Brompton boss: The bike-maker who disproved the doubters

Will Butler-Adams Will Butler-Adams says his height of 6ft 4in is not a problem when using the small, folding bike

For Will Butler-Adams, the boss of UK folding bike-maker Brompton, it was being considered stupid as a student that helped drive his determination to be successful in life.

"I was pretty much a failure at school," he says. "I was in the thick class, and I had a marginal chip on my shoulder throughout school, which I suppose I still have now.

"I want to prove that I have been successful [in life]."

Helping to transform Brompton's fortunes over the past 11 years, leading it from a niche London bicycle company to the UK's biggest bike-maker, Mr Butler-Adams has already achieved his goal, many would argue.

At the age of 39, he says he is not sure yet, but that he is "getting there".

Chance encounter

With a master's degree in engineering and Spanish from Newcastle University, and previously working for chemical giant ICI in the north-east of England, he was appointed managing director of Brompton at the age of just 28.

And it was all thanks to a chance conversation on a coach trip.

"I got chatting to the man sitting next to me, and said I was an engineer," Mr Butler-Adams says.

"He replied that he was chairman of a company called Brompton, and that they were looking for someone like me.

"I wasn't some hardcore keen cyclist, and I had never heard of Brompton. But out of politeness I said I would go and meet the inventor."

People riding on Brompton bikes Brompton bikes are a common sight in cities around the world

So he went to Brompton's factory beside the M4 motorway flyover in Brentford, west London, to meet Andrew Ritchie, who had first designed the folding bike in the mid-1970s.

Start Quote

I haven't done a good job, I've done a good job in finding people who can do a better job than me in everything I ask them to do”

End Quote Will Butler-Adams

"I felt like I had walked into a time zone, I couldn't believe that this type of business existed. At university it was all about learning about world-class manufacturers; they don't take you around inefficient SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]."

But despite being put off by all the clutter in the small factory, Mr Butler-Adams says he was won over after having his first ride on a Brompton, and more importantly - he was offered the job.

"When I first saw the bike, it was folded up, and I thought: 'I'm 6ft 4in, you are having a laugh, that's not going to work.' And then I get on it, and think 'this is really cool'.

"That got me thinking, and I found Andrew fascinating, just intellectually outstanding. So I thought: 'Well, stuff it, what have I got to lose?'"

Outsourcing

When Mr Butler-Adams joined Brompton in 2002, it was making 6,000 bikes per year, and employed 24 people. The company was profitable, but in no way able to keep up with demand.

Fast forward to today, and Brompton makes 40,000 bikes a year, and has 190 workers. Its annual turnover is set to hit £28m after growing by more than a quarter in each of the last three years.

And this growth has all come organically, with the company not seeking any outside finance.

Brompton frames Brompton assembles all its bikes at its London base

To help achieve the substantial expansion over the past 11 years, Mr Butler-Adams brought in a more professional and modern way of doing things, introducing budget plans, and outsourcing the manufacturing of certain parts or processes, such as the wheels and the painting of frame parts.

The outsourcing to other UK manufacturers meant that space for production work and final assembly at Brompton's Brentford site was greatly expanded.

Brompton's inventor

Andrew Ritchie

Cambridge University graduate Andrew Ritchie came up with the original design in 1976

He named the bike after the Brompton Oratory, a church in west London that his flat overlooked

Mr Ritchie initially approached established bike companies to see if they would like to make his design but they all turned him down, so he set up his own company instead

He remains at Brompton in the role of technical director

Mr Butler-Adams says: "The idea was to outsource the non-core stuff, so that we could then lavish attention on the core things, and do them better. And we could make more bikes."

As Brompton grew, he says it was his policy to "to employ people who are better than me".

"I haven't done a good job, I've done a good job in finding people who can do a better job than me in everything I ask them to do."

Design protection

Now exporting to 44 countries - everywhere from Brazil to China - some 80% of Brompton's bikes are today sold abroad.

Despite this global reach, Brompton has no plans to relocate any production to the Far East in order to take advantage of cheaper labour costs.

One key reason is to protect its designs and production methods from potential copying.

"What we are doing by making the bike in London is protecting our intellectual property. It's brilliant, and it really works.

"Of course we sell bikes in China, so someone could buy one and try to reverse engineer it. But it is not that simple - the complexity of our manufacturing process is such that it is not easy."

A Brompton being assembled by a worker at its Brentford factory Brompton has no plans to start building its bikes overseas

Indeed, no copy of the Brompton has yet been produced, despite its original patent running out in 1998.

Brompton also does not advertise, instead relying on word of mouth from happy owners to drive sales.

"Our idea of marketing is to produce a great product and look after the customer," says Mr Butler-Adams. "Do this and they become evangelical about you."

With demand for Bromptons continuing to grow globally, Mr Butler-Adams says he is pleased with the firm's contribution to urban transport.

"I don't think I have achieved much yet, I'm not old, but my greatest achievement so far is unlocking the potential of what a folding bike can do in cities around the world."

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