Tony Lo, the CEO of Giant Bicycles, is quite possibly the most important, influential and successful man in the bike industry. We headed out to Taiwan, the land of the Giant’s, to catch up with the man behind the brand
Back in 1972 Taiwanese businessman King Liu and a band of friends and associates went into the bike making business, producing machines for western bike brands; it’s what they call OEM (Original equipment manufacturing), which has been at the core of the Taiwanese and world bike and parts manufacturing business for almost half a century.
In 2017 the spritely and cycling crazy King will step aside, having been the head badge of his company from opening time right through. That company was destined to become Giant Bicycles, the major high end bike maker in the world, both under their own name and still as an OEM maker for many of their major competitors.
Within a year of setting up their production lines Giant took on the services of a Taichung local called Tony Lo, a man who was within a short period of time (as head of sales) drew in Schwinn, the company’s first major OEM contractor. A decade later (as CEO) he bravely persuaded the company go out on a limb and transform the company into a brand in its own right, and subsequently steer them headlong towards the top of the bike making charts.
Strong in philosophy and belief, Lo has joined the rest of the Giant crew in their passion for cycling, and despite being of retirement age himself rides 70-km most days too and from work, and grabs every opportunity he can to pedal off into the wilds of Taiwan - leading by example.
Giant as a company have not only evolved in a business sense, their entire business approach and mentality has matured along with its elders, and is very much focused on selling what they themselves believe in and practice – cycling as a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
We caught up with this surprisingly “cool-cat” of the bike industry to find out more.
ST; When did you join Giant?
TL; Giant started out in 1972, I came in a year later and was in charge of all sales.
ST; When the Schwinn OEM contract came to an end you persuaded Giant to commit to their own brand, which given the past stigma towards Taiwanese manufacturing and the pro-European market dominance must have taken some doing?
TL; First of all, we wanted to make newer and more innovative bicycles, and as a manufacturer we had a lot of technology to call on. So we launched our brand based on using the technology we had and became pretty successful after 5 years in Asia, so we entered Europe.
Our strategy was also to start from the high end. In 1989 we could already make carbon fiber bikes, and I think this was a good strategy. At that time our carbon fiber bike were seen to be very good and were “tricked” and painted up and used by professional teams in the Tour de France, and so people started to see that we could make world class products. From there the technology filtered down through our range, and after 18 years lead us to where we are today.
ST; With your early sloping tubed and big tubed aluminum bikes and carbon technology you were well ahead of the mainstream bike industry. Back then your price point seemed too low to be sustainable. How did you manage to position yourself in this high quality but low cost market?
TL; This is really our philosophy; we try to build the best quality product, but we also want to make it so that more people can afford it and enjoy cycling – not like other companies who produce very high quality products but very low quantity.
To get more people enjoying cycling they need a good product. A good road bike was then so expensive, and only a few people could really afford it; even today we stand by our philosophy through our manufacturing, management, whatever – to reduce our costs and make better products more affordable to people.
ST; Carbon fiber technology and mass production is what has made Giant as a high end brand, and you spend a considerable amount on R&D. Can you tell us about this?
TL; I think our carbon technology was (and is) a big part of our success, because so few people can or could do it at an affordable price, and although it’s still expensive we can do it.
Over the past 20 years the term “bicycle science” has come around. Everybody used to say this is how a bicycle is supposed to be, and we had road, mountain, and all kinds of bikes – but we have always asked ourselves (Giant), why? Why should a road bike be a diamond frame, why should as wheel be round?
This lead us to continually researching, and this along with looking at the people, how they work, how they use the bikes has become our science. If you want to go faster, be more comfortable, have more endurance, be safer - or most importantly be more health and improve your fitness, it determines what you want in a bike.
We aim to make our bikes to answer all of these requirements to help more people to ride bikes – hopefully until they are 100 years old. We really dug into this, and we have a lot of very good engineers in Taiwan the US and Europe, and with this constant researching we learn much more all of the time. Every product that comes out must have a reason – not because we need something new.
We start this by finding what the bike is for, who is going to ride it, where and what for. And with doing our own manufacturing we can do whatever we want to achieve and meet these demands.
