“It is important to us that society, in general, benefits from our bikes” – that is the message from Mark Bickerton, founding member of Tern Bicycles. Tern, established in 2011, is a brand that has its focus set firmly on the sustainable side of cycling. With an array of stylish, distinctive and above all functional bikes on the market, the company is striving to be part of a cycling revolution. Bickerton, a figure who has truly immersed himself in cycling culture since his youth, tells BikeBiz exactly what the brand is about.
“Simply put, we aim to make great bikes that people want and need,” he explains. “We try to build in a fair combination of usefulness, functionality, design (both materials and aesthetics) while trying to keep costs to a sensible level, but without compromising on quality. Before we make bikes, we are bike purchasers and owners, so we know what our customers need and want.”
Anyone visiting the Tern website is likely to be struck by two details – the emphasis on you, and the importance of sustainability. Adorned with pictures of parents riding with kids, while transporting guitars and commuters on the move with folding bikes in hand, the company’s front page really highlights the philosophy.
Bickerton says: “We can’t comment about other brands, but we’re not driven by pure profit
(although that helps!). More than that, the whole team is absolutely passionate about making bikes that help the riders. We want purchasers of Tern to want to use the bikes in preference over other forms of transport and, where that may not be possible, in conjunction with other forms of transport – it’s called multi-modal travel, something folding bikes are rather good for.”
The company was founded eight years ago by a small group of friends who had worked for another brand. Faces have changed, some have returned, but Tern now consists of a 15-person international team, while parent company Mobility Holdings has around 80 staff worldwide. Bickerton says: “We have discovered that adding electric power to some of our bikes has raised the game. We still all go for rides after our regular product development meetings, sometimes on bikes that may never make it to market and sometimes on old favourites. In short, we haven’t changed very much, we’ve just got much better at what we do.”
However, Tern was hit by turmoil early in its life when folding bikes brand Dahon filed a lawsuit against Joshua and Florence Hon, who head up Tern and were former officers at Dahon. In 2011, Dahon alleged that the Hons had wrongfully seized Dahon’s Taiwan subsidiary and used assets to compete unfairly.
Then two years later, an agreement was reached between the two parties, settling the legal dispute. When asked how the company was founded, Bickerton says: “It’s a long story and it was quite a painful birth. I don’t want to go into it here, but I could write a book about it. The brand was forged out of the experiences of committed, passionate people who knew what they wanted to do and how to do it.”
The team’s focus on everyday use is clear in the bikes themselves, combining folding mechanisms with electric assistance and a growing focus on cargo bikes. The global sale of electric cargo bikes has seen a major surge in recent years, with best guesses suggesting that will only continue.
A study published in November predicted the market is expected to double in the next eight years, a trend Bickerton is well aware of: “Folding, electric and cargo are the biggest opportunities that we see. Maybe a wider customer base, business is a key focus. Next steps…it may sound hackneyed, but more of the same, but better. We know and understand our strengths (and weaknesses). We concentrate on quality, performance and service.”
But of course there are challenges – we are talking about the bike industry after all. Bickerton sets down the trials he sees for Tern in the future: “Oh, where to start. Firstly supply chain – some key components are on extremely long lead times. This means that on top of the product development timeline, we have to build in up 18-month order-to-delivery time on some key, and often very costly component parts.
“Secondly, product safety. We work very hard to ensure our bikes not only pass, but exceed by a significant margin, the legal safety requirement. As an example of this our PD team and the factory work closely with one of the world’s best test houses. We work to the latest and highest standards, and on occasion are testing to standards that haven’t even been written into law yet. I, for one, don’t know any other bike company doing this.
“Thirdly, we value service and support, so we work very hard with our distributors and retailers around the world to ensure that parts and service instructions are available to trained professional staff. We make sure our distributors understand the importance of this and provide guides, templates and online support so that the consumer gets the best possible experience, not just at the point of sale, but the after-sale experience is key as well.”
He adds: “You thought I was going to say competition, well we don’t think so. We love to be challenged by good quality high service competitors. What we hate is low grade cheap, corner cutters. Those guys may look like they offer a less expensive product, but as my dad used to say ‘buy cheap, buy twice.’ My advice is to look for quality in product and service.” Tern has just launched an initiative that perfectly sets out its commitment to sustainable cycling. The #BikesforBusiness programme is aimed at helping organisations integrate e-bikes into their daily business operations. Bickerton says: “This is so important for Tern, but also for all urban environments. With environmental and congestion issues very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we are rather comforted that the rest of the world seems to be in tune with our goals and objectives for products that will facilitate less traffic and less pollution. Our recent focus on cargo bikes and more recently electric cargo bikes is right on the button to help.
“The #BikesforBusiness initiative is our way of helping our dealer network access this huge commercial market. All we are doing is providing a toolkit for the dealer to use when talking to local businesses. We think that with a little bit of cajoling from our dealers there will be businesses falling over themselves to be part of this new direction in transport. Whether it be last-mile delivery, local tradesmen needing access to city centres, parents on the school run, or just not having space to park a motor vehicle, we have products that will mean that the scooter, white van, taxi or family car can be dispensed with for a lot of occasions.” The project will give IBDs the products and materials they need to approach local businesses and organisations, and the programme will include pitch decks for IBDs to approach hotels and food delivery businesses.
Many of you reading this may recognise the name Mark Bickerton as he has been at the centre of both cycling industry and culture for decades. Having been selling folding bikes for almost 50 years, making them in a stable at one time, he has gone onto run bike manufacturing factories, appearing in TV ad campaigners, worked for a motor company running its bike division, and telesold bikes to dealers. Along with the business side, Bickerton has been a member of the Bicycle Association since the 1980s (even being president at one time), and has attended the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group for many years. Along with his work at Tern, he and colleagues also re-started the Bickerton Portables brand in 2011.
But on his current work with Tern, Bickerton says: “My title is probably irrelevant as I work from a shed in the garden, make my own coffee, fettle my own bikes and try to keep Tern at the forefront of everyone’s minds. I, like all the Tern team, am a shareholder in the company. We like to feel part of the company, not just working for it. I am the proud owner of a smart shirt that says ‘Tern Bicycles – founding member’. They are quite rare and special, so I only wear it on special occasions. Suffice to say, I make it part of my business to be part of the industry and enjoy advocating for the extended use of the bicycle in any way that I can.”
In an age when we are facing existential threats from every direction, Bickerton and his team are part of a growing movement proving that the tides can Tern.