Evans and Frasers Group MD for cycling Russell Merry on his vision for the future

From family business to high street giant, Russell Merry has seen all sides of the trade. The new MD for cycling at Frasers Group, Evans Cycles’ parent company, sets out his vision for the future

This piece first appeared in the July edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here

Russell Merry will be a familiar name to many in the bike trade. From his humble beginnings in the industry, selling BMX bikes to his friends, Merry has seen many sides to the business, from a family-run distribution outfit all the way to the biggest chain in the country.

Merry has recently been appointed as the managing director for cycling at Frasers Group, the retail giant owned by British billionaire Mike Ashley, which now owns Evans Cycles, Sports Direct, and House of Fraser. As Merry settles into his new role, “gamekeeper turned poacher” as he put it, he sat down with BikeBiz to explain his vision for the future of Evans and Frasers Group.

Bike people vs business people
“If you’re run by too many bike people,” said Merry, speaking from his home in the south of England via video call, “who are often quite product driven, and get too excited by shiny and expensive product, they don’t always make any money – as we know, the bike industry has not historically been a place that’s too commercially successful.

“However, if you listen too much to purely business people who don’t appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the bike industry, you’re not successful either. So we’re trying to combine those two things, the people with retail skills from Sports Direct and the Frasers Group, combined with someone who understands the idiosyncrasies of the bike industry.”

Humble beginnings
Merry’s first foray into the cycling industry came when he was still a youngster, after he asked his dad for a new BMX bike back in 1981. To raise money for the new bike, Merry and his dad approached a BMX supplier and (dishonestly) claimed they were planning on opening a new bike shop. After picking up a selection of bikes at trade price, Merry and his dad proceeded to sell bikes to Merry’s friends in order to fund his own new BMX. That was the humble beginnings of what would later become Hot Wheels Distribution.

After temporarily leaving the company in the 1980s, Merry returned to Hot Wheels in 1989, and along with his brother Neil set about expanding the BMX distributor until 2009, when the company was bought by Dorel Industries, then owner of Cannondale, GT and Mongoose. Following the takeover, Merry stayed on with the newly formed Cycling Sports Group (CSG) UK as co-managing director, along with his brother.

“Well, most entrepreneurs who sell don’t last very long, and I managed to last at least 10 years,” he said. “It taught me a lot. The idea was who was to take the best bits of the family business and add it to the best bits of the public company and try and create a bicycle business that respected both, because there’s lots of family businesses in the bicycle industry, and there’s good things in family businesses, and there’s good things in having the power and the resource of a public company behind you.”

A new start
After holding roles in the US and the UK, Merry departed CSG in December 2020. Near the end of his time with CSG, Merry had met with the new owner of Evans Cycles, Frasers Group, which had taken over the high street chain after the previous owner went into administration in 2018. After hitting it off with Frasers Group, Merry took a one year sabbatical from the bike industry, owing to a non-compete clause in his previous contract, when Frasers Group offered Merry the role as MD of the cycling wing.

“I’m gamekeeper turned poacher, having had obviously a lifetime on the other side of the table. Sometimes it’s quite useful to get the opposite perspective. I think my role is quite strategic leadership in that I do have a breadth of experience and understanding of the bicycle industry. If you then add what I think I bring, which is relationships, knowledge, and the specialism of the bike industry, and you add it to someone who is a retail expert.”

A place for everyone
But how does Merry see the Evans business in the wider cycling landscape? “Independent bike sector is one of the most thriving remaining independent sectors in retail,” he said. “And the reason is because it’s such a specialism – you have to assemble bikes correctly or people get hurt, you get tremendous customer loyalty – but I think that we offer something different.

“An owner-operator in a bike shop, who is a good retailer, is always going to survive because he’s usually ingrained in the community and certainly ingrained in the cycling community. We will attract a slightly different customer, maybe. We have a professional retailing background and some great
brands, so they’re not in direct competition. They’ll both bring something, and the strongest independent dealers will survive, and we think that we will be the national retailer of choice for the premium brands.”

The three pillars
Merry said that Frasers Group has highlighted ‘three pillars of opportunity’ – its own brand bikes, online sales, and its national coverage of stores. Frasers Group currently owns low-end bike brand Universal and now has plans to reinvigorate that name, as a lower-cost alternative to Evans’ own-brand Pinnacle.

Merry said there may also be the introduction of a third brand aimed at the higher end of the cycling market, meaning Frasers Group will target the ‘good’, ‘better’, and ‘best’ bikes for the consumer. The other areas where Evans and Frasers Group have highlighted opportunities is online, with plans to improve the ‘click and collect’ offering, and work in closer collaboration with premium brands to improve stock flow.

Finally, Evans has been expanding rapidly off the back of the coronavirus pandemic, currently with 70 stores across the country. The chain also celebrated the launch of a new flagship store in Cheetham Hill, Manchester – 17,500 square foot, believed to be the biggest bike shop in the UK.

This new flagship store forms part of the new philosophy for Evans, which hopes to continue to open “elevated” stores in appearance, size and style. Merry also pointed out that he is not the managing director of Evans, but is instead the Frasers Group MD for ‘wheels,’ in whatever form they may be sold. Bikes, skateboards, scooters, and even e-scooters will all fall under his jurisdiction, whether that be under the Evans name or Sports Direct.

Inevitably, e-scooters will also form part of the business model, as Merry confirmed that electric scooters will be sold from Evans stores in future, as Frasers Group is working on its own-brand products in that market. He added that e-scooters and bikes can also help broaden the cycling market to new demographics, previously underrepresented on two wheels, from ethnic minorities, to improving the gender split in bike riding.

While Merry and Evans have highlighted opportunities, there is also plenty of cause for concern for the future. “There’s going to be a very challenging time ahead, quite honestly,” Merry said. “I know I look young, but I’m remarkably old and so I’ve been through the ‘80s BMX boom and bust, the ‘90s mountain bike boom and bust, and the ‘00s road boom. This is a Covid boom. We must be very careful to ensure is that there is not a post-Covid bust. The challenges will be the complete opposite of what they were 18 months ago when there were no bikes in bike shops.”

Towards the tail end of our call, Merry and I got onto the subject of his own bikes.

While he’s not been able to find much time for riding since joining Frasers Group, Merry still likes to ride, including his Cannondale Moterra e-bike, custom painted in the colours of the 1981 Mongoose Team, given to him as a parting gift from CSG to mark his years in the industry.

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