Brompton – Wheels of Freedom
A Brompton bike ticks all the boxes – practical, light and durable, it promotes sustainability and environmentally-friendly movement while keeping the body fit and the soul happy.
The iconic bike was invented by young engineer Andrew Ritchie in 1975, but it took his invention ten years to be recognised and valued for its benefits for (not only) urban life; in 1987, he was persuaded to exhibit at the Cyclex Bike Show at Olympia, London, the Brompton folding bike won the coveted Best Product Award.
From then on, the business developed slowly but steadily. The launch of the Brompton Superlight model in 2005, engineered with a lightweight titanium rear frame and forks, represented an evolutionary step for both the bicycle and the company. Shortly afterwards, Will Butler-Adams, one of the lead engineers on the project, took over the role of Chief Executive Officer.
“We make a little bicycle that makes life a little bit happier,” he summarises the core business. “The bike folds and unfolds which is handy, particularly for urban living – it fits into small flats and it’s great for commuting – you can ride it to work and stack it under your desk. And if you don’t feel like riding, you can fold it up and just take a taxi or jump on a bus. It really makes urban living a bit more joyful.”
The Right Balance
The idea of a foldable bike seems simple, but Will explains that the execution is quite tricky. To make something fold and unfold a countless number of times smoothly and easily, while ensuring light weight and structural robustness at the same time, requires serious engineering.
“Getting that balance right and producing something that lasts a long time is what is special about a Brompton bike. Even though the idea as such is simple, the bikes consist of 1,200 parts and we have 380 people in our London factory carefully assessing the design, material, every manufacturing aspect and ensuring quality control and testing. It’s the detail that counts and where the value is added.”
Will, who has spent two decades in the company and played a major role in its growth, reflects that witnessing the development of the business has been very rewarding: “When I started, there were 40 people turning over £2 million. Now the company has 800 employees and a turnover of £100 million. The steady growth of around 20% a year for the past 20 years is a reflection of all the effort that we have put in – unique machinery, tooling, staffing, training and logistics.”
He points out that the attitude of urban dwellers towards the movement within the city has changed over the last decade, and this change has been further accentuated by the global pandemic. “For many, it is becoming clear that urban living with the dominance of cars is no longer viable. Cycling is one of the most efficient methods of transport in a city, good for the body and soul while generating no pollution.”
The growing sales of Brompton bikes on a global scale show that this belief is shared by an increasing number of people – today, the bikes are available in nearly 50 countries, and the universal appeal of the bikes makes them an ideal export product: 75% of Brompton’s output is sold in foreign markets, the majority is going to Europe and Asia, followed by North America.
In order to support this continued growth, there has been a need to consolidate and expand Brompton’s logistics international footprint in key markets. The main operational focus has been on expanding warehousing, air, ocean and road freight capabilities to better meet unprecedented demand. Over the past 6 months Brompton has worked on specific tailored solutions in partnership with DSV & Flexport on a non-exclusive basis, to develop a customer centric and cost-effective logistics network, building the foundations for process and operational excellence, to meet our growing international demand in the most sustainable way.
Made for All
As the largest bicycle manufacturer in the UK, the company is working hard to build a genuinely sustainable and accountable business. Will insists that the are no plans to outsource production to low-cost countries or even outside London, where it all started – this is where it was first designed and made and where the company staff are using their bikes every day.
The product offering is kept relatively simple. The Brompton range of folding bikes comprises of five key product lines: A Line, C Line, Electric C Line, P Line and T Line. The specifications are designed to meet the needs of different riders. The most popular continues to be the C Line – the classic all-steel original design with the 3-part fold, handmade in the London factory since 1975, offered in the widest possible range of colours. For demanding customers, the company has entirely re-engineered the ultra-light titanium frame (T Line) that weighs 37% less than the original all-steel equivalent and is just as strong.
The portfolio also includes an electric bike that offers all the benefits of a Brompton boosted with smart electric technology. “We are not targeting the hardcore cycling population but trying to persuade the general public that cycling is a joy. Only about 3% of the UK population uses a bike as a mode of transport regularly. But 98% of the UK population knows how to ride a bike,” Will points out.
“We are not trying to preach to the converted minority. Our focus is the majority who know how to ride a bike but are not doing so, and the electric bike is the ideal solution for some customers who would not consider cycling for a variety of reasons.”
Over the last few years, the company has experienced record growth under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, from Brexit to the global pandemic. Great leadership and solid business partnerships have been some of the aspects that have kept the business not only afloat but flourishing.
“We never stopped making bikes for a single day within lockdown, and I was in the company every single day. In a crisis, you need to have leadership. You need honesty and communication; to use your experience and your team’s experience to do what is right for the business, the staff and the customers. We also have great relationships with our suppliers and our suppliers have been amazing during the difficult times, enabling us to grow very fast.”
Given the impressive performance during this challenging time, what’s in the pipeline for the future?
“Well, we’re turning over £100 million. We’ve grown at 20% a year for 20 years. To sustain that rate of development for the next 20 years will suffice. It’s important to be just sensible. To build solid foundations, make a solid product, look after your customer and your staff over the long term.”
Will affirms that the business is driven by a team of people who genuinely believe in what they are doing, contributing to society and the environment. “I think the old days when all businesses cared about was making shareholders lots of money have gone. You need to genuinely start with the customer, your staff and the environment. And if you do that, guess what? Your shareholders will see the value.”