Brompton bike CEO: 'People have no idea what goes into a product. That’s not a good thing'
Will Butler-Adams, boss of the folding bike company, talks to the Financial Times about the importance of manufacturing and why we need to "care more about the stuff we buy".
Will Butler-Adams arrives at Brompton Bicycle’s headquarters in Greenford, west London on a navy Brompton bike in a black branded polo shirt (also worn by employees in the factory), lace-up boots and light pink shorts (a flourish of his own) and greets a colleague. “Tip top, buddy, tip top.”
After folding his bike and parking it in reception alongside dozens of others, the Brompton chief executive takes me past a table tennis table and on to the factory floor.
Butler-Adams picks up a frame. The brazing – joining two bits of steel together with silicon bronze – has been done by an apprentice who nervously awaits the verdict from the 48-year-old CEO. It is only her second time doing the task. “I’m really impressed,” he says, before pointing out tiny flaws. “There’s three little bubbles in it. Technically, perfectly good, but aesthetically not so pleasing.”
The art of brazing is a topic that takes up a whole chapter in his new book, The Brompton: Engineering For Change (which he underscores is co-authored with Dan Davies, a journalist). “This method causes less heat damage to the tubes and leaves them stronger than in welding,” he writes. It is also lighter.
The minutiae of engineering is not an obvious pitch to a general reader, but he wants to highlight the importance of manufacturing. “This is not a dark satanic mill.” We stop at a workspace where they have taken delivery of new bicycle bells. “Yes. Halleluja!” The employee rings it. “That small bell is brilliant!”
The book tells the history of the company: From the folding bike’s first designs in 1975 by founder and engineer Andrew Ritchie, the creation of Brompton, and the arrival in 2002 of Butler-Adams (then a young engineer fresh from British chemicals group ICI) who six years later led a management buyout and became CEO. Along the way, it describes the challenges and virtues of design, and management problems such as changing workers’ earnings from piecework to skills-based pay. As well as dealing with investors and suppliers. After we speak, I realise that the last two years navigating Brexit, lockdowns and supply chains – while also rapidly expanding the workforce from 432 employees to almost 800 – could probably fill a book on its own.
He hopes to make readers “care more about the stuff we buy... People have no idea what goes into a product. That’s not a good thing. We have a climate crisis. We forget how powerful the consumer is. If the consumer... maybe buys a little bit less, they give a little bit more thought, that will be good for planet Earth.” This is also a sales pitch: Brompton bikes are not cheap – £850 to almost £4,000 (S$1,420 to S$6,690) – but they are robust.
That factories are tucked away out of town, or overseas, is a frustration that he compares to animal slaughter. “We eat meat. We see the fluffy sheep. And then suddenly we’ve got this pink thing, and it’s called [lamb]. It’s belittling our intelligence that we hide it away.”
Showcasing engineering, he hopes, will help attract “the best brains ... solving the world’s problems, not going off into the City and creating reams of paper like lawyers”.
Another way to get the public onside is a new site which he hopes will open in 2027 in Ashford, Kent. Twice the size of Greenford, it will not only have a manufacturing facility but a museum and visitor centre.
My tour is a rehearsed piece of showmanship. Past photos of factory visitors include the late Prince Philip and David Cameron, the former UK prime minister. Brompton is now a British success story, but in the early days, “embassies were so snooty”. He made it his mission to get publicity and to network with politicians and businesses. “We had no money. You’ve got to find ways to leverage awareness.” For example, getting Prince William on a Brompton bike in Shanghai for a photo.
I’d been told this book described spats with Ritchie, who Butler-Adams replaced as chief executive. The odd couple (Ritchie’s pernicketyness and Butler-Adams’ determination to make the company commercial) is part of the mythology. The book seems rather restrained.
“This isn’t about some vitriol,” Butler-Adams tells me later in a tucked-away corner of the open-plan office. Brompton exists, he says, because of Ritchie – “genius [and] nutter. I had the easy job. Andrew had the tough bit, getting it off the ground...If you have a mad inventor, somebody else has to take it over.”
Has Ritchie read the book?
“He hasn’t even seen it. I don’t dare send it.”
