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Welcome to the fold: behind the scenes at Brompton

In-depth
30 Mar 2020
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It may not be a road bike, but the Brompton is clever, it’s made in Britain and one day it might just change the world

Words Joseph Delves Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

James Dyson might have made your vacuum cleaner suck a bit harder, but Andrew Ritchie is the UK’s greatest designer. He created arguably the greatest innovation in cycling since the safety bicycle itself: the Brompton.

In just 10 seconds the Brompton bicycle can be folded down to something the size of a suitcase, making it small and neat enough to travel with you on even the most crowded public transport networks. Store it at home and it will take up minimal space; if you don’t fancy leaving your bike at the mercy of thieves on the street it will sit happily under an office desk or pub table.

Yet unfurled, it rides surprisingly like a normal bicycle. It is almost like having a magic carpet you keep in your pocket – which, Ritchie says, is just how he intended it.

Unfolding ambitions

The idea that would eventually become the Brompton bicycle first twinkled into life in 1975. Ritchie had graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in engineering but ended up in computer programming before drifting into landscape gardening.

However, Ritchie’s investment banker father, who thought it was high time his son pulled his finger out, put him onto folding bike maker Bickerton, which had approached the elder Ritchie looking for investment.

The green-fingered engineer wasn’t much impressed with Bickerton’s notoriously wobbly folding bike, but the core idea excited the younger Ritchie enough to get him sketching designs for something better.

After convincing a number of friends to part with £100, Ritchie was soon constructing a prototype in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in London’s South Kensington.

Like Frankenstein, Ritchie ended up horrified by the creature he’d created, and banished it to the nearest skip. However, its more polished sibling soon accompanied Ritchie to the Raleigh factory in Nottingham, where he hoped to convince the company to license the design. Raleigh’s letter declining to take up the offer now hangs proudly by the door of Brompton’s West London factory.

An early Brompton

 

The bike Ritchie had taken to show Raleigh used three hinge points and could stand up by itself once folded. It had three internal gears, and when folded its drivetrain was sandwiched within the collapsed package to avoid it fouling the owner’s clothing.

Despite what Raleigh might have thought, it was, and still is, the best folding bike designs ever made. However, Ritchie had never intended to become a bikemaker. Unable to sell the design, he was now forced to either start producing the bike himself or consign the project to the scrapheap.

Not ready to give up, Ritchie reluctantly took on the services of a brazer to make 50 bikes, the majority of which had been sold up front. The success of this first batch helped raise £8,000 from shareholders, which Ritchie used to produce 500 more over the next two years. Brompton appeared to be in business.

Unfortunately, on returning to the Italian firm he’d bought the bike’s original hinges from, he discovered it had no intention of creating more. Without the funds to commission the parts he needed, Brompton hit a dead end. It would prove to be an instructive lesson.

It was another British inventor, Julian Vereker, creator of Naim Audio, who helped Brompton back into business. Vereker had been sailing around Europe with an early Brompton stashed aboard his yacht.

On hearing of Ritchie’s plight he loaned him £40,000, helping him secure a railway arch in Brentford, west London, along with the equipment and staff to start building at scale. That was 1987.

Fast forward to 2020 and Brompton now makes 50,000 bikes a year at its nearby site in Greenford. With the firm having grown to become the largest bicycle manufacturer in Britain, Ritchie remains a significant shareholder and technical director but has since stepped back from the company, having described the experience of nursing the Brompton into existence as leaving him unmarriable and with no time for gardening.

Current CEO Will Butler-Adams

 

Building a business

When Cyclist visits Brompton’s London facility, the current CEO, Will Butler-Adams, describes Ritchie’s near-monomaniacal obsessiveness with a mixture of awe and horror.

‘Andrew is a genius, and the reason he’s a genius and we have this bike is because he is obsessed with detail. It’s A Beautiful Mind stuff, and we have thousands of drawings he’s done of every spring and every screw.’

Butler-Adams first met Ritchie in 2001 at the age of 28, and by 2006 was running most of Brompton’s business side. In his opinion, what made Ritchie a great designer also made him ill-suited to running a company.

