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Brompton has transformed the humble folding bike into one of Britain’s biggest success stories

Chris Hall
April 22, 2024
9 min

Few inventions fit so neatly the cliché of an idiosyncratic British product as the folding bicycle. The unusual proportions, with those 16-inch wheels and elongated handlebar and seat tubes, contribute to a quirky silhouette that’s a world away from the sleek racing bike. Say the name "Brompton", and to many the mental image conjured will be of a helmeted city gent, briefcase strapped to the front of the bike, suit jacket and tie flapping incongruously behind him as he rides. There’s something Wodehousian about the whole set-up, a certain comfortable quality – as unthreatening as country walks or cups of tea by the fire.

The first two minutes of my conversation with CEO Will Butler-Adams are enough to dispel all of that. Not that Butler-Adams isn’t charming and faultlessly polite – he is both – but he is also passionately, ardently frustrated at the state of the world. The company he has led for the last fifteen years is no cosy throwback of cottage engineering either: it’s an unsung success story, a model of innovative progress and steadfast commercial growth with a global presence. And its core business – that is, the business of getting people from A to B on two wheels that they can then pick up and take with them – is about much more than cycling. For Butler-Adams, it’s a contribution to addressing some of the most pressing issues facing the developed world today.

Brompton manufacture. Photograph © Jooney Woodward for QP Magazine UK

“The world has fucked itself up,” he declares bluntly. “Most of us live in cities which are pretty miserable places to live in, full of cars, and with poor air quality. It’s nearly comical what we’ve created, but actually, (I think) it’s tragic.” Citing the climate crisis, the UK’s health system crisis, and the sedentary lives we lead in the space of a few sentences, it’s clear that making bicycles, for Butler-Adams, equates to a fundamental societal mission.

“You don’t need flying cars or nano-tech,” he continues. “The humble bicycle has been around for 125 years, and it’s the most efficient mode of transport ever invented. Cycling five miles across a city at a speed of 10mph, which is faster than you’ll ever travel in a car, is a complete no-brainer. And it’s not just London. It’s Chengdu. It’s LA. It’s Manhattan. It’s every city in the world. It’s got to change.”

We tend to think of pioneering, ethically-minded companies with a manifesto for social change as existing exclusively in trendy offices in Shoreditch or Berlin, in purpose-built temples to modern design – not half a mile off the A40 in northwest London. We are also familiar with their tendency to burn brightly for a few years, then fizzle out as the angel investors’ funding gets used up. But Brompton has been around since 1975, when inventor Andrew Ritchie drew up the original design – his direct response to seeing an inferior effort at a folding bike – and over the past two decades, it has replaced its somewhat erratic early trajectory with an impressively consistent record of growth.

“In that time we’ve gone from just under £2m to £100m turnover. We haven’t raised capital, we’ve done that with our own profits, and we’ve achieved that because we’ve focussed on the product and customer service,” says Butler-Adams. “When I first started at Brompton a lot of my friends took the piss out of me – what was I doing fiddling around on a weird little bike. It was a tiny company going nowhere. And then ten years later it’s, ‘You’re so lucky!’ I think, ‘Wait a minute, you were telling me I was a nutter ten years ago.’"

The company has just sold its millionth bike, and boasts 1,600 points of sale in 47 counties around the world. It employs around 800 people, up from just 27 in 2008. Eighty per cent of the bikes made are exported; five years ago Butler-Adams took the decision to decentralise operations and establish satellite offices in China, Germany and the USA, which he says is bearing fruit. “China will overtake the UK in sales next year,” he says. “We used to make a bike and say, ‘does anybody want it?’ Now we’re making what the market wants.”

Butler-Adams, an engineer by training, seems to have both a solid business acumen and the kind of forthright openness that goes over better than any marketing campaign. He is also in no mood to be self-congratulatory over the company’s successes to date. “I’m surrounded by things we’re not doing well enough – it’s permanently sub-optimal. I have very little time for pats on the back.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Butler-Adams insists he isn’t a perfectionist – that role is occupied by company founder Andrew Ritchie, who since stepping back in 2008, remains present as a sort of guiding presence, genius-level guru and peripatetic curmudgeon (as well as majority shareholder). “His ability is extraordinary,” says Butler-Adams. “His engineering brain, his concept of design, it’s spectacular.” The financial results are their own verdict on Butler-Adams’ decision- making since he took the reins, but the pandemic presented the ultimate in once-in-a-generation scenarios. It was also Brompton’s biggest opportunity in years.

