Framebuilder Survey Analysis: A Brief Aside on the State of the Trade

Last week, I saw on Instagram that Henry James was “going dark” after 5.15.2020. I’d noticed a while back that they had moved locations but thought, from a distance, that maybe they were transitioning with ownership or strategy. What is most surprising to me right now, though, is that I haven’t really seen any commentary or mention of this – even in the usual forums where you’d expect this stuff! As a cyclist myself, and as someone pay attention to the trade for this research work, the closing of Henry James seems like another one of these “end of an era” moments, so I wanted to say a few words on this….which I can eventually bring back to my survey results (a little bit).

Although I have no insider knowledge whatsoever and have not spoken to anyone about the closing of Henry James (that’s my disclaimer)…in light of the covid pandemic, the general state of social and economic disruption and anxiety in the U.S. (and globally), it’s hard not see this another sign of decline in the U.S. handbuilt trade. But, that should be the real question, not just an assumption.

So, is the U.S. handbuilt trade in decline?

Is the closing of Henry James an indicator of this?

In the time since I started this project (2014 into 2015), I’ve seen lots of builders come and go. Lots of them leaving the trade…but also lots of new entrants. And, in that time, I’ve also heard lots of folks speculate that things are in decline. Since I started the project, NAHBS has generally shown declining attendance and influence, but that is marked by significant ups and downs year-to-year, with the shifting location complicating the “decline” narrative. For instance, the show seems to always get a boost when returning to the West or hitting a new location (New England-ish with Hardford, CT). Though new builders come and go, changes in the underlying suppliers seem more indicative. And in this respect, the evidence seems more in the “decline” than “expansion” column. Nova Supply changed hands. True Temper stopped making bicycle tubing outright, taking away not only a long-standing supplier, but also the simplest “Made in the USA” option for builders. Anvil also wound down the business.

Now, most of this would also appear to reflect all of these owners reaching a retirement or career-transition age. For all I know – and I know some of this, but not all! – these were intentional transitions. There are certainly other materials suppliers out there. Other people have come along as tooling suppliers, too. Paragon is going strong. Builders have switched to Columbus tubing, although Variwall’s original plan to fill in the void left by True Temper would not seem to have been very successful (or, if it has been, that success hasn’t been visible to outsiders. Edit/Update: After writing that I saw a builder on IG with screenshot of tubing order from Variwall….so maybe they are doing just fine. Not trying to start any rumors here!).

But, if you were playing devil’s advocate, you’d say: if these business were doing well, selling into an expanding trade, why didn’t others would have come along and buy them?

The short answer to all this is: I don’t really know if the handbuilt trade is on the decline.

A couple of data points though:

  • Based on “key informant” interviews (which is to say: people I think are better situated to see the handbuilt segment as a whole), I would say there is a loose consensus of overall decline underneath all the froth on top, with that decline beginning in about 2014.
  • Jumping ahead a bit on my sequence of data analysis posts, there are two questions from my survey that might be most relevant to the issue of the current and future of the field, results from which are as follows:
    • “In your view, what is the state of the overall U.S. handbuilt market currently?”
      • “Good Shape/Expanding” 17%
      • “Stable” 33%
      • “Bad Shape/Declining” 18%
      • “Other” was the final option. About 15 of the 33 builders who answered “Other” and filled in some text indicated a fundamentally negative view of the state of the trade, finding it in decline but maybe not “bad” shape, as the question asked.
    • “What has been the overall trend for your own business over the past 3-5 years?”
      • “Expanding” 28%
      • “Stable” 30%
      • “Declining” 18%

Thus, in the eyes of the builders themselves, you don’t get a sense of impending doom, or even of massive decline. Of course, the real issue is how well builders are even doing currently – being “stable” at barely making a living would not be be most most encouraging sign!

Finally, from what I’ve heard in the long (and short) interviews with builders I’ve undertaken over the years – as opposed to the survey data I’m analyzing here – the impact of the 2008/2009 global financial crisis and ensuing “great recession'” varied widely. Some builders reported a big drop at the time, while plenty of other builders reported almost no change in sales at all.

So what will be the impact of the covid crisis and recession or depression we may be entering? Too soon to tell, of course, but it probably won’t be totally uniform. On the one hand, it seems hard to imagine that the kind of unemployment and job loss figures we are seeing right now won’t impact the demand for what are, in truth, pretty expensive consumer items. On the other hand, there was a lot of wealth inequality already and the typical buyer of a custom, handbuilt bike may not feel all that much of a direct pinch, at least to begin with.

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