The Cycling Entrepreneur
A former international cyclist, Olympian and a very successful businessman, Phil Griffiths talks about his cycling and his business career, about sponsoring riders and teams, and how lessons learned in one benefitted the other. It makes interesting and revealing reading.
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Andy Jones and Cycling Legends
Griffiths was touching 70 when we met in late February this year, but he has the energy of somebody in their 30s. Even walking with him you skip-step to keep up, and he talks like a machine gun, rattling off anecdotes and experiences one after the other in a stream of consciousness, but it all makes sense.
We start off running late. “I had to do an airport run and got stuck in traffic,” he apologises when we meet at his fabulous home just outside Stone in Staffordshire. He had 101 things to do, and he’s off to Mallorca tomorrow, but then he says, “It’s time for lunch,” and off we go to a place in town. Once there I get his attention 100 percent, and 100 percent of Phil Griffiths is a lot. So much that I’ve split the interview in two.
Phil Griffiths (right) with sponsored rider Russell Downing, who has just won the 2009 Tour of Ireland
Here’s part one:-
From Brake Blocks to Big Brands
Q. Is it right that your start in the cycle business came from when you were racing for and running an elite cycling club called GS Strada?
“Yes it is. I needed money, certainly more money than I made racing, because I had a wife and two kids. My sponsors, Swinnerton’s bike shop in Stoke, gave me all the kit I needed, but I also wanted money to do road records and ride everything I could ride. It all cost money, and I had a family.
“So you know, I was on new bikes every year, they (Swinnerton’s) were giving me money, paying for my cars and all different things, but I thought; hang on, I should be good enough at this to get some extra money in. Then they asked me to take other riders in the team, which I enjoyed doing and helping, but the next thing is I was on the phone arranging clothing, arranging bikes. Paul Carbutt rode a Swinnerton bike, Dave Cumming rode a Swinnerton. I fixed them up with everything.
Griffiths (right) racing for GS Strada
“I was on to the sponsors to get more money, to get another car. And then it was people ringing me and saying can you come to this race, and can you be in the team? So I was racing but also being the sort of team manager, which probably helped me when I went into business because I slowly became a bit of an organiser. I suppose that was the plus side of it, but there were negatives for my racing.
“In 1976 I was third in the national road race championships, I won the BBAR (British Best All-Rounder), broke the hundred (100-mile TT) record. But that winter I spent more time on the phone, and I didn’t rest mentally, so in 1977 I won BBAR, I won the fifty-mile and I won hundred. I won the BBAR again in 1979, just on how good I was at time trials, but looking at the pictures now I’d put on weight. I wasn’t riding to my potential in road races. I put weight on every winter because I wasn’t training enough, and I didn’t get it all off the following summer, so it built up and built up. You can get away with a bit of extra weight in time trials, up to a point, but not in road races.
“The lights went out in 1980, it was like somebody turned the switch off. But I look back at the photographs now and it’s like, nobody turned the switch off, I wasn’t grafting on the bike like I did in 1971, ‘72, ‘73 and ’74. But I can look back now and say that’s where my business acumen started.”
Q. You never turned professional, yet you won some big races, including leading the Peace Race, you must have had offers from pro teams?
“I did, Raleigh wanted me. Peter Post rang me and said “Mr Griffiths”? I said yep, and he goes, “The bosses of Raleigh like you.” I said yep again, and he says, “But I don’t want you,” and he hung up. That’s all he rang me for, to say he didn’t want me. I thought fine, I don’t want to turn pro anyway. Professional life back then wouldn’t have worked for me.
“You turned pro at the start of the year and you went down to the early season races, Grand Prix of Antibes and all the early races. Then you went to Belgium and you got used up every day; every day, especially if you are big and strong like I was. Your body won’t stand that unless you’re a real tough hard school, a Belgian or something. And if you were British back then, when you’re away from home you were living in digs somewhere. That’s why it ended so many Brits. Chris Boardman was the first British pro over there who had a gentler introduction. You need a party piece, something you are good at, sprinting or climbing. Chris could win prologues, take the yellow jersey, and that made him. Otherwise you had to go to every race and ride for somebody else, and that used you up.”