“When we got through the first lockdown, we decided as a team that we were going to go for it, take all our savings, invest the lot,” he explains. “Covid was tragic. But what happened in cities for the first time in fifty years – very nearly for the first time in living memory – was people realised what a city could be. It was safe to ride with your children. In cities in China it was the first time they’d seen the sky in 15 years because the pollution was so bad. That experience was seismic, and people want more of it.”

Brompton manufacture. Photograph © Jooney Woodward for QP Magazine UK

“Temporary cycle lanes were put in in abundance, and most have stayed and are not going back,” he continues. “In Paris they’ve taken 80,000 car parking spaces out and put in 650km of cycle lanes. This is a movement that has just been given a massive injection of perspective and determination. We couldn’t make enough bikes, the demand was off the charts.” Able to capture a new kind of customer during unprecedented times, Butler-Adams cites the good luck that Brompton make most of their parts in-house. “If someone, because of Covid, is nudged into buying a Brompton, we believe they’re going to think ‘I should have done this years ago.’”

It’s not uncommon to meet a CEO with fervent belief in his products. But Butler-Adams’ zeal is, you sense, genuine. He cares, and I feel surprised not to have seen his name alongside the likes of Chris Boardman, lobbying the powers that be for changes to transport policy.

“The problems are universal, they’re not political,” he responds. “It’s the same in Europe, China, wherever. But change is coming because people won’t put up with it. The situation is going to get worse – from a climate perspective, from a net migration perspective – and it won’t be politicians that solve it, it will be business. The consumer will not buy from organisations that are not contributing to solving that problem. The days of feathering the nest for the shareholders are completely over, in my humble opinion. And if they aren’t, I’ll be terribly disappointed.”

One behavioural change already visible on London’s streets is the sudden popularity of the e-bike, and naturally Brompton has its own electrified model. Thanks to the technology on board, it’s the most expensive bike Brompton produces, but according to Butler-Adams, it’s still a powerful tool for converting new cyclists. “There are people who are intimidated by the hill. They think ‘I’m not going to cycle five miles from one meeting to another, I’ll be dripping in sweat, that’s not for me’. If we can get them to have that confidence through e-bikes, that gets somebody cycling.” As to the price, Butler-Adams likens it to an iPhone – something that over time, we will come to see as an essential rather than a luxury because it offers such practical benefits.

The e-bike may be the most obvious example of how Brompton is moving with the times, but nearly half a century after the introduction of the very first design, what are the areas of innovation for the mechanical models? Is it about modernising the production line? Or is bicycle manufacture, a little like watchmaking, committed to a degree of manual expertise? Butler-Adams cites the introduction of Brompton’s first titanium-framed bike, an “awesome bit of kit” that has been six years in the making. “Titanium demands a completely different approach,” he explains. “Every dimension is different. But it’s recognisably a Brompton. Even the core Brompton is about three times as strong and about fifteen to twenty per cent lighter than the original. It’s all about the power of computers and material science, and about finite element analysis, which allows us to optimise and improve the stiffness, weight and performance of the bike.”

As for the factory itself, Butler-Adams describes it as “a complete hodgepodge”, and is characteristically unsentimental about the manufacturing process – something similar brands would likely rhapsodise and build their marketing around. “We have robots, we have co-bots, we have raspberry Pi units all over the factory, and we have stuff that is a hundred years old. We’re not interested in being a McLaren where everything is white and if it’s not a robot it’s not allowed in. But we don’t want to be Morgan Motor Company either, where if it’s not made of wood or has a guy hammering it for 500 hours, it’s not real. All we care about is form following function. If doing it by hand is the best way, we’ll do it by hand. If we find a way that delivers better performance and a better outcome for the end consumer, we’ll go with that. We’re not going to hold back the end product just so we can have a photograph of someone brazing metal tubes by hand.”

Unsurprisingly, Butler-Adams’ ambitions are soon going to transcend this industrial unit, and over the next decade he is aiming to relocate the business to a brownfield site in Ashford, Kent, where Brompton can “find somewhere that we can call home for the next 50 years. We’re a private company, we take a long term view, and we want to create somewhere that reflects our brand, because there’s only so much you can do with a metal box,” he says. It’s an energising vision – though there’s no doubt Will Butler-Adams can achieve quite a lot within a plain metal box.