James Metcalfe vividly recalls one of Volt’s defining moments.
“We had a board meeting and I said: ‘Let’s do it now’,” he says, referring to the decision made in early 2018 to bring Volt’s production of electric bicycles from Poland to Milton Keynes, in a bid to dodge the looming tariff uncertainty for British importers.
“We had been flirting with the idea of doing it for a few years. It really was a very forceful movement for us to just do it because of Brexit.”
The decision put an end to years of offshore production and paved the way for the development of Volt’s base in Milton Keynes, 70km north-west of London, which now gives the company direct access to the country’s booming e-bikes market.
The Metcalfe brothers — James and Lyle — launched the company in 2011 as a rental business making e-bikes, then a rare sight, available for London tours.
But things took an unexpected twist: “While we didn’t sell any tours, we sold most of our bikes,” Mr Metcalfe recalls.
The brothers promptly adjusted their business model to enter the country’s nascent e-bike market, over the years gaining the share and recognition that have validated Volt’s offer, despite growing competition. It did not take long for legacy producers to ditch their initial scepticism and invest heavily in e-bikes.
The company first set up production in China, in partnership with Swedish e-bike peer Ecoride, before moving to Poland in mid-2017 as the EU started considering anti-dumping duties on e-bikes imports from China.
“While this was happening, we decided to jump the game and we set up a factory in Poland,” Mr Metcalfe recalls. The EU eventually slapped anti-dumping duties on Chinese e-bikes imports in January 2019.
However, global trade disruptions did not stop at the European border. While Volt was setting up in Poland, the UK triggered Article 50, thus setting in motion its departure from the EU.
“We didn’t want to face duties again. True, it’s more expensive to produce in the UK, but I can manage that. What I cannot anticipate is guessing where duties are going to be in six months,” Mr Metcalfe explains.
“[Back then] it really meant basing all my risk, business, livelihood, as well as the staff’s livelihood, on taking chances that the duties will not change. The risk of having to guess what was going to happen outweighed the risks of setting up here.”
Volt’s facility in Milton Keynes opened doors in July 2020 with a production capacity of up to 20,000 e-bikes per year.
“Milton Keynes was the perfect set-up for us, for its geography, but for suppliers of the likes of Shimano that we could find there already. Having them on our doorstep is very useful.”
One of the new towns the UK government built in the 1960s to relieve housing congestion in London, Milton Keynes has become a logistics hub for big names — from retailers H&M and John Lewis to the ubiquitous Amazon — and, more recently, a tech hub.
“We got contacted by local suppliers that can build anything from screws to robots. A lot of entrepreneurial companies have arrived in Milton Keynes with the view that it’s a hub for resources, where there is a lot you can draw from local people and business to assist your company and get better. We are still using 90% of components ultimately manufactured abroad, but we are gradually looking at getting more of what we need locally.”
The ‘slowbalisation’ process that started years ago with the rise of trade tensions and regionalisms triggered Volt’s reshoring, eventually landing the company a spot in Milton Keynes. Now that tariffs are not a concern any more, the Metcalfe brothers can finally dedicate all their efforts to ride a once-in-lifetime opportunity: the booming domestic market for e-bikes.
This article first appeared in the December/January print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.