In an unprepossessing brick block, in an equally nondescript industrial estate on the West of London lies the factory and headquarters of Brompton Bicycles. It's tucked behind a Mercedes-Benz van depot, and I only know I'm in the right place because there are about five pretzel-shaped hunks of metal parked outside the door. Oh, and a bunch of twentysomething testers in slogan tees, bouncing around doing bunny hops and the like on recently finished Bromptons. It's like E.T., but without the alien.
A rangy guy in desert shorts and steel toe-capped work boots approaches. "Nice bike," he says over his shoulder as he walks through the front door. Later on, I learn that he says this to everyone—even the engineers working on the line. I wonder if the joke has worn a little thin. He is Will Butler-Adams, the CEO of Brompton, and the guy who has taken the firm from a 27-strong outfit working out of a Heath Robinson-esque factory to a 127-strong outfit, still working out of a Heath Robinson-esque factory, albeit one that has got some pretty impressive manufacturing tech operating in there.
A Yorkshireman who studied mechanical engineering at Newcastle University, Butler-Adams came into Brompton about eight years ago after a chance meeting on a bus with Brompton's chairman, Tim Guinness. After earning his degree, he'd been working in a chemical plant owned by ICI up on Teeside and then gone to Spain to work in a car factory. As he approached 30, an MBA was beckoning—until the bus ride.
"Tim asked me what I did, and when I told him, he said, 'Oh! I'm involved in this little company that makes bicycles. We're looking for a chap like you.' I came in and the whole thing was racking, absolutely everywhere, with tons and tons of stock, and a teeny bit of manufacturing going on. It was all 1930s, no machinery, all done by hand, and very old-school. I was like, 'Blummin' Norah, this is amazing!' Then I found out it was turning a profit and couldn't supply demand. They couldn't make enough bikes. It was making a profit and yet inefficiently run, so I thought, 'Sod the MBA, this is it.'"
If you don't know Brompton bikes, you should. If you like cycling but live in an apartment, it's the only bike to have. Made up of over a thousand components, it is the invention of a computer engineer-turned-bicycle obsessive, Andrew Ritchie. Thirty-five years ago, he saw a fold-up bicycle called the Bickerton and thought he could do better. So he started to tinker in his flat that overlooked the Brompton Oratory in London.
Fold-up bikes used to be the worst thing in the world. They were the sort of thing you'd see tootling down the street and laugh at. Not any more, thanks to Brompton. But it's taken some time—and it's down to both Ritchie and Butler-Adams—Ritchie with his minuscule attention to detail on how to make the bike better and Butler-Williams with his vision for taking the company from its chaotic beginnings into an amazing brand worldwide. But their relationship had to survive a few potholes.
"Andrew ran the business," Butler-Adams says. "He made every single decision, wrote every check, every expenditure, but you cannot grow a business over a certain size if you don't delegate, because there isn't enough time. The business gets bigger, but you stay the same size, and Andrew found that very difficult. He hadn't recruited someone who was a thinker before, so we had a few run-ins. I was used to running a chemical plant with 40 workers and a $4.5 million budget and was totally autonomous, and suddenly I bought some electronic weighing scales for $18—before we were using Andrew's kitchen scales which he used to measure his flour out in, and he hit the roof. Letting go was a big issue."
Butler-Adams used his experience in the car industry to expand the business. Unlike most bike manufacturers, which make the frame, and then farm out stuff like wheels and brake pads to firms such as Shimano, Brompton controls all its accessories and components itself. It makes about 15% on the bike itself, and then 45% on add-ons. This is exactly how firms such as Mercedes make such whopping profits.
Before Will runs me round the factory, he leads me to their R&D department—or, rather, a tiny passage leading into the factory's yard. Parked up there is a black Brompton with a matt metal box attached to the left handlebar. It's a battery. On the right handlebar is what looks like a plastic sleeve with three LED-illuminated settings. "Try that for size," says Will. "Crank your right hand and see what happens." I set off around the estate. As I turn the corner into the next plot, I twist the plastic sleeve and almost go into the back of a Mercedes truck.
It sure is poky. Let me repeat that. There is a lot of poke in this bike. This is a prototype for Brompton's electric bike, which should be coming out some time in 2011. This is not its final iteration, as the CEO explains to me something that sounds like the world's first smart pedal. To sum it up, the amount of pressure you put on the pedal will determine just how much power the bike needs. Now that's smart.
Back inside, I ask Will to sum up Brompton's philosophy in five words. "Make a bloody good bike," he says. "We're not big fans of marketing." Fans or not—and Will argues that the bike markets itself—the Brompton brand is getting bigger ever day in London. The color palette is wonderful—they bring a few new ones out each year—and this summer's is a shade that can only be described as atomic coral. As well as being available at bike dealers, you can order a customized one direct from the factory—or as a titanium model that takes several pounds off the weight of the bike.
Brompton's success was whatever the visual equivalent of word of mouth is rather than an expensive campaign. "We'd rather spend our £250,000 marketing budget on making the bike better, taking weight out, and getting it to function better, looking after the spare parts so that the experience is richer and our customers happier," he says. "Ultimately, they will tell more people how wonderful it is. Once you hit critical mass, it exponentially sets it off. When people see enough people riding it, they're like, 'Ah, I saw three of those yesterday, does it really work?' and then you have to ask the person riding it, who then says, 'Yeah, I wasn't sure at first, but it's really good, and it's cool, and I love this thing,' and then off they go. That's how it worked five years ago in London."
Brompton is the two-wheel equivalent to the VW Bug. Owners feel like they're part of an exclusive club, something that the firm is very aware of. Will and his team—who are "quite good at telling me to shut up when I'm getting over-excited, especially the marketing manager"—also come up with a very cute annual event, the Brompton World Championships, a race where anyone with a Brompton can compete. This year's race, over an eight-mile course, is held at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, but American owners of the bike enjoyed the first ever U.S. event in Philadelphia back in March.
Behold the winning costume of the Philly race. Snazzy, no?
You get the feeling that Will is itching to crack the bike market Stateside, but he's going to do it the way he did it in the U.K. "We're just setting off in America, we're not in a rush, and we're not pushing it. We want to let nature take its course and focus on delivering a good bike."
Brompton recently hired its first U.S. employee, a guy called Ed who lives in Portland, the home of crazy biking antics. Most of the firm's business is done on the East and West coasts, but Will claims that Brompton isn't just interested in shifting units. "When you sell a bike to a customer, you start a relationship with them, and you want to grow it from there. For me, the U.S. has got so much potential because it's crying out for the ability to get around cities and keep fit and feel good. There's a real underground movement going on and it's beginning to develop momentum."