Blast off for Rocket Bobs

The reputation of Rocket Bobs Cycle Works in the custom bike world was underlined recently when owner Pete Pearson joined the judging panel at Kickback. The event, held at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, celebrates the vibrant new wave of custom machinery – something Pearson is well qualified to assess, Rocket Bobs having come third in the 2013 custom bike world championships

A small, nondescript unit on an industrial estate outside Swindon might not be the first thing people think of when asked where an internally successful business would be based, but that is where Rocket Bobs Cycle Works can be found. Rocket Bobs was founded by Pete and Lisa Pearson to provide aftermarket parts and servicing for Harley-Davidsons and today the majority of its parts production, which is the larger part of the business, is exported.

Rocket Bobs Cycle Works began life in the corner of a barn on a farm local to Pete and Lisa’s home five years ago. The impetus to start the business was a trip to Vegas during which Pete and Lisa got married. Having spent his youth working as a dispatch rider during the week and racing at weekends Pete put motorcycles behind him after losing too many friends on the road, until he went to Vegas and hired a Harley. “It was the best time I’ve ever had on a bike, riding the Strip after marrying Lisa in Vegas. When I first started riding, however young I was, it wasn’t about the corners or doing wheelies or going as fast as possible, it was just about riding, and that was excitement enough. And I got that feeling again on that Fat Boy in Vegas. I knew then what I wanted to do, so I started to look at the Harley custom scene and I started to do my homework.”

The homework that he refers to was spending time on the internet and, more specifically, US-based forums for Harley owners. It was on those websites that Pete started discussing ideas he had for parts, gauging the interest he got in them. It was also where the very first order for a Rocket Bobs part came from when a Rocket Bobs’ Pintail seat unit, which removes the stock fender struts and converts a Dyna to a single seat, shipped to New York.

Domestic sales were also targeted, but success was slower. Having modified a Street Bob for himself, Pete rode it to his local H-D dealership and parked it outside with a stack of business cards tucked under the seat for people to help themselves. Unfortunately, no one took a card, but the bike did get the attention of the dealership’s manager. He had a Harley-Davidson Rocker in store that no one was interested in buying and asked Pete to take it away and see what he could do with it to freshen it up and make it more saleable. When Pete returned the bike, resplendent with Rocket Bobs’ rear fender and seat along with other aftermarket parts, it sold almost immediately.

However, before it sold it caught the attention of Andy Hornsby, the editor of American-V magazine, who subsequently featured it in the magazine with the inevitable result that people started to take note of Pete’s work. From that point on Rocket Bobs has seen consistent growth year-on-year, including outgrowing the barn where it started and the move to a dedicated industrial unit.

Currently the UK market makes up 10-15% of Rocket Bob’s total turnover, with the USA as its main market with at least 70% of its parts sales being there. The balance is spread out across the rest of the world. Talking about export sales, Pete says, “For us, North America has always been the focus. That was where we started by focusing on online forums and pitching ourselves through channels such as YouTube and Instagram. In the early days, the first of anything we did would go to American customers.

“Now we’ve just done our first shipment of parts to Taiwan. We have lots of Voodoo fenders and Zombie ‘bars going to Hawaii and Canada, too. Northern California has suddenly discovered us and we’ve recently sold a lot of Voodoo fenders kits to that part of the States as well.”

The tradition started by the Rocker built for the dealership has continued through the business’ history, with custom builds regularly being used to showcase newly developed parts. One such example was a bike known as Bank Robber which took the win in the Freestyle class in the custom show during the 2012 Alexandra Palace motorcycle show. A part of the prize package at that event was expenses to travel to the Sturgis Motorcycle Race and Rally Week to compete in the World Championship of Custom Bike Building. Yet the win proved to be a double-edged sword. The bike garnered so much exposure that demand for Rocket Bobs’ parts and customer bike builds significantly increased, so much so that Pete was unable to make the trip to the US for the Championship as he could not spare the time away from the shop.

However, today now that Rocket Bobs is established, Pete has the confidence in his ability to fulfil orders and plan work schedules, so that he and Lisa were able to take a week out in late 2014 to attend the World Championship of Custom Bike Building when it was held in Cologne as part of Intermot.