ST; How far ahead of the market do you work on product development and production, and how do you judge trends?
TL; We look in the area of 3-5 years ahead. A number of years ago we developed a product called Giant Cycling World, because no matter how many bikes we were making they were all going to dealers and shops and no matter how big a shop is there is limited space.
People go to a shop and only want to but one bike, and so with GCW se started to ask them questions; Where do you want to ride? What level do you want to ride? With these 2 questions answered we have 9 groups of choice, and then we can pin point their choice options to 3-4 bikes. This has really enabled us to focus and think what people want, and to help them to chose, which reflects in our planning and development.
ST; Is the market driven by consumers, dealers, manufacturers or the media?
TL: I think they all do; at the end of the day we form a kind of team, but ultimately it is the consumer that drives it.
What people are riding and using bikes for does make a huge impact on what is developed – if they are riding more difficult trails then developing a bike to fit makes sense. On the other hand, through our science we have our own theories, and these have to be put to the customers too, otherwise they don’t know what they might want. We have to combine this feedback with planning, and ultimately go with our own ideas based around this.
If we see a trend, we have our own manufacturing and our own supply chain; so we can develop new products, and that is our job.
The media are important to get the message out – objectively. We have a good media relationship without marketing. We show what we are doing and why we are doing it and ask the media to please try, and for them to say what they think – not us (through advertising). Our Giant and Liv (women specific) stores really help to make this work for us to get the message out, and to get product feedback.
ST; With such a large OEM client base how do you balance technological development clashes?
TL; We are part of their supply chain. They have their own ideas and technology. This situation exists not only in the cycling industry; the motor industry and many others work this way too.
I think the most important thing is that we have our own brands and technology. But, it’s not easy when there is technology out there that we could use.
I’m the CEO, but I’m also in charge of the product development, and the CEO must have all of this knowledge. It’s important for me to manage and handle all of this, in order to keep out contracts.
ST; Gravel bikes are a big trend right now – have you ever really misjudged the market with a key product?
TL; Well, lets talk about the Gravel Grinder. Giant started doing a gravel bike 8 years ago, a bike for any road. This came about through our Giant Cycling World feedback, and for me it was quite clear that it was needed. But, as usual I am well ahead of the market, and it was only about 3 years ago that it began to catch on.
This is proof that with our systematic approach we can see the trends, and as a manufacturer we are not afraid to develop things far ahead and wait for the market to finally catch up. My job is always to look at what is next.
ST; How do you see the future for bike trends?
TL; It used to be that you had your roadies, your mountain bikers and their followers. But I can see that this is changing and that things are coming together more mixed, in a cross over kind of way.
Whereas your die-hard mountain biker or roadie knew exactly what they wanted, now you see this crossing over in technology; with road bike disc brakes, much lighter mountain bikes and cross and gravel bikes in-between - this has really become a trend. I call it adventure – but adventure can be anything, and I think with more people into this cross-over there will be a new breed of adventure bicycle emerging.
ST: Carbon is the material of the moment – is it the material of the future or is there another product around the corner?
TL; No. We’ve used many materials, but up until now I still think that carbon fiber is the best for bikes. Actually carbon fiber is just a composite, which is a general term. At Giant we have started to separate that, and come up with different composites with different characteristics. From just making carbon fiber very stiff and very strong I think we’ve now got to a point where we can massage that into many different things.
ST; Pro team sponsorship - how important is that to you especially with Giant Alpecin?
TL; I think it’s good; it’s very much about the right timing. It shows people the Giant brand, and also that we can perform as a very high end brand.
But, our main purpose with not only the Giant Alpecin team but also with individual mountain bikers is product development. From these athletes we get a lot of good information about what they are riding, how it performs, what they want to be improved. We observe their demands and give them the bikes they want.
ST; What is your personal bike of choice?
TL; I have 14 bicycles in my garage, so have a big choice. Last year the Propel was my favourite choice, but right now it’s the TCR because it’s so good. My wife also rides bikes, and my family, we all ride bikes and have fun.