Will Butler-Adams: Chief Evangelist of Brompton Bicycle | Manufacturing sector
Osick Butler-Adams hops on a Brompton and rushes through industrial sheds at a brisk pace, almost as fast as he talks. The engineer, who was the British folding bike company’s managing director for 14 years after joining it 20 years ago, is excited about its new marketing, testing, spares and refurbishment facilities , which opened near its headquarters in Greenford, west London, last year.
Inside the rather drab gray sheds are an array of colorful bikes, some being ‘tortured’ in test tanks or patiently waiting to be fixed into a wall of cabins – the physical manifestation of the rapid expansion more brand excitement during the pandemic.
The number of Bromptons sold rose by a third to 93,000 in the year ending March, as city dwellers around the world turned to two-wheelers to stay healthy and avoid potential infection in crowded public transport. It came after a strong year in the previous 12 months when pre-tax profits soared 60% to £9.6m and the company paid out over £1m to its shareholders – who still include the founder, Andrew Ritchie, who designed the bike in his shed in 1975.
The group now employs 800 people worldwide, including 650 at its UK manufacturing base in Greenford, up from around 400 five years ago. Combined, they pump out 100,000 bikes a year from one shift – or around 600 a day – all overseen by AI technology that helps workers choose which frame to assemble next.
The spacious and airy facility is responsible for manufacturing 70% of the bike’s parts and their assembly. Brompton is one of only two commercial scale bicycle manufacturers in the UK, the other being Pashley.
With sales of most bikes set to fall in the UK this year as the pandemic leisure cycling boom reverses, Butler-Adams expects Brompton sales to continue to grow as the cities around the world are promoting active travel as a way to fight climate change, reduce costs for citizens and improve health. In preparation, the company is seeking planning permission for a new stilt factory in Ashford, Kent, with the ultimate goal of manufacturing 200,000 bikes a year.
Butler-Adams joined Brompton after a conversation with its then chairman on a bus persuaded him to put aside his MBA plans after working at ICI. He is so passionate about the need to encourage others to work towards solving real problems such as climate change that he has written a book, The Brompton: Engineering for Changeon his philosophy and the development of the folding bike.
They are not cheap. From £850 for a base model and up to £3,970 for an ultra-light titanium four-speed version, you’d expect such luxuries to be pushed aside in the midst of a recession likely and a cost of living crisis. But Butler-Adams insists its bikes remain affordable – similar to a car – because they can last for decades, save time and money and improve health.
“If it adds value to your life, it’s a good investment and it lasts 15 to 30 years. How many products can do this? It’s good value for money not because it’s cheap, but because it’s so good,” he says.
“[Elon Musk’s] SpaceX may be doing amazing things with rockets, but bicycles are by far the most efficient mode of transportation.
China is Brompton’s fastest growing market as the country returns to bikes in its cities, with Shanghai constructing new cycle lanes. “We are here to change the way people live in a city. If cycling isn’t relevant now, then when is? says Butler-Adams.
“You can see what is happening globally. Even in the United States, [which is used to] energy-intensive, they move and the younger generation does not get a driver’s license.
“Cities are faced with the need to change and put people and families at their heart. Think about how many cars are taking up space, how much that real estate is worth to people.
He says the popularity of electric scooters may well pave the way for young people to embrace cycling in ways their parents found more difficult. “From scooter to bicycle, you do 90% of the journey. Getting someone off the bus or the car is a much bigger step,” he says.
Still, the short term may seem like a daunting task for Brompton after some coasting sales and rising profits for a few years.
Costs have increased by around 10% in all areas – from steel to labor – and all of this cannot be passed on to customers, putting pressure on profit margins. Sales of its e-bikes are also rather slower than expected after hold-ups on key parts, like motors and batteries, at the height of the pandemic.
While e-bike sales have doubled to 12,000 since launch year in 2019, Butler-Adams admits they’ll likely account for less than 40% of sales, down from hopes of half, as the extra weight of the version battery-powered canceled Brompton’s USP – ease of transporting the bike on public transport.
Brompton has meanwhile invested £700,000 in robotics to try to make its UK manufacturing even more efficient and has invested more in research and innovation. For example, the company is developing super-light titanium bikes – of which only 2,500 will be made this year – in partnership with Sheffield-based specialist CW Fletcher. This has left the company indebted for the first time in 20 years, as interest rates rise.
Butler-Adams adds that Brexit has also been “overall negative” for Brompton, adding cost and bureaucracy and generally reducing efficiency. This year marks the first time that workers have not seen their wages rise in line with the cost of living, as Butler-Adams tries to avoid factoring in inflation.
The price of Brompton’s bikes is expected to rise around 5% in October, following a similar increase last year. Butler-Adams says the company is sharing the pain of rising costs with its customers.
But he sees Brompton’s emphasis on quality, producing an item that will last decades with a little love and tinkering, as playing on a general shift towards buying less but better products that will last.
Butler-Adams says, “We need to buy fewer products and we need them to be more efficient. Cycling is the way to go.