If you cast your eyes back through the history of the modern bike and start to look towards many of the early pioneers and the brands that shaped the formative mountain bike, you may notice one common feature amongst them all. They aren't still with us today. With a few notable exceptions, those early companies disappeared or were absorbed by bigger, more aggressive players emerging onto the market. Formula is one of the few that survived. In fact, they're more than just surviving. They have constantly evolved and changed to adapt to the changing market. They have managed all that whilst keeping the business in family hands. We sat down with Giacomo Becocci, son of founder Andrea Becocci and their current commercial director, to find out more about how they have navigated the stormy waters of the bike industry over the last 20 years and where they see their future in a rapidly changing world.
When did you start with Formula?
I was born in 1977, and started working here in 1999, I think. '98, sorry.
So you were at Formula when your father created your first mountain bike products?
Yes, when I was born he was still working with motorbikes, he was in full production of AIM, which was the brand of the motorbikes he was producing. Then, over the years there was an evolution, then the business closed down. I don't remember the exact year, but in the '80s Formula was born, but we were working with other things, not mountain bikes then.
When you started in 1998, was that the actual beginning of the business?
Yes, when I started we were doing the MD1, just so you know which product we had then. Do you remember our mechanical brake? It was one of the first on the market. We had started the development a couple of years before though.
Did you ride motos growing up, then?
Yeah, when I was a child we had a factory near the Isola factory, in Vaiano, less than 2 km away where my father was building motorbikes. While he did that, I was riding around on my little bike inside the hangar. There were the assembly lines and all the guys working as assemblers were teasing me because I was kind of bothering them. Otto [Editor's note: Otto was Formula's long-time technician at World Cup DH, he still works at their HQ today] was one of those guys, he was working there and was 18 at the time. I was 3. I was riding around my little bike and he was kicking me [laughs].
Did you take any engineering qualifications?
I went to a secondary school for mechanical technicians. Let's say that they give you a thorough knowledge of the mechanical industries, but not specifically related to bikes. After school I went to work.
So you started at 22 years old?
Yes, 21, I think, as my birthday is in October. I don't recall the exact dates but I think it was 1997, I should check. For sure, it was the late '90s.
What job did you start with at Formula?
I worked in production for many years, until we moved headquarters to here in Prato in 2002. I was working on the production line until 2004, I was assembling parts.
So you were working on the production line, not managing it?
No, no, I was assembling. There weren't many of us at that time. When we moved here from the old factory, we were just 10 people, including the people in the offices. So, there was about 3 or 4 of us in assembly. I was part of it, and then after I gradually gained experience, I became head of production. And now, since there are other people taking care of production I take care of the commercial side of the business.
What is your job title today?
I am the sales director. We are a team. There are the guys who go out to visit the dealers and companies, there is Sheila who works next to me for the aftermarket, there is Monica. My team is made up of 5 or 6 people and I am in charge of sales and management.
How does a small brand like Formula survive? As I imagine there are some good moments and some downsides?
Regarding the products, as you know, we were the first ones to produce hydraulic disc brakes. Then the big ones arrived, like Shimano, SRAM, and so on. Actually, SRAM bought Avid, so they already had a product. Shimano, like us, had to create it, but they arrived later. We were the very first ones. When you are the first to start, you can't learn from other people's mistakes, you are going to make them all by yourself. And we made all the mistakes we could make since we were the first ones.
The others, despite making some mistakes too, got a headstart because they had the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. This has certainly been the hardest part. Then, we made some detours, we made hydraulic brakes, then some mechanical ones...
Is it true that Formula designed the original Avid Juicy brake?
Yes, we were... Well, the old owner of Avid, Wayne, who then sold to SRAM, contacted us in the early 2000s. At that time it was him and his two sons. He believed that my father was ahead of his time, that we had some good ideas with our disc brakes and he wanted some sort of collaboration with us. As a matter of fact, together with Samuele who is our brake designer, and their engineer who I think still works in SRAM, but I don't remember his name... We started this collaboration and we created the project for this hydraulic brake, called the Juicy 7. The Juicy 7 was designed by us in collaboration with one of the designers working for Avid at that time, and it was produced by us. We produced them in this factory in Italy for two years. Afterwards, SRAM arrived, they bought it and they took the production away to Asia, I don't know where exactly, I think Taiwan. So this is the story... [According to Wayne Lumpkin, this isn't entirely accurate - he contends that the original design for the Juicy came from him, and then he worked with Formula to bring it into production. - Ed.]
