Where there‘s muck, there‘s brass – only these days the muck is stuck to carbon fibre. It‘s an adage that could not be more apt for Alex Trimnell, managing director (aka The Mad Developer) of Muc-Off. Based at Poole for the past 19 years, he‘s behind the range of products which supply tender loving care for action toys, soothing and cleaning bicycles – whether on a mountain, trail or at the skate park – motorbikes and cars at the end of a hard day‘s workout. Not only do the products keep the machines running in optimum form, but also ensure they retain that lovely brand new sparkling patina. With a boom in biking, The Business Magazine sent writer and cyclist Sue Hughes, to meet him.
It all started in 1991 when Alex‘s father, Rex, and mother Marilyn Trimnell developed X-Lite UK. After designing and manufacturing the world‘s first twin crown bicycle fork, Rex created a perfectly pink spray to clean his kit in 1994. Quickly gaining a reputation as the best thing since sliced bread, it wasn‘t long before word got out and Muc-Off was born. It is now the go-to brand for top riders and racers. Albert Einstein‘s quote ‘Life is like a bicycle, to keep your balance you must keep moving‘ is an apt choice for the 2013 Bicycle Care Catalogue.
The formation of the business originally centred on your parents developing X-Lite UK, but can you tell me about how it grew from there?
Dad was always a real innovator; he raced motorbikes in the 1960s, developed boat trailers and motorcycle luggage, but he was also exceptionally good at marketing. It‘s rare to combine both. After selling motorcycle accessory and marketing companies, he began making components. My mountain bike was stolen when I was 15 and during a family holiday to Florida we brought back, piecemeal, a superb bike which I refused to part with. The exchange rate was almost 2:1 and I was enjoying riding a very expensive quality bike, but the forks were rubbish. Dad designed and manufactured the world‘s first twin crown bicycle fork. In 1994, Muc-Off was established. He was fed up with harsh chemicals and determined to make a safe, bike-specific cleaner, safe for aluminium, and very importantly, biodegradable. People were using washing up liquid or really harsh chemicals, so our mission was to educate people and tell them “use a specific product and your bike will be happier“.
The name makes me smile, how did that come about?
Dad said it one evening, mum said “pardon?“, I laughed. It‘s cheeky but not insulting. Black and pink were the X-Lite colours so we kept them as Muc-Off developed, initially it was very much a small scale, back-garden-shed operation.
You‘ve followed in the family business, a highly entrepreneurial family, would you say it‘s a good recipe for success?
Yes undoubtedly, business was always discussed around the dinner table so I think I started to absorb it from a very early age. I joined the company at 18. Also quality was paramount, because that‘s what dad developed; we all thought if you‘re going to spend thousands on a bike, spend on a cleaner which will make it run better too. It‘s rewarding when the message gets out. I was on the Isle of Wight ferry with a van full of products one day and rather nervously approached some real hard core Hell‘s Angels with custom bikes, really high-end, expensive machines. It made my day when I quizzed them about bike care and they replied “yes, we use Muc-Off“. Sadly, dad passed away in 2004, but my sister Emma and mum are still part of the business. Many of the 20 people we have here now have been part of the Muc-Off family for a long time. There‘s a lot of energy in a family business such as this.
How do you account for your success overall?
Nothing too special I‘m afraid, just hard work mixed with tenacity. I‘m known as The Mad Developer and very driven when it comes to developing the range and more products. It‘s a close family business. We moved into a new factory within weeks of my dad dying, which was sudden and not foreseen, therefore a massive shock, but the business has developed. As well as being entrusted with his legacy in this company, we found it to be a source of great strength during a time of bereavement. We‘ve continued to build it in his honour. During the years following his passing we changed the focus from X-Lite to Muc-Off. Production, originally at Muc-Off‘s site in Poole, has now been outsourced to industry leading manufacturers to enable the company to focus on new product development and global markets. These changes allowed the company to grow its turnover to £4.5 million and build a global brand following. Take, for example, our Facebook site at over 60,000 likes, this wouldn‘t have been possible if we were still manufacturing all the products ourselves in Poole.
Who taught you the most important lesson in business – and what was it?
It was in entrepreneur Felix Dennis‘ book, How to Get Rich: “Hire the best you can afford and let them get on with it“. The art of delegation is something I‘m only just learning, which is a real challenge for a control freak like me – but I‘m really enjoying the process. By 2007, we had a wide range of car products. A year later we began to export, following our success at overseas trade shows, so we got the best people we could afford to sponsor. More recently I‘ve moved the USA office from California to Florida; the time zones work better. We‘re in 60 countries, therefore brand management is very important. I‘m dealing with more corporate accounts since we moved to this head office in Poole a year ago, hence the delegation. Our R&D team is also based here at the head office.
The products sounds like a luxury spa selection – Wheel Wash, Tyre Shine, Ubershine Luxury Car Shampoo, Bug and Tar Remover, Miracle Shine Polis, Uber Wax Kit – to name but a few. Do you have a personal favourite?
My favourite is always the next. But if I had to choose it would have to be our bike cleaner as it‘s our original product, is still our best seller and remains a highly developed formulation. Each product has its own identity and 2014 will see us consolidating the brand.
What‘s your business mantra?
Work hard, be humble. The brand is tactile, fun, and has found its own vibe. I‘m the ultimate consumer and at the core of the company we are a problem-solving brand. The products have to work, so that‘s very much part of the business mantra and ethos.
You‘re an active, outdoors type, what‘s a great day off work? Or does downtime usually blend with work?
Anything to do with bikes. I‘ve tried lots of sports and love lots of different activities, but give me a bike and a good trail and there‘s almost nothing else on earth I‘d rather be doing. I‘d say my current split is 60% cycling and 40% riding motorbikes.
How important is the website as not just a shop window for products, but to build a Muc-Off community of like-minded enthusiasts?
Vital, and increasingly so for our future. To be able to get consumers talking about the products and contributing to the future design of the products is powerful. Also to be able to give real depth and detailed information on each product and the R&D processes is very cool. We are launching a completely new site this month (July). We don‘t ram our products down people‘s throats but we engage through social media. We are extremely aware of how important good customer service is as a young brand when there is so much information overload for customers in a wired world, whether it‘s a tweeted response or phone call to make sure they have the right product or to answer a query.
What would you consider your greatest achievement… other than your 50m swimming badge?
My 100m badge? Just kidding. I‘m really proud that we have managed to sell products all around the globe (currently 60 countries and counting) within just a few years of exporting. We‘re looking to set up our second foreign office next year.
Do you have a partner who joins you outdoors biking?
Not at the moment, I‘m single, mainly due to the long hours and extensive travelling, which make for zero work/life balance, but I‘m looking forward to hopefully finding someone and settling down at some point soon.
Any hidden talents and unfulfilled ambitions?
I‘ve been told I‘m a good motivator; there‘s nothing better than empowering internal meetings to charge the team, not that they need it much as they are all so passionate about the business. I‘ve also been known to jump and touch my toes in the air while on a dance floor, but that was pre Achilles tendon rupture. I have many ambitions, plenty of goals for Muc-Off which I can‘t really talk about as we need to keep them under wraps, but personally I still want to ride in the Dakar Rally and spend more time working on art.
Your dream machine to own if cost was no object, bike, motorbike, car?
I wouldn‘t be able to choose between a Ferrari F40 (red) and a Honda RC166. I‘m lucky to have a Pinarello – it‘s a work of art, very high spec and the bike which I ride non-stop. I‘m the only under-performing component.
Alex Trimnell: Muc-Off