The rich and powerful are no strangers to Brompton’s Kew Bridge HQ. His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable have all paid the British folding bike company a visit. One of whom, trivia fans may note, forgot to change his safety shoes after the factory visit so a staffer had to pedal across London to re-acquaint him with his ones and twos.
While those famous faces were visiting they may well have paid the walls of Brompton HQ more than a brief glance to discover a treasure trove of company tit-bits. Not only does Brompton proudly display its three Queen’s Awards (for Enterprise and Export Achievement), but the wry company has also framed letters of rejection from yesteryear, from bike companies unsure of Brompton’s potential and unwilling to take it on back in the ‘70s, to the banks that refused to loan it the cash it needed to take production up to the next level in its formative years.
Stepping into the illustrious shoes of Clegg, Cable, et al (perhaps literally), BikeBiz is paying Brompton HQ a visit on the occasion of its 25th anniversary of manufacturing. Brompton is rarely mentioned without acknowledging the fact the British brand manufactures in the UK.
Taking BikeBiz on a tour of the factory, managing director Will Butler-Adams explains that part of the reason the folding bike firm manufactures here is that it has been founded on intellectual property. From the bikes themselves to creating manufacturing tools virtually from scratch, it’d be hard – nay impossible – to make an accurate copy of a Brompton if you were a rival manufacturer. Constantly refining techniques and innovating processes in-house means more schematics and design has gone into the tools that create the bikes than the bikes themselves…meaning getting hold of similar tools to produce a copy would be inordinately tricky.
In the beginning
Founder Andrew Ritchie – he who received all those rejection letters in Brompton’s formative years – is now technical director for the firm, with day-to-day operations headed up for the last 12 years by Butler-Adams.
“Andrew created a fantastic business and a fantastic product,” Butler-Adams tells BikeBiz. “He’s a complete legend but his weakness is that he likes to do everything himself and isn’t so good at delegation. So when more people came to work for Brompton he ended up being busier than ever and actually signing everything off himself.
“We’re both engineers, but I was brought in to come at things from a different angle. I look at strategy and potential – and there is huge potential still for Brompton. There really is.”
Brompton has come a long way from the days of those rejection letters, now having produced 300,000 bikes over the 25 years of production. Butler-Adams cites Ritchie’s decision to move the company to Kew Bridge – the present site in 1998 – as one of the biggest milestones. “There was 22 or so staff at the time so it was an enormously confident to move into so large a space. We’ve been able to expand into it and we’ve not had to worry about the logistics of a move as we’ve grown – so that forward thinking decision has allowed us to stay focused on the business.”
The story goes that the surplus area of the factory used to be used as a makeshift indoor football pitch for staff, but now there’s precious little room for an impromptu game of footie with over 200 employees working at the site. In that time the company has gone from four braziers to 45. Is it hard to find braziers in this day and age? “They don’t exist,” Butler-Adams explains. “You have to train them and that means you have to be patient when you want to increase production.”
Space is certainly a concern, with the Kew Bridge site evolving with extra temporary buildings until earlier this year when Brompton enlisted a new warehouse to house the growing operation, a mile down the road.
Innovating production is an ongoing process too, with the move from batch production to line production a particularly “tough decision” four years ago that worried staffers initially, but has been worth it, the MD says, not least because it meant expensive equipment for processes didn’t have to be reproduced at each and every workstation.
Speaking of developing technology, the firm now has a 3D printer to aid the prototype process – “this would have been unaffordable to a company like us not so long ago,” Butler-Adams acknowledges.
Other key changes included becoming unionised and generally “growing up as a company”, he says.
External factors have given Brompton a few grey hairs over the 25 years of production, like when Sturmey Archer ceased in 2000, cutting off Brompton’s custom hub supply – “that nearly wiped us out”, Butler-Adams rues.
Being open with customers is essential when things go wrong, he adds: “We’re not perfect, but it’s about being honest because the truth comes out. You have to be open. A good example is one of our representatives gave a talk to US dealers and they asked him if there had been any problems with the bikes and he spent an hour telling them all the problems that we’ve ever had. The dealers couldn’t believe it. They were used to brands saying they’ve never had any problems.
“But we’re now more robust than we’ve ever been,” he adds.
Ultimately, all the effort behind the scenes is centred on one thing, the managing director stresses: “We’re just focused on making a bloody good folding bike.”
This is part of the reason Brompton hasn’t gone to town on accessories as much as it quite easily could have.
“We probably should be doing much more, but we’re not about making everything you can possibly attach to your Brompton. We’re concentrating on making more bikes and getting more people on bikes.”
Made in the UK
“The UK is great at efficient manufacturing,” says Butler-Adams. “We’re making more cars than ever and Triumph is producing more motorbikes than ever – they are huge in America, selling as many as Harley Davison.
“UK engineers have been forced to innovate to stay competitive, whereas in Asia manufacturing was largely cheap because of low labour costs. That meant many have rested on their laurels and now labour costs are up so companies just switch production elsewhere.”
Looking ahead, the MD believes the future is bright for Brompton and for cycling in general.
“Brompton has seen turnover growth of 20 per cent a year for the past nine years and this year is looking at 27 million turnover.
“There’s not been a downturn in half the world and even the one in the UK and the US has really been about a four per cent drop since the pre-recession ‘glory days’. Of course it has affected how people spend their money, but you don’t just throw up your hands and give up. You have to offer more value.
“We’ve seen exports grow for us to 80 per cent of our output. In the UK 60 per cent of our sales are in London, but the percentage of journeys made by bike in Greater London is just three per cent. The potential is huge. We’ve not even started.”
While he is concerned about the DfT’s prediction that cycling will fall in the UK he believes that, in general, governments understand cycling has to be backed.
“In the West people are getting fat. In emerging economies the car has sprung up out of nowhere and the cities and towns haven’t had chance to get used to that so congestion and air quality are absolutely awful.”
Up the Junction
October saw Brompton’s home city get its own Brompton Junction store…more than a year after the first Brompton Junction store launched in Kobe, Japan. So what took London so long?
Butler-Adams explains: “It was basically down to a dealer in Japan. He was the first to have the confidence to turn his store purely into a Brompton-only shop and from there the trend followed in Hamburg, then Amsterdam…”
“We opened the store in Covent Garden as an experiment. We don’t know retail, but what we can do at the shop is try out different ways of retailing the brand and then dealers can take ideas from it, from whatever works.
“The industry can be too techy and too male-orientated, which is fine, but it can ostracise potential customers. At the Covent Garden shop we’ve tried to use it as a testing ground as how we can appeal to that wider audience. It’s not cluttered, there are female staff, etc. But we’re keen not to piss off our dealers. We don’t offer cycle to work there and we don’t stock our most popular colours and models. If someone comes in asking for those things we point them towards the map and where their nearest dealers are.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 edition of BikeBiz. Didn’t get the mag through the post? You can read it online here. And if you want to read more on British manufacturing, read our Enigma factory report here.