In the fold
Mon 24 March 2014, 12:51 pm
Brompton is now an internationally recognised innovator. Lucy Purdy visits the Brentford factory and meets the company's CEO, Will Butler-Adams
Fresh from Brompton being shortlisted for a European Business Award, Will Butler-Adams is in an upbeat mood. His company’s turnover this year was £27 million with a £3.3 million profit, and the balance sheet topping off a ninth year in which growth has hovered healthily around the 20% mark.
Refusal letters from the likes of UK bicycle manufacturing giant Raleigh line the walls of its Hounslow headquarters, a reminder that Brompton has disproved the doubters: it is now the UK’s biggest bike maker.
With 230 employees, a new shop called Brompton Junction in London’s Covent Garden, a burgeoning Brompton Dock cycle hire scheme and new markets opening in China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the company has come a long way since founder Andrew Ritchie sat down one night in the mid 1970s to sketch folding bike designs on “scrappy bits of paper”.
A long way figuratively speaking, but less than a mile geographically: the current base in Lionel Road South is a stone’s throw from where Ritchie began.
“And it is all because Andrew wanted to pedal to work,” explains Butler-Adams, managing director since 2002.
“Andrew made his first bike in his flat and needed to find somewhere that was cheap and pedalable. And the cheapest and pedalablest place was here in Hounslow. That’s why we’re here.”
But why is Brompton still here? Butler-Adams admits that “strategically, you might think it was bonkers, to make bikes in London,” but his answer to the question says everything about a brand that has come to be synonymous with quality and reliability.
“There is more to the business than what appears on the face of it,” he says.
“The problem we had, up until two years ago really, was that we just weren’t able to make enough bikes. So the greatest asset we had was our staff who knew how to make them, particularly our brazers, who practice a very difficult skill.
“None of our staff would move, so we need to stay here. The idea that we would hoof off somewhere is ridiculous. We simply are our staff. If you cut them in half, they say Brompton. You can’t lose that.”
If you gathered together all the drawings to describe the bike, from parts and springs to tiny injection moulded parts, you would end up with about 20,000.
“But to describe the way we make the bike,” Butler- Adams says, “the jigs and fixtures and the brazing machines, there are probably 80,000.
“There is in fact more intellectual property in how we make the bike, than in the bike itself. So ironically, by making the bike in London, we are protecting our IP. After all, no other fruitcakes are making bikes in London. And of course, in parallel with that, we have also created this rather lovely brand. Not consciously – it’s just happened.”
The factory is located just off the Golden Mile, “There’s nothing like being surrounded by supremely successful businesses” the Brentford stretch of the A4, next to the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Starbucks, BSkyB and JCDecaux. Brompton’s first corporate dock scheme – an offshoot of its bike hire hub scheme Brompton Dock, launched in 2011 – is with Glaxo.
“It’s an interesting bit of real estate with some really cool companies, really vibrant, which has definitely been helpful. Some have been mentors. We’ve learnt from them, we’ve been to forums, visited their factories. There is a real sense of mutual support.
“And there’s nothing like being surrounded by supremely successful businesses because they raise your aspirations. The area gets you going. It makes you want to be more successful.”
The key to achieving Brompton’s lofty aspirations is a fundamental and non-negotiable insistence on quality. Tangible from even the briefest of glances inside the 2,044sq m factory, it is clear the staff – who are friendly but fixated on their work – take this to heart.
Finely engineered yet elegant, a virtuoso of its type, Brompton has become a byword for the very best in British manufacturing. The company is continually refining its methods and every year injects cash into new machinery and equipment. As well as conducting research and development in-house, Brompton has fashioned its own engineering solutions and makes its own parts: more than 500 different, purpose-built press tools, moulds, jigs and assembly fixtures. An orange handlebar stem sits in a box marked ‘rejects’. One tiny dent, barely visible even on close inspection, has placed it there, destined to be rebrazed and resanded. It simply does not make the exacting Brompton grade.
Brompton is all about the long game. While other bike manufacturers save cash by employing the latest technical advances, Brompton has never opted for cheaper, off-the-shelf products.
Ritchie, Butler-Adams and the staff who echo their values, prefer to implement the very best solution to any engineering challenge: more often than not, taking a much slower and more expensive route.
“I think there was a propensity, in the 1980s and 90s, to make incredibly cheap stuff,” says Butler-Adams.
“Everything was cheap, from lamps to hi-fi, and when they broke you chucked them in the bin and bought another one. I mean, who cares, right? As it happens, I just don’t tick like that. My great grandfather’s pocket watch sits in a little wooden holder in my desk and I wind it up every morning. I also have my grandfather’s ink pen on the desk, probably from the 1930s. And I use those things every single day. They are beautifully made and they give me great pleasure. Not only that, parts are still available to ensure you carry on using them.
“Neither of them were cheap but both are extraordinarily good value. Of course there’s an environmental benefit to using stuff for years, but there’s also an emotional benefit. Like that old jacket: you’ve done things in it, you’ve been on journeys with it. And this is our philosophy, to do things really beautifully well, to refine them and take time getting the detail right and ultimately to create better value for the customer.”
The proof lies in the consistency of Brompton’s sales, and yet this is not a company with a mega-buck marketing budget.
“There was a time where if you spent enough money on advertising, you could persuade someone of anything,” says Butler-Adams.
“Now, word-of-mouth rules. What used to just be telling your friend or your neighbour is now telling someone in Japan or America. We have always believed that if we make a good enough product, the truth will out and it will sell itself.
“Our customers love their bikes. They’re such flipping aficionados that they won’t stop talking to their friends about it. Just to get them to shut up, their friends go and buy one. And in 15 years, maybe six of those friends will buy a Brompton. Rather than the firms which consciously design-in obsolescence, which may be able to persuade you to buy three dishwashers in 15 years but will make you feel sick in doing so, we’ve chosen to do our business another way.”
A longer version of this article features in the new issue of Great West magazine