The TI-Raleigh team with Peter Post (right)
Q: So you were wheeling and dealing to help fund the GS Strada amateur team, but when did you start in business more officially?
“Through my in-laws (the Swinnertons), yes I was wheeling and dealing. For example, I’d go to the Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games with suitcases full of clothing, and I flogged it there. We didn’t have any Sky money in those days, no lottery money either, you had to do things like that, and I was quite good at buying and selling. I remember one time I monopolized the supply of Barum tubulars from Czechoslovakia. I bought them all at the Peace Race. One year there were no Barum tyres in the shops for the club lads in the UK, I had them all, so they bought them from me.
“I suppose I came to be a wheeler dealer. I started Phil Edwards in business. He got some Campagnolo brake leaver hoods, and he got engraved Colnago chainsets. He’d got Campag brake blocks, and you couldn’t get them here. I had them all off him. That was 1974 and 1975, I was buying everything off Phil and taking it straight to Swinnerton’s, and they wanted more. So when Phil started bringing in Sidi shoes, the northern agent for the whole UK was Swinnerton Cycle Sports. They went to the Harrogate Show with a combined stand; Caratti, that was Phil Edwards’ business, and Roy Swinnerton Cycles
. Phil Edwards
“So I started selling a handful of brake blocks, tubs and brake lever hoods, and I just went from there. Well, it snowballed from there. What happened then was I met people. I got offered a job in the cycle industry from the clothing manufacturer Lutz, whose stuff we used to race in with GS Strada. I was 29 and they wanted me to run their factory in Birmingham, but I wanted one more year of racing.
“Lutz eventually stopped trading, but by then I had GS Strada kitted out in Assos stuff. Through doing that I met the owner of Assos, Toni Maier, and he took an instant liking to me. He came to the RTTC (Road Time Trials Council) dinner. I got very friendly with him after that. One time I took him to dinner, but before dinner I told him I was taking him for an aperitif.
“We drove out into the countryside, into Cheshire, and Toni was saying, “Bloody Hell we’re going a long way just for an aperitif.” Eventually we parked outside this house and Toni saw this bloke open the farm gates, he had two Dobermans with him, and Toni goes, “Oh my God, the last time I saw him was at the Zurich track in 1952.” It was Reg Harris.
“I actually sponsored Reg and Beryl Burton with Assos clothing, top to toe Assos. One of my proudest things was to do with Ray Booty, he had a Pinarello in his bike stable. I had Ray over at my place because he was into his Aston Martin Lagondas. I’d done all my history about him, and I took him out in a Bentley, because I knew he appreciated nice cars.
“So Toni Maier took a shine to me, and he introduced me to business at a much higher level when one day he said to me; “Mr Griffiths how old are you?” I told him I was 32, and I thought he was talking about racing, so I added that I was finished. But he said; “You’re not finished at 32, cycling is finished, yes.” And then he goes; “Mr Griffiths, with this English mouth of yours you can make a lot of money.” And he was so right.
“That was when I really started selling. I went round all the bike shops; to Tony Butterworth in Sheffield and Colin Lewis in Devon, and up to Scotland, and every door was open to me because of my cycling career. Everybody… I’d been a character. I’d done this, I’d done that. Everybody had seen me somewhere, whether it was the Tour of Scotland or the Milk Race, or in time trials, and I knew everybody.
“Toni Maier was obsessed with sponsoring teams and with marketing. The biggest things he taught me were; one, not putting every penny in your pocket. You have to go to the shows, you have to have a bar for wine, you have to do this and that, but at a certain level. So I followed on from that, and by doing that I’ve lived well for 35 years from business.
Toni Maier (left) with Barry Hoban
“The other thing he taught me, the bit about cycling being finished for me now, made me park the bike, and for quite a while I never touched it. But that wasn’t so good, because I’d drive 50,000 miles a year just living on motorway junk food, not knowing any better. I’ve no regrets, though. It was a brilliant introduction, and of course I realised Assos was a family business and that was a massive difference to… you knew you could talk to them and they would help you.”
Q: Sponsorship is something Toni Maier said you should do. Marketing was something you needed to do. But I get the impression you derive enormous satisfaction from doing both, and you stuck with people who you’ve sponsored throughout.