Talking about how it feels to shut down the business for a week, Pete says, “Since we started we’ve seen constant growth. At times it has been too much, but we have the occasional month where it goes quiet. Even after five years of doing this it still makes me shiver when that happens and August was one of those months. It was no surprise as people go on holiday, but it still freaked me out a bit. That was followed by a trip to Cologne to compete at the World Championship, but we came home from that with a big order from the international custom part distributor Custom Chrome for Voodoo Fender kits, plus we took in two bikes for work straight off and since then have had five more bookings from people who saw our entry in the Championship on the internet and liked what they saw.”

While Pete appreciates having people booking bikes into the shop for him to work on, it is not where he envisions the business heading in the future. “I have a degree in design engineering which focused on product development. That has allowed me to not only create the Voodoo fender kits but develop them for the market and for different Harley models. There is much more money in that than simply working on people’s bikes. Parts development is also much more fun and it is much more rewarding for the business too, especially in terms of how good it is for turnover.

“There is no money in having a bike in from the average man off the street. You can’t cost jobs up taking into account that there might be crossed threads or broken parts that are not at first obvious. If you did, the customer would never agree to the work being done. But I can’t turn the work away because the customer wants our parts fitting to their bike. The only time it is really worthwhile is when the customer has a brand new Harley shipped straight here from the dealership. That’s happened a few times, just not as often as I’d like.”

Pete continues with his vision for the business, saying, “The future of Rocket Bobs is three-fold. High-end, big budget, ground-up builds from £30,000 upwards, machines like Three Finger Eddie which we took to the World Championship in 2014. That level of bike building is not sustainable in the UK, but spread across Europe and UAE it’s definitely workable. Secondly, I want to do a Shovelhead Speed Shop where I source H-D Shovelhead engine bikes from the US, do a few quirky things to them and go through the engine and wiring and send them out fully warrantied. Then the final part of the plan is the parts business, which is continuing to grow all the time.

“It is critical to develop the parts business, but it is also a Catch-22 situation. We really need our own CNC equipment to develop the parts line fully and make the most money from it. The cost of CNC production is too high at the moment because it is all outsourced. Our stainless exhaust clamps are very popular and look really simple, but they need three machine operations to produce them, it’s very expensive. While we make money on them, we simply can’t make enough from them to be able to invest in our own machinery.”

However, Pete is now looking at other options to increase the profit margin on the Rocket Bobs’ parts line. Rather than investing heavily in machinery to bring the CNC work in-house at the Swindon unit, he is looking at the possibility of moving production overseas. Having become friendly with Winston Yeh, the proprietor of Taiwanese custom shop and parts business Rough Crafts, thanks to competing against each other at the last two World Championships of Custom Bike Building, Pete now has the contact necessary to gain reliable quality control in the Far East. “I’ve steered away from that in the past because of the lack of quality control, but knowing someone who is based over there, who is a native, makes thing so much easier, especially as he understands the custom market and parts production too.”

Should this move to overseas parts production come to fruition, Pete already has new markets in mind to sell the parts into. “A couple of years ago we were selling a lot of parts to places like UAE and Dubai and then it suddenly started to dry up because one of the local shops was copying our parts. At the time I was really proud that someone wanted to copy our parts but upset at being ripped off too. If I can get the parts produced at a lower cost in Taiwan I could retail them at a level where copies wouldn’t be economically viable for local shops to produce.”

When it comes to gaining traction in new markets such as the UAE and Dubai, Pete uses the same channels as when he began Rocket Bobs: the internet and social media. “Without the internet Rocket Bobs simply wouldn’t have happened. Even before Facebook I was on bike forums the whole time pushing the business. On Facebook a couple of years ago I found a picture of a swingarm we make, but don’t advertise on the website, and reposted it as a new picture on the shop’s Facebook page and almost immediately had an order from Australia for one. Without things like Facebook we simply wouldn’t have that global reach we do.”

By combining solid engineering practices with modern media, Rocket Bobs Cycle Works has seen growth that could not be achieved had it relied solely on one and not the other. It is certainly a winning formula as this year has seen a free standing mezzanine storage level added to the 1200sq.ft. unit Rocket Bobs currently occupies, and plans are developing for a move to large premises in order to meet the constant demand for parts from around the world. Yet before that happens, Pete and Lisa are being flown to Rome by an Italian TV company to take part in the filming of a Biker Build-Off style show where they are to be the judges, which just goes to show how resurgent the custom side of the motorcycle industry currently is.


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