‘Andrew is interested in systems and engineering detail. I’ve worked with him for so long, and although I’m extremely fond of him that doesn’t mean we always agree.’

In Butler-Adams's opinion, Ritchie’s desire to remain on top of every detail made the Brompton a profoundly great bike – but threatened to stifle the company’s expansion.

Ritchie, who looks pleasingly like what you’d expect an inventor to look like, has acknowledged that he perhaps lacks the buccaneering personality necessary to manage a growing business. And at the time Butler-Adams became involved in the company, Brompton was growing fast.

‘I told him, “Look, this bike you’ve designed, I want to commit to it, but I can’t do that if you own the company, because you’re eccentric. And I need to do things with this business that you won’t allow me to.”

‘I could have taken over, but if he had a majority stake and I did anything that he didn’t like he could say, “Well, I own this company and you can’t do that.” Which he would have.’

So in 2008 Butler-Adams raised the money from friends and individuals to buy most of Ritchie’s shares. Despite this, Ritchie retains the largest interest, with around a 20% stake, Butler-Adams controls 10%, while staff ownership has increased to around 20%.

Since Butler-Adams got hold of the business side, Brompton has expanded from around 50 employees to more than 300, while turnover has grown from £2 million to more than £30 million.

Having initially struggled to find a role between the shop floor and boardroom, as technical director Ritchie, now 73, still comes in for regular meetings with the design team, where, in Butler-Adams's estimation, he typically ‘tears their work to shreds’.

 

Means of production

The reason all of this is relevant is it informs how the business is run. Free from venture capital, Brompton can invest for the long term. It’s the polar opposite of what has happened to the rest of the UK’s cycling industry.

At its height, Britain produced more bikes than any other country, with Raleigh alone employing 10,000 workers and making two million units every year. Now Brompton is by far the largest, despite producing only 50,000.

‘For a long time the bike industry has been a fashion industry,’ says Butler-Adams. ‘No one has invested in infrastructure. Bikes are made in one place, then import duty changes, and so they’re made somewhere else. No one is thinking long-term. Instead of going down that road, as a company we’ve invested in manufacturing to make it efficient, which translates to value for the consumer.’

Today Brompton’s bikes start at around £745, which is not cheap but represents a bargain considering how much work goes into one, or when compared to the cost of an annual railcard.

‘If we can make bikes, not just in the UK but in London, then for f***’s sake, anyone can make anything in the UK,’ says Butler-Adams. However, to do this in a commoditised marketplace, while also looking after your staff, you need to be smart. To achieve this Brompton has developed a business model and production process that’s every bit as neat as the bike itself.

A lot of this begins with an investment in staff. Almost all brazers, of which the firm employs 37, arrive without prior experience. Starting with three months of training, they are paid at London living wage. From there they can move up the grades, and competition between staff is fierce, with those working on the assembly line often waiting for roles wielding a torch.

Work starts early at 7am and finishes at either 4pm or 6.30pm depending on the day. However, the majority of staff work a four-day week, which has cut absences. Breakfast is provided onsite, and although the taxman stopped the company giving free bikes to employees, they’re still available at a hugely discounted rate.

As a result most of the staff ride to work, and when the factory recently moved five miles from Kew Bridge to Greenford, only one member of staff decided they couldn’t stomach the extra commute.

With most components being specific to the bike, almost every job that adds value is done in-house, from cutting and forming the frame tubes to lacing the wheels.

There are 14 separate stages to building the frame, carried out across more than 40 brazer stations. At each workstation, the bike gains a stamped pair of initials so any work can be traced back to its creator. From here it can move straight through treatment and painting, then onto the final assembly line. Each day the firm sends out around 300 complete bikes.

 

Bring the power

The man in charge of ensuring each finished bike meets Brompton’s high standards is chief design and engineering officer Will Carleysmith.

‘Andrew was never given a wedge of cash – he grew the company, building the tools with his profits,’ Carleysmith says. ‘The upshot is we have a huge amount of control over our destiny.’