Ritchie is no longer on the board but has an engineering consulting role. Aside from work, they meet socially, most recently, over dinner at Ritchie’s home. “Yummy leftovers ... He’s a complete sodding legend. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a monstrous pain in the arse and occasionally drives me potty. He’d probably say the same about me. He doesn’t think I listen to him. I listen to him a lot. I just don’t do everything he says. And that’s like parents and children.”
Butler-Adams’ actual father was in the family wine trade business before the company was sold to Griersons, then part of the Forte Group. Rugby school, he says, kept him on the educational straight and narrow. “If I hadn’t had that very privileged education, I would not be here now. I found formal education thoroughly boring, totally irrelevant.”
After studying engineering, he went to ICI, which taught him, among other things, that it was easy to tweak projected earnings to win over investors or managers. “If all the projects we did delivered what they said they were going to deliver, that thing would have been printing money.” It reinforced the need to understand worst-case scenarios. “When it goes completely tits up, that is a very accurate thing you can measure. Rather than wasting energy with over-exaggerated upsides, if you want to innovate fast, protect the downside.” To that end, he has created a “f***-it fund” at Brompton to develop ideas with money they can afford to lose.
Butler-Adams wants his staff to find him approachable. The Brompton T-shirt is key. “If I’m in my ivory tower ... and I’m wearing a suit and tie ... I very much lose [the feeling] we’re in this together ... People know what I earn.” How much? “At the moment, £210,000.”
The company pays the London living wage, but skilled staff can expect far more. About 80 per cent of its workers are on a nine-day fortnight. Some compress 38 hours into a four-day week, others are on flexitime, helping to encourage more women to join the traditionally male workforce. By 2024, the company wants 40 per cent of staff to be female. Butler-Adams works most days, he says. As an early riser, he’ll get up on holiday and send some emails well before his wife and three teenage daughters wake up.
Some modern workplace practices are perplexing. “You can’t touch anybody,” he says, lightly tapping my shoulder.
The last few years have been extremely tough, he says, putting his head in his hands for a moment. “Brexit, talk about shoot[ing] yourself in the foot, but hey, we’ll make it work.”
Will Butler-Adams on the spot
How do you resolve a work argument?
Speak with honesty and by and large, common sense prevails.
How should a small business get publicity?
Network, never say no to an invitation; breakfast, lunch, dinner to get your word out. Have an opinion, don’t be a shrinking violet, and be passionate. If you believe in what you are doing, people will go out of their way to help.
Should businesses get involved in politics?
That is not the priority of any business, but you can’t ignore it as politicians make decisions that affect our business, our customers, our staff, and our suppliers.
Last business book you read?
65 Roses And A Trunki, written by an old friend, Rob Law. It reminds us that business is a means to an end, not the means to the end.
Best cycle route?
Coast to coast – Morecambe to Whitby. In two days you will learn and feel the rich diversity and history of the UK. It is glorious and good for the soul.
During the first lockdown his main concern was job losses. “I thought we were going to be in for a full five-year recession. That scared me.” Production lines continued to run but initially were hit by reduced demand and later by Omicron infections among staff. But sales swelled as customers sought alternatives to public transport and the company grew quickly. The last company accounts showed sales increased by a third to £76.1 million in the year to March 2021, with pre-tax profits up to £9.7 million from £6 million, the previous year.
This year, he says, turnover is up but “profit is under strain” due to “logistics [problems]. Then we’ve got inflation, [it] just goes on. It’s hitting us. It’s a bit scary, but we’ll be fine.”
The future is both electric and overseas. Earlier this year, Brompton released its latest electric folding bike with a lighter titanium frame.
In China, the product is a luxury for “movers and shakers, people in politics, architects, lawyers...They will be the people that shift how you change urban design.” In America, it’s “growing fast from a very small base. The idea that you have bike lanes in Manhattan was unthinkable ten years ago.”
The pandemic demonstrated the potential for cities with fewer cars and has reinforced to Butler-Adams the company’s ultimate mission, which he writes in the book is “providing freedom to urban people and making their lives better”.
He counts himself lucky to have “bumble[d] into this company just before the world started waking up to the ...climate emergency”. However, he cautions against making grandiose political statements.
“Business is being voted on [24/7], not every five years like politicians.”
By Emma Jacobs © 2022 The Financial Times.