The moto side of your business has obviously always been important to you, and still is today. Is this one of the secrets to your ability to survive all of these years?
The two sides certainly compensate each other, because when I started there were some ups and downs for both branches of the business. In 2005- 2006, I remember we were not doing motorcycle forks yet, just motorcycle brakes and there was a big decrease in production while the bikes on the other side were shooting up. So, luckily, with time, they compensated for each other and we always managed to be competitive in the market. Being small and not having assets from the banks and investment funds like many other companies, we have to be very careful with our money. So, let's say that having both branches is very positive.
Can I ask you about 2013 and your OE deal with Specialized that year?
Yes, in 2013, we have worked... Actually, we were already working with Specialized but with smaller volumes. Then, when we created the C1 brake, we closed the deal.
Is it safe to say that it didn't go very well?
It didn't go very well because we believed in the relationship with Specialized, and we believed that this relationship would have lasted for years. So we were organising ourselves to make a specific type of product made in Italy – we had built some machines and so on. But then, because of some issues or maybe because they didn't believe in our product, they eventually left us at the end of the year. It certainly was hard for us because we are talking about 150,000 brakes only for one client. Therefore, in one year, for a small business like ours, having them or not makes a big difference. But this is one of the ups and downs I was telling you before. In the same year, for example, our motorcycle business increased production by 30%.
These things happen, we also had to cut our staff and the hours because if the figures go down and they don't increase on the other side to compensate this, you need to make some changes. But luckily we can say that we are still here.
How hard is it for a small business like you to bounce back from that, not just in financial terms, but reputation also? Certainly, I remember your C3 brake around that time, and it was not a good brake.
Didn't you like it?
It was a quite problematic brake, shall we say.
But you said, "Stop, let it go and let's change our range completely." How difficult is it to do that?
It is true that, compared to bigger companies, we lack the funds to make certain moves but the positive side of being smaller is the flexibility. Therefore, since we don't have enormous figures and enormous stock, we can decide to stop a certain product line and start another one. This is what we did with the CR series, which didn't get positive feedback from our customers. So we realised, "Ok, people don't like this." So we introduced the Cura. And with that, I don't want to brag, but things are going well.
We stopped production of both the CR and C1 brakes, which hadn't received good feedback, even though we sold a lot of them. Besides, it was time for us to make a change regarding the oil because the German market had been pushing us for many years to do that; they are a bit obsessed with DOT fluid. They don't want it, so we switched to mineral oil. Because we are small and we were able to do it and we were interested in going forward to this huge market, the Cura, and also our new forthcoming brakes will be using mineral oil.
What were the decision processes behind going into the suspension market? Looking in from the outside they are two hydraulic components, but to make a fork, is that not a big step? I have seen many comments from people saying: "Formula suspension? I've owned their brakes, no thanks."
Well, when we started to make suspension, initially the idea was to only make suspension for motorbikes. We started with motorbikes suspension in 2010. I don't remember the exact date but it was more or less that. We started in 2010 because Daniele Fiorenzi, a dear friend of my father and now our chief engineer, is very experienced, he has worked for some big brands in Italian suspension, but also internationally, for brands like Ceriani and Paioli. He worked for these two big companies, who unfortunately closed their businesses a few years ago. When he left Paioli they got together and said: 'Let's create this company to design and produce suspension'. Initially, their idea was related to motorbikes, but my father had bikes in mind as well, but Daniele has always been a designer for motorbike suspension, so it was natural that they started with those.
So which motorbike brands are you working for today?
For motorbike brakes, our biggest partner is KTM. For motorbike suspension, we have basically the whole market for trials. We have Montesa Honda, Gas Gas, Sherco, TRS, Vertigo. They are all brands from Barcelona. The market for trials is basically all centred around Barcelona. It is a niche market and we have it all, both for the competition spec bikes and the high-quality production ranges. This is where we make most of our money. We have made forks for pit-bikes and motocross too. Although, we have sold less there as the competition is fierce. We are talking about quite important brands. It is difficult to get a foothold...
Is it more difficult than with bikes? In our market, there are dominant players, like Fox and Rockshox.
It's a good question. I wouldn't know... For example, Ohlins and White Power are well-known. Fox and Rockshox as well, but I think it is more difficult to access the motorbike market with those figures. I am not saying it is easy with Fox and Rockshox, but...
Is there the same pace of development for motorbikes?
The motorbike industry is much calmer now. My father told me that there was a time when we were children when the motorbike industry was the same as the bike industry is today. In that, there were a million brands and they were always chasing after something new. Like it is now with bikes. Then, the crisis came. The brands went from thousands of them to about 20 today sharing all the market. Since then, there are updates of course, but the chase after something new doesn't exist any longer.