This is reflected in a product which is a continuous evolution of a single original design: ‘We’re not interested in fashion, we’re interested in solving a problem. Andrew got it pretty right with the original folded package, and we’re probably not going to mess with that. But we’ve evolved a lot below the surface in ways people haven’t seen.’

It would be easy to look at the Brompton’s silhouette and think it hasn’t changed a bit. In reality, modern Bromptons are now several times stronger than early models. Part of this is down to the steel chassis.

‘Steel allows us to make something stiff and strong without bulk,’ says Carleysmith. ‘Its fatigue life means we can create something that won’t just last four or five years, but for 10 years plus.’

Other recent introductions, such as lightweight titanium parts or the electric motor, also have a clear purpose and benefit. The latter of these has been almost 13 years in the making.

‘Most of the bike industry is ordering off the shelf. You call up Bosch, get a motor and you’ve got yourself an e-bike,’ says Carleysmith. Instead, Brompton has tended to create its own parts, from brake levers down to inner tubes.

‘The first four or five years of the electrification project were dead ends. We could see the way the market was going, but struggled to take advantage of it. Eventually, it caught up with us. It was hard to convince big tech companies that producing motors for our little bike was a viable business idea.’

Now working with Formula 1 constructor Williams, the collaboration should allow the electric Brompton to hold to one of the company’s key tenets.

‘We have a horror of obsolescence – the idea that a product only lasts a few years before you need to buy the next one,’ says Carleysmith. Key to this is controlling all of its spare parts, of which the company holds large stocks, along with building a knowledge base among its suppliers to allow them to properly manage servicing.

A quick peruse of the bikes travelling down any of London’s Quietway routes reveals just how successful this has been at keeping the brand’s older bikes on the road.

 

Shaping the future

As incongruous as it is to find such an advanced production line inside of Zone 4, Butler-Adams is adamant London remains the place to be.

‘Our customers like the fact the bike is made in Britain, but Britain is a big place,’ he says. ‘We could have gone somewhere where we’d have been paid to set up. But that place would have been an industrial estate in the arse-end of nowhere. For many products that would have been fine. But if you’re designing a bike and you make it in the middle of nowhere, you’re not going to need a Brompton to get to work.’

In the short term, this might save on rent and staff costs, but in a few years you would have a workforce that doesn’t use the thing they make.

‘Part of the reason the Brompton is half-decent is that we’re using it the whole time. And if you’re using something continuously, you’re forever dissatisfied. London matters to Brompton because it informs innovation. We’re not here for nostalgia, or because it appeals to the Union Jack brigade. We’re here because it genuinely impacts the design of the bike.’

Yet, just as being in the capital informs the Brompton’s design, so in small but important ways the existence of the Brompton is changing the city itself.

‘Most of the world’s population lives in cities, but cities haven’t been designed around people,’ says Butler-Adams. ‘Poor mental health, poor air quality, obesity, these are all problems that affect cities worst. That’s got to be wrong.

‘We want to make products that are sufficiently useful that they change that culture. We know it’s possible because we’ve already changed the culture of London, even if just a little. And if we can do it in London, we can do it in other cities.’

Now a ubiquitous sight on the capital’s streets, the average age of Brompton users has dropped significantly, while outside the UK the brand is expanding too, with three-quarters of its bikes now going overseas.

Given the success Brompton has gained by focussing on one bike, you might expect the firm to continue in this vein. But there are plans for a second Brompton – a low-cost machine that could be produced on a huge scale and might help more people make more journeys by bike.

‘The Brompton bike is amazing, but it’s not enough to change the world,’ says Butler-Adams. ‘We can’t scale it to a multinational level. Our mission is to change how people live in cities all over the world, and a handmade bike is not the product to do that.

‘It is, however, the product that can get us there. The reason we haven’t made another bike is that we haven’t got the first one completely right yet. We’ve been evolving, learning, optimising our manufacturing processes and building the capability to take that next step.’

Brompton, the man at the helm promises, is only just getting started.