After 17 years at the helm, Simon Mottram is stepping down as Rapha CEO. Alex Ballinger sits down with the London-based founder to talk past, present and future
It’s hard to picture the road cycling scene back in 2004, but there was a bleak landscape according to Rapha’s long-standing CEO Simon Mottram. Poor uptake, a lacklustre market for cycling clothing, and not a British Tour de France winner in sight, road riding was an exiled pastime in the mid-noughties.
Now 17 years on, Mottram is stepping down from his place at the helm of Rapha, having built the brand into a global empire of cycling culture, reaching from the WorldTour peloton to the local club run.
Having made the decision to step down 12 months ago, Mottram announced his departure in late November last year, as the 55-year-old steps aside to make way for a new chief executive, who he hopes can develop the brand even further. Mottram’s successor will be William Kim, former CEO of fashion brand All Saints, who also previously held senior positions at Burberry, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gucci.
The long wind down
The hunt for a new CEO started late last year when Mottram announced to the Rapha board that he intended to step down to make way for a new era. “It’s been quite a long winding down, because I’ve known about it for a long time,” Mottram told BikeBiz. “But actually it’s been in my head for a long time and we had the guy identified a long time ago, but had to keep his name embargoed for various legal reasons. I’ve been getting my head around it for a long time, but it’s still strange.”
Mottram, who founded Rapha in north London in 2004, said he had become acutely aware that for the next phase in its development Rapha would need new leadership, someone with experience of running a large organisation. “I think I’ve got the skills of a founder,” Mottram said. “I’m quite good at saying ‘we’re going over here, come with me,’ but that doesn’t really work after a certain scale.
“You have to be much more sophisticated in the way that you run a company, and the way you bring people along. I think [William] has that in spades. He knows what that step up is like, he’s worked in bigger organisations, so he gets how it works. The challenge is to drive all that growth while still being careful about the brand, protective of the core – he totally understands that’s the issue.”
A better future
At the time of Rapha’s inception, the road cycling scene in the UK was a shadow of its current state, Mottram said, with just a handful of quality retail stores, poor choice of cycling clothing brands, and very little cycling content for consumers to devour.
That image has since been wiped away, in part thanks to the influence of Rapha and its unashamed embracing of cycling culture, as the UK now more closely resembles a true cycling heartland like France, Belgium, or the Netherlands. But what impact has Rapha had on the cycling world in the eyes of its outgoing CEO?
“I think we’ve helped pioneer that resurgence of confidence in cycling,” Mottram said, “by making it better quality and by pushing standards and by making it a bit more aspirational. It’s quite cool to be a bike rider now. We’ve celebrated the culture of cycling in a way that nobody had done before and made that legitimate too. I’m pretty proud of the impact we’ve had. But let’s be honest, within cycling we’ve had impact, but the bigger question is, what about outside of cycling? Cycling is still this niche pursuit and that frustrates me.”
Mottram hopes that Rapha can help drive the popularity of cycling, maybe even put it amongst the most popular sports in the world, right alongside football. He added: “We’ve also been focusing a lot on getting more women into sports. Just in the last two years I’ve seen such a change in London, and with different ethnic groups. Rapha is more and more relevant to those groups, because for a long time it was just people like me – male, pale and stale – so I think there’s a big opportunity to reach into different groups.”
The next chapter
So what comes next for Rapha and for Mottram, who will remain on the board of the company as Kim takes over from the start of 2022?
After almost two decades running the ship, Mottram is hoping for a clear diary, with an eye on Rapha as it aims to become the brand for the cycling lifestyle, while keeping focus on the core market. Internationalisation is now a major priority for Rapha, in part driven by its 2017 buyout by RZC Investments, a company set up by the American businessman Steuart Walton, one of the directors of the Walmart supermarket chain.
Now looking back on his career with Rapha, Mottram said the toughest times for the company were always the early years, like running out of cash and borrowing from friends to be able to pay a factory. While in 2021 the company has the scale to weather most storms, in the early days supply chain issues or design problems were existential – “probably the hardest challenge,” Mottram said.
But his fondest moment stands out like a lone mountain on the horizon: “It was probably Mont Ventoux in 2013, being [at the Tour de France] with 100 customers, friends and investors, Chris Froome coming around the corner in yellow, riding for Team Sky in Rapha kit and dominating that stage. That was our first time in the Tour de France. I mean that’s pretty hard to beat as somebody who’s madly keen on the sport.”
It has been a remarkable two decades for Rapha, which has accomplished so many firsts for a cycling brand and upped the stakes for performance apparel in the sport. Mottram added: “Rapha for 18-19 years has been a total obsession. I want to keep my diary as clear as possible so that I can just enjoy every day. It’s like the old race analogy of burning matches – I think I’ve burnt most of my matches.”