Hinge benefits: Brompton’s ebullient MD is pedalling the maker of the iconic folding bike into the 21st century.
The Brompton Bicycle company doesn’t bother much with marketing. It doesn’t need to. Its iconic folding bikes spread the word far more effectively than any carefully conceived advertising campaign. And as anyone who travels regularly on the UK’s city streets will testify, the firm’s elegant mode of transport appears to be growing in popularity.
Much of the credit for this goes to the company’s ebullient young managing director Will Butler-Adams who, since joining in 2002 and taking over from the firm’s founder – Andrew Richie – as MD in 2008, has seen production rocket from 7000 to 30000 bikes per year.
It’s a success story that’s been pounced on by a government increasingly keen to talk up the value of the UK’s manufacturing sector. Vince Cable and Nick Clegg kicked off their recent manufacturing summit with a visit to Brompton’s West London factory and Butler-Adams himself has become a regular fixture on industry panels and think-tanks aimed at stimulating interest in engineering. After a few minutes in his company its easy to see why.
Joining the firm as a new products manager in 2002 Butler-Adams was shocked to find an operation that despite making a profit, was apparently stuck in the 1950s. ‘I’d worked for Nissan,’ he explained, ‘I’d studied engineering, and I know what world class manufacturing is. I came here and thought “oh my god”. I just couldn’t believe that this kind of thing existed. It looked like a warehouse, there was no sign of any manufacturing going on.’
Transforming the company into a modern business capable of satisfying the growing demand for its products was, he said, a major struggle, and his relationship with Ritchie, who invented the bike in cramped flat overlooking Kensington’s Brompton oratory, has not always been easy. ‘It was a challenge. Andrew made every decision, signed every cheque, you couldn’t buy anything without asking him first. Initially he didn’t trust me, so I just got on and did things without telling him.’
Through numerous arguments the two men developed a healthy mutual respect, and Ritchie – described by his young MD as “something of a legend” – is today focused on technical development while Butler-Adams, though clearly an energetic presence on the factory floor, also has one eye on the future. ‘We’ve probably got to the 1980s now,’ he observed , ‘We’re still nowhere near 2010 / 2011.’
The factory, though a hive of activity, is indeed a curious blend of the old and new: with state of the art eddy current testing and measurement equipment cheek-by-jowl with heath-robinsonesque testing rigs designed and built by Ritchie several years ago.
What’s more, few of the machines look familiar. The average Brompton consists of 1200 parts, most of which are unique to the bike, and many of the machines, tools and fixtures used to manufacture it are therefore purpose built. ‘There’s more cleverness in the machines than there is in the bike itself,’ said Butler-Adams.
Its become something of a cliché when writing about Brompton to play on its postcode – to talk up the curiosity of a manufacturer based in leafy Chiswick: land of the four by four and luxury baby buggy. Though the truth is less prosaic – the factory is actually on an industrial estate next to the M4 – it is nevertheless unusual to find a volume manufacturer so close to the centre of London.
So why does it continue to build its bikes in the UK? It’s a question Butler-Adams has grown used to. ‘It’s about protecting our IP. If we have really clever stuff we do it here. Anyone can buy our bike but the knowledge isn’t in the bike, the knowledge is in 3D models that exist on CAD and 3D models are great because they’re bloody difficult to copy.’
An ill-fated licensing deal with Taiwanese firm Euro-Tai in the late 1990s has also left it wary of following other UK manufacturers overseas. ‘[the Taiwanese made bikes] were just crap,’ said Butler-Adams, ‘they outsourced various frame parts. Then the person they out-sourced it to outsourced it to someone else and there was no coherent understanding of what they were trying to achieve. The thing was a disaster area: it didn’t fold properly, it didn’t sit properly, it was just shambolic and it was carrying our brand.’
Another way the firm protects its IP is – rather counterintuitively – by not patenting anything. ‘The patent is a weird concept,’ explained Butler-Adams, ‘because what you do is define in technical detail what your patent is so people can’t copy it. But in defining in technical detail what your patent is, you’re effectively just giving it away. And then someone in China can say, “oh I don’t give a stuff about this patent, I’ll just copy it anyway” and the cost of taking them to court is far more than the 250 grand you spent [patenting it] in the first place.’
