Armed with better technology and more efficient production techniques, the likes of Honda and Suzuki stole the market.

"The British companies were complacent," Mr Mantoni says. "They assumed that people didn't want Japanese bikes, but in five years the whole industry was gone."

What followed is depressingly familiar: a 15-year soap opera of government-brokered mergers and de-mergers before what was left of the company finally collapsed in 1983. But Triumph clung to life. Plasterer-turned-building entrepreneur John Bloor bought the name and the drawings, and set about raising the phoenix from the ashes. It took nearly a decade to produce its first bike, but 20 years on, the relaunched company now has 1,400 employees across the world and sells 50,000 bikes every year through a network of more than 700 franchised dealers in 30 countries from Poland to Brazil.

It has been no easy ride. The designs bought from the collapsed Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) were obsolete, and had to be re-created from scratch. But the biggest test came in 2002. One Friday afternoon, after staff had left for the weekend, a fire started in the factory's "rolling road" test facility. By midnight the plant had burnt to the ground, putting everything on hold for more than six months.

It was a time for soul-searching, says Mr Mantoni, who joined the company from the consultants McKinsey in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. "Sometimes you need that extra shock to say, 'OK, what do we want to do?' " he says. "We took the opportunity to carve out a niche for ourselves, to be really different from the Japanese."

The strategy seems to be working. Triumph's turnover has more than doubled, to £300m, in the eight years since the fire. It now accounts for 15 per cent of the key British market and 5 per cent worldwide. Partly, the group's success is a direct response to the mistakes of the past. "We learned from the 1970s that complacency leads to death," Mr Mantoni says. The competitive threat is Asia.

"We are a success now, but the Japanese manufacturers are always there, and the Chinese will come," Mr Mantoni says. "The Chinese have 25 to 50 brands now, but in 10 years there will be two or three that will be as successful as the Japanese, and we are watching that all the time."

In meeting the challenge, Triumph is the model of the small, developed-economy manufacturer: a niche brand with a reputation for high quality engineering, drawing on a carefully managed global supply chain. "We get the best quality com

ponents for the most affordable cost, regardless of where they are in the world," Mr Mantoni says. "That is how we can be in this country and still be profitable."

The UK will always be Triumph's headquarters, he says, and all research, design and detailed engineering is done here. But engines and suspension systems come from Japan, commodity components from China, and top-quality bolts and washers from Germany.

The company also has a second factory, in Thailand, producing some components and assembling some finished bikes.

"The heart of the company is here in Britain – we have the biggest motorcycle design department outside Japan," Mr Mantoni says. "But without the factory in Asia we would not be in business today. We just would not be able to build 50,000 motorcycles and still be profitable."

Triumph has big plans, including the aggressive expansion of its model range. The biggest challenge is finding the necessary engineering skills – a familiar concern across British industry. Triumph wants to recruit up to 25 engineers in the next six months. But despite the strong aerospace and defence industries, good quality recruits are proving more and more difficult to find. "We have to interview 25 candidates for every one person we hire, and that ratio has got bigger and bigger over the last five years," Mr Mantoni says.

Just as the company looks elsewhere for the best-quality components, it may yet have to turn abroad for its designers. "The last thing we want to do is compromise, so the next step might be to go to Germany or other countries to see if they've got engineers we can hire."

Triumph may trade hard on its image of understated, unpretentious, authenticity. But its business practices are anything but traditional.

125 years of Triumph

1885 Starts as a Coventry-based bicycle company

1902 Produces its first motorcycle

1953 Marlon Brando rides a Thunderbird 6T in The Wild One

1969 Holds 50 per cent of US market

1971 Parent group losses force sale

1977 Next parent collapses and workers' co-operative, backed with government money, becomes Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden)

1983 Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) collapses, rights bought by entrepreneur John Bloor

1991 Reborn Triumph produces first motorbike

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick