Will Butler-Adams of Brompton: “People have no idea what goes into a product. It is not a good thing’
Will Butler-Adams arrives at Brompton Bicycle headquarters in Greenford, west London, on a navy Brompton bike in a branded black polo shirt (also worn by factory workers), lace-up boots and a light pink shorts (a personal touch) and greet a colleague. “Tip top, buddy, tip top.”
After folding up his bike and parking it in reception alongside dozens of others, Brompton’s general manager takes me past a ping-pong table and into the factory.
Butler-Adams takes a frame. The brazing – joining two pieces of steel with silicon bronze – was done by an apprentice who nervously awaits the 48-year-old CEO’s verdict. This is only the second time she has accomplished this task. “I’m really impressed,” he says before pointing out tiny flaws. “There are three little bubbles in it. Technically perfectly fine, but aesthetically not so pleasing.
The art of soldering is a subject that occupies an entire chapter in his new book, The Brompton: Engineering for Change (which he points out is co-authored with Dan Davies, a journalist). “This method causes less thermal damage to the tubes and makes them stronger than when welding,” he writes. It is also lighter.
The engineering details are not obvious to a general reader, but he wants to emphasize the importance of manufacturing. “It’s not a dark satanic mill.” We stop at a workspace where they have taken delivery of new bike bells. “Yes. Hallelujah!” The employee rings. “That little bell is awesome!”
The book tells the story of the company: from the first designs of the folding bike in 1975 by the founder and engineer Andrew Ritchie, the creation of Brompton, and the arrival in 2002 of Butler-Adams (then a young engineer fresh out of British chemical group ICI) who, six years later, led a management buyout and became CEO. Along the way, he describes the challenges and virtues of design, as well as management issues such as the evolution of workers’ earnings from piecework to skill-based pay. In addition to dealing with investors and suppliers. Although having spoken I realize that the last two years of navigating Brexit, lockdowns and supply chains – while rapidly increasing the workforce from 432 staff to almost 800 – could probably fill a book on their own.
He hopes readers “care more about the things we buy. . . People have no idea what goes into a product. It is not a good thing. We have a climate crisis. We forget how powerful the consumer is. If the consumer. . . maybe buy a little less, they think a little more, it will be good for planet earth. It’s also a selling point: Brompton bikes aren’t cheap (£850 to nearly £4,000) but they’re tough.
That the factories are hidden out of town, or abroad, is a frustration he compares to the slaughter of animals. “We eat meat. We see the fluffy sheep. And then suddenly we have this pink thing, and it’s called [lamb]. It is to depreciate our intelligence that we hide it.
Showcasing engineering, he hopes, will help attract “the best minds.” . . to solve the problems of the world, not to go to the City and to create reams of paper like lawyers”.
Another way to engage the public is at a new site which it hopes will open in 2027 in Ashford, Kent. Twice the size of Greenford, it will not only have a manufacturing facility, but also a museum and visitor center.
My tour is a repeated piece of staging. Past photos of visitors to the factory include the late Prince Philip and David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister. Brompton is now a British success story, but at first “the embassies were so pretentious”. He has made it his mission to advertise and network with politicians and businesses. “We had no money. You have to find ways to leverage awareness. For instance, obtain Prince William on a Brompton bike in Shanghai for a photo.
I had been told that this book described feuds with Ritchie, whom Butler-Adams replaced as general manager. The odd couple (Ritchie’s thoroughness and Butler-Adams’ determination to make the business commercial) is part of the mythology. The book seems rather plain.
“It’s not about vitriol,” Butler-Adams tells me later in a hidden corner of the open-plan office. Brompton exists, he says, because of Ritchie – “the genius [and] crazy. I had the job easy. Andrew struggled to get it off the ground. . . If you have a mad inventor, someone else has to take him over.
Has Ritchie read the book?
“He didn’t even see it. I dare not send it.
