Riding into the unknown: the extraordinary growth of Brompton Bicycle

We visited the Brompton Bicycle factory to witness the building of a global brand

“Have you ever ridden a Brompton?” Will Butler-Adams asks.

“Well once. Around the courtyard of a pub,” I admit.

“That’s not a proper test. Come on. Let’s get you on one. This one’ll do. Let’s go.”

In theory I was at Brompton Bicycle to quiz Butler-Adams, the managing director, about the future growth of the company and his recent win at our London Loves Excellence Awards. But within minutes of arriving, the energetic boss had bounded down from his office, introduced me to one of the staff whose birthday it was, shown me his electric car (“I’m experimenting with this at the moment”), and put me on a folding bike.

As a keen cyclist with a daily commute of 12 miles, I am no stranger to the hordes of cyclists in London who use Bromptons to whizz about. I’m regularly jealous of them when I see them fold-up their steeds, pick them up and step into their offices or train carriages without further ado.

When I first encountered the long limbs and titchy wheels of a Brompton bike several years ago, I thought they looked too eccentric to gain mass appeal. Never has a bicycle so closely resembled a pair of spectacles. Sure, a few shed-dwelling oddballs might enjoy geeking out over them, I imagined, but not the general public.

Well, who’s laughing now?

 

The growth of Brompton Bicycle: from £2m to £30m in six years

Since Brompton Bicycle’s original designer Andrew Ritchie re-designed the folding bicycle in the 1970s, the company he founded has become a world-famous brand, exporting to an impressive 44 countries.

This is thanks, in no small part, to Butler-Adams.

Since joining in March 2008, the company has grown from employing 24 people to about 230, and he’s taken turnover from £2m when he joined to over £30m today.

And as I swung my leg over the saddle, I could instantly tell why the bike inspires such devotion. It is a fantastic ride. I whooshed around the car park and onto the road. Despite the small wheels, the bikes are fast, comfortable and highly responsive.

But Brompton’s core issue for growth is getting people to try their bikes. People are not naturally drawn to folding bikes. The Brompton design is winning people over with the sheer quality of its design and build – not necessarily because it is a looker. That said, once you get your eye in, the natty colours and limitless combinations of components do become an increasingly appealing prospect. Particularly once you’ve seen the factory floor.

Where the magic happens

After dismounting and folding up my bike, I was handed a pair of steel toe-capped shoes, and given a personal tour of the factory by Butler-Adams.

He enthused over every aspect of the factory from the staff to the custom-made machinery. I was introduced to welders, tyre specialists, the production-line workers, the design team and the marketing team.

At one point he picked up a tube that had some apparently below-par welding on a join. It looked fine to me, but Butler-Adams is a perfectionist. He showed the example to a line manager, who was instructed to follow it up with the welder in question.

Every weld has the initials of the welder who made the join, making accountability an easy task.

The large output the factory maintains is managed tightly. Large screens around the production line indicate how many bikes the team is finishing per hour and whether they’re on target or not.

Each individual bicycle is different, and each order appears on a small screen at each work station. It tells the mechanic what colour parts to use, which components, and which extras are required.

Promoting a personal and individual experience is an integral part of the brand’s offering.

Eventually, Butler-Adams says, when a bike is about to hit the production line, the person who ordered it, wherever they are in the world, will receive an email with a link to a live video feed enabling them to watch the construction of their own bike.

Brompton Bike Frames

The factory’s full of alluring bits of tubing like this.

Fans across the globe

And the bikes have gained hordes of followers across the globe. Almost 80% of the bikes made in the west London factory are exported overseas. 

“In the very early days, [the founder] Andrew found these people wanting to buy his bike from abroad a bit of a distraction. He wasn’t that interested in them,” Butler-Adams says.

“But if you take export as fun, if you take it as ‘let’s have a holiday at the same time and go and have a cool time exploring a city and maybe we can find some fun people who will look after our product and our customers’, then you’ve got nothing to lose. In the UK we’re a bit afraid of just giving it a go.”

Embracing change, creating innovation

‘Give it a go’ could be the watchword for Brompton. This desire to embrace opportunities, use technology and bring the brand to a global market has already made the Brompton bicycle attain cult status.  This is seen with the growth of events like the annual Brompton World Championship, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. This is a very different bike race. Competitors must wear ties and blazers (strictly no lycra allowed), and upon the starting gun, run to unfold their bikes before mounting them and pedalling off.

Brompton World Championship

Stylish cyclists at the Brompton World Championship. Photo via madegood.bikes

Despite the brand’s booming popularity, Butler-Adams doesn’t necessarily want to keep things the same. “What you need to have in a business is permanent disorder. Permanent change, permanent new ideas, permanent questioning.

“As people, we like to have order,” he says. “But that doesn’t create change. That doesn’t stretch the business. So this business is always changing. If we are going to be a hundred-million-pound business or a billion-pound business, then we’ve got to keep on coming up with new ideas and coming up with new ways to approach problems and solve problems.”

The only problem I have realised since my visit is working out how I can justify buying a shiny new bike.

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