It is interesting because I don't think most people would be too keen to put a fork from 2010 onto their mountain bike today, while on the moto I don't think this is the same.
Yes, it is very different. I mean the rider who does it for fun and goes out like you do it with the bike, he can put a 2010 fork on his motorbike, unless he is a fanatic, let's say.
How do you see the mountain bike market developing?
This is the ultimate bet. I think, and this is my personal opinion, I think that unfortunately in the future there will be a downturn, a crisis and some changes in the bike industry. To me, it looks a lot like the motorcycle market. I hope there won't be the same loss of the smaller brands because it's good to have many brands. You can have a huge choice when you purchase something. But, unfortunately, I think we will lose some of the smaller brands in the future. We can see which ones have survived in the motorbikes field - the survivors are Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, KTM, they are all huge brands. Among the smaller ones, like the ones I was telling you before about for trials, there are, for example, Sherco, in Italy, we have TM, Bucci, but there are very few left. And they are very brave – competing with KTM, Yamaha and Honda is tough.
The next question for you is about Italian production. For example, with your Nero fork, most of the manufacturing is done here in Italy, but the lowers and stanchions are made in Taiwan. Why is that?
Good question. Unfortunately, with the financial crisis a few years ago we have lost all the satellite activities that were here in Italy 20 years ago. Today in Italy it's not possible anymore to produce the lowers or stanchions of a fork. There are no more suppliers. And if you find them, they are so expensive. I remember, and my father always reminds me, that when Marzocchi used to make the forks in Italy, even the legs, and tubes, it was tragic. There were lots of issues about magnesium melting... We just don't have the technology. The lowers which are perhaps the most difficult part of the fork, is fine if it's made in Taiwan, but if it's made elsewhere... Say your prayers if you are religious because the worst will happen for sure. Unless you find a special process in Japan or other countries, but in that case, it's going to cost a lot.
When you started making your suspension, did you look for suppliers in Italy before you went to the Far East?
Yes, but we already knew that. We had started six years before. We already knew that the market was all in Taiwan, I'm referring to the components. You can also find better prices in China, although there are other risks there, but the high-end products are made in Taiwan. We are talking about anything. Frames, fork legs, you have to go there.
That is interesting to hear, because the outside perception is that the problems for Marzocchi really started when they shifted production to the Far East.
Well, they solved one issue and another one arose. They solved the problem of the quality of the forks. I also have to say that the fork may not have been designed correctly, it's impossible that it was not only a problem of production. I cannot say that for sure because I am not a technician, so I won't say anything about it. However, having Suntour they solved many of the mechanical problems they had in Italy, but, from what I heard, created other problems regarding the sales and the logistics. And then, like everything, it ended badly. But they were forced to leave Italy by the crisis and the Italian government because they were no longer able to be competitive in the market.
I have to admit that I have a theory that as the commercial head of Formula you are the man responsible for killing Marzocchi. This is just a theory, but let me know what you think. As everyone knows, Marzocchi had good years and bad years, but even in the bad years, the Italians bought Marzocchi forks because they were Italian. I remember going to enduro races back in 2011/2012, and they were full of riders with 55s on their bikes. So, to some extent, that sustained Marzocchi through the bad years, they always sold well in Italy. But then when you entered the market with the 35 there was another Italian fork, one that didn't have the same reliability or performance issues, and losing that market hurt them a lot.
In that period, Marzocchi was at the final stage, unfortunately. It was just before it was acquired by Fox, but hats off to Marzocchi because in the golden years I still remember we were giving them brakes, they were selling thousands of forks to OEM. I once went to visit Lapierre and I can't tell how many Marzocchi forks they had there in-house. The high-end forks were all produced in Italy and the other parts at Suntour. Then they gave everything to Suntour... But many of their mechanical problems were due to the fact that they were producing a lot in Italy. Let's say... It is almost impossible to produce everything in Italy and remain competitive.
Are your brakes 100% made in Italy, or are some of the components made in Taiwan?
Many components of the brake come from there, yes, for the same reason I told you before.
Apart from those bits the rest of the production process is here in Italy, but I understand that the OE prices are competitive with Shimano and the others. How do you find a way to be competitive keeping the production in Italy? Because if you want to save money, you go to Taiwan.
The dynamics are certainly changing now, because Taiwan, as happens to every country when it has employment and wealth, is increasing its prices. The cost of electricity and rent is increasing, and naturally, this affects the price of things sold to us. However, talking specifically about the forks, they are still quite competitive compared to Italy and the rest of Europe. Considering also that they make very high-quality components there. If you want good quality stuff, you have to go there.
Since we are a small business, being competitive with the prices of of the bigger players is obviously more difficult, as it means that we have to sacrifice the profit margins. Because for us the cost of the brake is certainly higher than what Shimano pays if we talk about the parts made in Malaysia or Thailand; the high-quality parts. The high-quality parts made in Japan are not like this, compared to Japanese manufactured products, we are competitive with our costs.
XT and upwards is made in Japan, right?
I think starting from XT, yes. SRAM doesn't make anything in America. They do everything in China, Taiwan. Let's say that we are quite competitive with what they do in Taiwan, but what they do in other places we are not. They have got higher figures, they have got production factories in countries where it doesn't cost much. So, let's say, for the bottom and medium end, we have to be more expensive if we want to keep a profit margin. So, basically, we have to give up to the profit margin, being small...
One thing that does impress me with your products is the efficiency of production. For example, at its simplest level, your Cura brake lever is a forged block with three holes drilled in it. Your Selva enduro fork and Nero DH fork share the same lower.
Yes. We did all the tests to see if the same lower that we use in an enduro fork could go on a DH fork because others did it before us. The tests went well and we decided to follow that road because opening a mould for a magnesium lower for a DH fork where the sales figures are low was counterproductive. It was going to be very expensive for us if we sold only a thousand per year, for example. So, considering the technique and the calculation, we decided to take that road.
It is interesting that as you develop new technology for your forks, most notably the Selva right now, you are making everything backwards compatible which seems to make sense for both you and the consumer.
We actually did it on purpose to meet the needs of our clients. We had the feeling that the clients were fed up with the constant changes. New is good because without new things the market stays still, but to force the client to change every year, and to force the client to change the fork is not fair. This way they have the freedom to choose. If you want to buy a new fork you can buy it, otherwise, you can always update yours. So, it makes sense.
But also, surely the forging for the lowers is a huge investment for you?
Well, our costs, I mean, I'm sure bigger companies pay less as they are so much bigger than us. Maybe it makes sense for them because a mould for Rockshox makes millions of forks, so they pay them off immediately. For us, it's more difficult. We make a few of them and we have to find a real justification in figures to make a new fork. We are referring to Rockshox, but we can say the same for Fox, they have lots of moulds, and with their figures, they really don't care as much as we have to.
Will you have a rear shock to accompany your forks any time soon?
We have taken quite a long time but we are working on it and we hope to. I don't even know if I can say much. We are working on it and we are already at a good stage from the design point and we hope to introduce it this year. It's not official but it is our goal.
In the factory, I have seen some boxes for dropper posts, are they coming too?
We made some samples to work on, but that project is not active at the moment because we have seen that the bike makers prefer to build seat posts themselves. The news we heard is that Rockshox has lost a big chunk of their production for this reason because the big bike manufacturers are making them themselves, so we have decided that it was not worth it for us at the moment and it was better to dedicate our resources for the rear shock or new forks.
Surely there is a temptation to run in lots of different directions, how does a small business like yourself choose which direction to go in?
Our idea for the future is to be able to complete all the products of the range, and I mean a full range of bike forks. We want to have a full range of bike forks, starting from cross-country up to downhill. We would like a full range of brakes and wheels, even though for us the wheel is more an aftermarket product. Perhaps complete the range of shocks to pair with the forks. Let's see how the market goes. This is what we want to do. That's it. It's good enough for us.
Is manufacturing in Italy a business choice or ethical choice for you?
At first, it was certainly an ethical choice, it wasn't a business decision because we have basically always lost money making products in Italy because of the taxes and the costs here. Even if we get some stuff from Taiwan every single product is assembled and finished in Italy. Once in a while we consider the option to assemble in Taiwan but is not the right decision for us right now. Maybe in the future or maybe not, as I said before the market is changing very fast and the future is hard to predict. Right now we’re happy the way we’re working.
Do you think that in the future the production for all industries will be in Taiwan or it will change?
No, it will change, because, as I was saying before, the costs are increasing in Taiwan. It's hard to figure out where it will go.
Do you think it will ever come back to Europe?
In my opinion, in the future, the production will come back in Europe. It will take a while and I don't know how long but after Taiwan, it will move to Asia and when the other countries in Asia will have grown, then we will be all balanced and it will come back to Europe.