“Oh yeah, I look after Joey, Joey McLoughlin today, he’s on our bike, he’s in our clothing. I look after Adrian Timmis, somebody gave me an ANC jersey recently, so I gave it to Paul Watson to put in his café. I thought, well, it won’t be seen with me, and it was a genuine original ANC team jersey you know. How many of those had I touched back in the day?
“What became the ANC team, the one that rode the 1987 Tour de France, was sponsored by Toni Maier and myself with Assos in 1987. I started in business with Tony in 1984. I turned him down at first, he offered me the job in 1982 and I was like, Er…. I still want to race one more year, one more year, but I had a little hernia problem in my back, lower back, and I was overweight so I was working harder than I should have done on my bike. Eventually, given the hernia problem, I just went; right, I’m going for it. I’m starting up full-time in business.
ANC-Halfords at the Tour de France
“I started with Toni but I knew nothing. I said to him; so Toni, a business, so how does this work, how do you get 90 days for payment? He tells me, and I go; Ah, right okay, so who pays the freight? “You do Phil.” Who pays for a full-page advert in Cycling Weekly? “You do Phil.” It was all; “You do, you do Phil.” And here’s me a telephone engineer who’s become a bit of a character and everything else. Can you imagine? How the hell do you work out?
“So first delivery of Assos came from Switzerland, and there’s a knock on the door. I’d sold everything before it came. I’d rung all the shops, everybody, and sold it all. The stuff came in November 1984, and I’d sold the lot. I’d just got to get the stuff sorted, and out to the shops, then they’d pay me for the stuff and I’d pay Assos.
Anyway, the van driver knocked on the door, and he goes; “Right, I’m from Switzerland; this is a VAT bill for £2000, and a freight bill for £1500. And I went; Hang on, I’ve got 90 days to pay off Mr Maier. But the van driver is like just a van driver, so he says “Who is Mr Maier, I’ve never heard of him. This is the VAT bill, and this is our freight bill because it came from Switzerland, and you don’t have an account with us.”
“The van driver needed £3500 right then and there and I couldn’t pay, so all the boxes piled up on my doorstep went back in his van. I was in tears, I was in bits. How the bloody hell do I find this money? I rang the bank and told the manager this is what I wanted to do; da,de,da,de da. Don’t ask me how I got the money, but I got it off the bank manager. Then I got in the car with it, drove up to the freight depot in Manchester, paid the VAT and freight bill, got all the Assos stuff in my car and off I went. And that was it, it went from that.”
Candi TV-Pinarello, another successful Griffiths team
Q: Did you start getting top riders into Assos kit straight off?
“Yeah, right from the word go I was sponsoring the best riders. I got Manchester Wheelers, all their kit was done by me. Manchester Wheelers was the best club in Britain then, but in Switzerland they hadn’t heard of Manchester Wheelers, so I was also sponsoring Beryl Burton and Reg Harris. I had both of them riding round in the latest Assos kit. I always wanted something out on the street, at rider level, as well as a page in the magazine.
“I had full-page adverts in magazines. Then very quickly we were using Adrian Timmis, Malcolm Elliott and Tony Doyle for photo-shoots. It was a bit amateur compared to today, but the punters loved it. And boy was I loving it, I was selling very, very expensive pricey stuff in relatively small numbers. I’d tried cheap shorts and it didn’t work. I got these shorts, black shorts down to £4.50 trade price and I went into F.W. Evans and they went, “Oh no, no Phil, the bench mark is £3.95 now. I’d got thousands of these shorts, tens of thousands in boxes. The boxes were breaking my back, and I was making 50p a pair on the shorts. So then I woke up. I thought; Assos, that’s the way to go.
“And yes, of course Pinarello is the same. Pinarello do affordable bikes, but there’s too much competition there. It’s there rarefied air of high prices, where Pinarello has good products. But because I’d cut my teeth on Assos I was brave at selling the rarefied air. And of course there’s a market for it. So I got Pinarello and started selling their bikes.”
You can read Part 2 by clicking this link
In rarefied air with Pinarello