Taking Stock of the Industry

When Tyres & Accessories last spoke with Rimstock Plc a couple of years ago, the effect of MG Rover’s collapse in 2005 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Rimstock itself lost 10 per cent of its business overnight when the last remaining domestically owned vehicle manufacturer ended production. Two years later the wheel industry here has not completely rebounded, but the well-known West Midlands wheel producer, Britain’s largest, has managed to carve several successful niches for itself.

Rimstock marketing director Matt Neal speaks frankly about the events of two years ago. “We have never managed to regain that lost business,” he says. The company’s experience during these years is far from unique, and many have felt particular pressure in the UK wheel aftermarket, which Mr. Neal estimates as now being worth somewhere between £40 and £50 million per annum: Production costs, and aluminium in particular, comments Neal, have increased massively in the last 18 months. Coupled with our strong currency and an influx of cheap and sometimes indifferent quality imports, the squeeze has been on all local producers during the past few years.

“Unfortunately the UK is somewhat of a dumping ground for product – with no TÜV standard like the Germans have, any Tom, Dick or Harry and can go on the internet and order a container of wheels from even the most disreputable Chinese supplier. Hence these guys pop out of the woodwork every week,” says Neal. And while this opens the door to rock bottom prices for consumers, these apaprent bargains do, says Mr. Neal, come with a catch. “Smaller companies can bring in product of seriously low quality, not just in paint finish but in engineering also – which we feel is incredibly dangerous for such a safety critical item. If there is a problem they simply close down and re-start [production], leaving the customer nowhere to go to.” So for those wishing not to gamble on quality and safety, the solution is a straightforward one, he adds: “Find out where the product is made, preferably make sure it’s in Europe.”

As manufacturer of the highly successful Team Dynamics wheel brand, Rimstock cannot be placed in the same basket as the many companies importing from Asia under a recognised brand name – the company continues to manufacture a wide range of products here in the UK using the latest technologies, and today bases its business on offering a level of quality and custom production that others simply cannot match.

As well as catering for the aftermarket with the latest fashions in a range of sizes going from fairly standard hot hatch fitments up to the extreme, Rimstock is very active in the area of OE supply. Currently the company boasts more than 20 different vehicle manufacturers as clients, including Aston Martin, Bentley Rolls Royce, Lotus, Mitsubishi and Nissan – to name just a few. Rimstock also supplies to tuning specialists such as Overfinch and Provdrive.

Maintaining a strong OE client base and satisfied aftermarket customers requires staying ahead of the game, and when it comes to satisfying fickle consumer tastes Rimstock holds an advantage over its competitors. When asked how long a new Rimstock wheel design will remain in production, Matt Neal replied: “It varies massively, some of our classic design can last two, three, even four years. Then we have some fashion trends, which literally last a matter of months. As we manufacture here it’s a plus point for us as we can react much quicker to market trends.” He added that the company’s most popular sizes continue to be 15 and 17-inch fitments, but the general trend in both the aftermarket and with OEM is towards the larger sizes.

A third area in which Rimstock maintains a prominent profile is in production for motorsport. The company’s products – both cast and forged aluminium wheels – today are utilised in many forms of motorsport under the Team Dynamics Racing brand, and the company takes pride that the winning cars in each of the past three British Touring Car Championships raced on its wheels. In 2008 Team Dynamics is fielding two cars of its own in the BTCC, racing under the official entry name of Team Halfords. And behind the wheel during the series will be Matt Neal himself – an accomplished race driver, Neal won back-to-back BTCC titles in 2005 and 2006.

“Although not a full works team, it is the official Honda entry and also responsible for design and build of all cars,” says Neal. “They are running race versions of the New Civic Type R, and yes they use Team Dynamics wheels, a new super light version of the Team Dynamics Pro Race range – in fact, up to 50 per cent of this year’s BTCC grid will be running on Team Dynamics wheels!”

Capitalising on its ability to carry out the complete design and manufacturing process in-house, one-off design for concept vehicles is a further Rimstock speciality. The company reports it can produce a unique single set of wheels for a vehicle manufacturer to use on its show and concept vehicles.

Rimstock’s fifth field of speciality is one unique in the UK – the West Midlands company says it is the only firm in the country capable of refurbishing alloy wheels to original OEM standard. Any quantity of wheels is accepted, Rimstock adds, from large batches from OEMs or individual sets of wheels for single customers.

For a UK based manufacturer, Rimstock’s export levels are very respectable. Today the company exports around 30 per cent of its production, and while considerably less than the approximately 75 to 80 per cent that went abroad two decades ago, the fact that exports still sit at around one-third reflects Rimstock’s decision to move away from the mainstream. “British manufactured products are not price competitive on the open market for day to day produce,” comments Mr. Neal. “Where we are able to win business is with superior technology, finishes and service, offering customers something they can’t find elsewhere.” The marketing directoradds that the company’s strongest export market is currently Eastern Europe.

Exporting its UK production to all destinations has not remained viable, and for one important market the company has outsourced its production, albeit to Rimstock’s own high standards. “The strength of the British pound has a massive influence for our company,” says Neal. “We have tried everything to keep production in the UK but ultimately have been unable to ignore production facilities and ridiculous prices from overseas. Bar some niche products, all our products sold into the US are now made in China to our engineering specifications.”

Rimstock, who in 2007 reported a turnover of £17 million, a quarter of which came from aftermarket sales, continues in 2008 to concentrate on its niche markets and provide top quality products for those wanting something a cut above the mainstream.

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