In the meantime, Brompton’s team of engineers are continuing to find ways to tweak and improve a design that is in many ways mature.
‘Materials are changing, FEA allows you take your tolerances to a new level, plastics are improving, rubbers are improving, bearings are improving,’ said Butler-Adams. ‘As any engineer knows, it’s easy to take something very simple and take huge leaps in improvement but as you get to a certain level you require far more effort to take far smaller steps in improvement. That’s the difference between something that ‘s average and something that just does it. It’s that attention to detail that takes a product from being a product to being a joy.’
In a more radical development, Brompton is currently refining the design of an electric bike that’s slated for launch early next year. Equipped with a hub motor in its front wheel, and a pannier that carries the battery, the bike will do 15 miles on a full charge and, courtesy of innovative torque sensors, give users an “invisible hand” when cycling up-hill.
It’s a surprising move from a company so fixated on its core products, and undoubtedly some die-hard enthusiasts might balk at the prospect of an electric-bike.
But Butler-Adams remains reassuringly true to the core principles that continue to win over legions of devoted users: ‘get it right and be anal about detail, don’t get involved in fluff and crap and deliver a product that actually works.’
Q and A
Do you believe this government is any more serious than the last about growing the UK manufacturing sector?
‘It’s been easy for large companies to lobby governments to get funding, but this is different – it’s about the sector as a whole right from the small business upto the larger firms, it’s about corporation tax it’s about trying to change fiscal policy and to change the apprenticeship scheme. They’re trying to find ways in which to make doing manufacturing in the UK more attractive. Have they got it right? I don’t know, and I’m not sure they do, but at least they’re trying to listen to industry, and they are interested in trying to get it right. There is nothing wrong with this sector – it has massive potential. It’s been neglected, but fortunately there are still a few embers there and if we give them a good puff we can get it going again.’
What are the biggest challenges facing the manufacturing sector?
‘One area I particularly worry about is that the perception of engineering and industry as a whole is fundamentally incorrect. We need to change peoples’ understanding of what our sector is and I think there’s a lot of work to be done with parents. Most parents, like most children today I’m afraid, think an engineer is someone in a boiler suit with a monkey wrench on 14k a year. If a child says “I want to become an engineer” the parents think, “I don’t want you becoming an engineer why don’t you become a doctor or a solicitor or something respectable?’
How can this perception problem be addressed?
‘The government has done quite a lot of work with teachers over the last few years, because they recognise they need better people going into teaching. They need to do that sort of thing as well in engineering.
You’ve not only got to get parents to understand what engineering is you’ve got to get the teachers to understand. There is a lot of opportunity for industry to engage with education more and take a bigger role. The more businesses that get stuck in and the more guidance that government can give to schools to give them the freedom and the space to engage with businesses the better.’
Is there a case for Engineers enjoying a protected status like doctors?
We’ve got far too many institutions. We should consolidate the institutions and we should raise the profile of the qualification which is the chartered engineer. If you look at the medical institution there is one council that looks after medicine: someone who’s a specialist in the heart knows nothing about the ear, a guy who’s a chemical engineer knows nothing about the IC engine but the medical sector has one council that looks after everything and if you’re a doctor you’re highly respected. It’s not about saying “oh aren’t I a wonderful engineer, I want everyone to call me engineer Butler-Adams”, I don’t give a stuff about that . But I do care that there’s a misunderstanding; that a bloke who comes and changes a washer can put engineer on his van, it’s simply wrong. Technician, yes fine. But not engineer.
MEng in mechanical engineering from Newcastle upon Tyne University, UK, and Universidad de Valladolid, Spain
September 1997 – January 2000
ICI/Dupont, project manager, PTA Plant, Teesside
Project manager for all Minor Mechanical Projects across two £175m
COMAH plants. Took part in three plant shut downs and successfully delivered more than $1m (£620,000) of projects
Dupont, plant engineer, PET Plant, Teesside Responsible for the total maintenance of a £60m polyester plant
Joined Brompton Bicycle as new products manager
Became engineering director for Brompton. Promotion to the board enabled him to have a greater influence over the strategy of the business. This has included setting out a five-year business plan to increase efficiency and capacity
Became managing director of Brompton