Ritchie is no longer a board member but has an engineering advisory role. In addition to work, they meet socially, most recently at dinner at Ritchie’s. “Delicious leftovers. . . It’s a complete legend. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a monstrous pain in the ass. and occasionally makes me drink. He would probably say the same of me. He thinks I’m not listening to him. I listen to it a lot. I don’t do everything he says. And it’s like parents and children.
Butler-Adams’ real father was in the family wine-trading business before the business was sold to Griersons, then part of the Forte group. Rugby school, he says, kept him on the right path of education. “If I hadn’t had this very privileged upbringing, I wouldn’t be here now. I found formal education completely boring, totally irrelevant.
After studying engineering, he went to ICI, where he learned, among other things, that it was easy to change projected profits to attract investors or managers. “If all the projects we did delivered what they said they were going to deliver, that thing would have been printing money.” This reinforced the need to understand worst-case scenarios. “When it goes all the way up, it’s a very precise thing that you can measure. Rather than wasting energy on over-exaggerated pros, if you want to innovate fast, protect the cons.” To that end, he created a ‘fuck fund’ in Brompton to develop ideas with money they can afford to lose.
Butler-Adams wants his staff to find him approachable. The Brompton t-shirt is essential. “If I’m in my ivory tower. . . and I’m wearing a suit and tie. . . I lose a lot [the feeling] we are in the same boat. . . People know what I earn. How many? “At the moment £210,000.”
The company pays London’s living wage, but skilled staff can expect so much more. About 80 percent of its workers are on a nine-day fortnight. Some compress 38 hours into a four-day week, others have flexible hours, helping to encourage more women to join the traditionally male workforce. By 2024, the company wants 40% of its staff to be female. Butler-Adams works almost every day, he says. As an early riser, he wakes up on vacation and sends emails long before his wife and three teenage daughters wake up.
Some modern workplace practices are puzzling. “You can’t touch anyone,” he said, patting me lightly on the shoulder.
The last few years have been extremely hard. , he said, taking his head in his hands for a moment. “Brexit, talk about filming[ing] yourself in the foot, but hey, let’s make it work.
During the first lockdown, his main concern was job losses. “I thought we were going to have a full five-year recession. It scared me.” Production lines continued to operate but were hit first by reduced demand and later by Omicron infections among staff. But sales swelled as customers were looking for alternatives to public transport and the business grew rapidly.Latest company accounts showed sales rose by a third to £76.1million during the year through March 2021, with pre-tax profits reaching £9.7m from £6m the previous year.
Will Butler-Adams on location
How do you resolve a labor dispute?
Speak honestly and on the whole common sense prevails.
How should a small business advertise?
Network, never say no to an invitation; breakfast, lunch, dinner to get your word out. Have an opinion, don’t be a shrinking violet and be passionate. If you believe in what you are doing, people will go out of their way to help you.
Should companies get involved in politics?
It’s not any company’s priority, but you can’t ignore it because politicians make decisions that affect our business, our customers, our staff and our suppliers.
The last business book you read?
65 Roses and a Trunki, written by an old friend, Rob Law. It reminds us that business is a means to an end, not a means to an end.
The best bike path?
Coast to coast – from Morecambe to Whitby. In two days you will learn and feel the rich diversity and history of the UK. It is glorious and good for the soul.
This year, he says, revenue is up but “profit is under pressure” due to “logistics [problems]. Then we have inflation, [it] just keep going. It hits us. It’s a little scary, but you’ll be fine.
The future is both electric and overseas. Earlier this year, Brompton released its latest electric folding bike with a lighter titanium frame.
In China, the product is a luxury for “movers, politicians, architects, lawyers. . . These will be the people who change the way you change urban design. In America, it “is growing rapidly from a very small base. The idea of having bike lanes in Manhattan was unthinkable ten years ago.
The pandemic has demonstrated the potential of cities with fewer cars and reinforced for Butler-Adams the company’s ultimate mission, which he writes in the book is “to deliver freedom to city dwellers and improve their lives.” .
He considers himself lucky to have “bumble[d] in this business just before the world began to awaken to the . . . climate emergency”. However, he cautions against grandiose political statements.
“Business is voted on [24/7]not every five years like politicians.