Riding high on innovation and tradition with Brompton’s CEO

Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bikes, has just unfolded his fold-up cycle – which he rode to the QuickBooks Connect event in London, where he was speaking earlier – and is enthusiastically giving me a demonstration of how easy it is to fold up and assemble. Moments before, I had confessed to him that I wasn’t a cyclist, let alone owned a Brompton – prompting him to immediately show me the benefits of commuting in London under one’s own steam.

Indeed, Butler-Adams seems to apply the idea of self-propulsion when it comes to running his revolutionary bike company, too. “You’ve got to believe in what you are doing,” he passionately exclaims. “If what you are doing is not true to you and you do not have a belief in it, it’s bullshit. You can’t live a lie. You can do it for so long, but it wears you out. It is so much easier to care about what you are doing.”

Brompton is certainly something of a textbook SME success story. From small beginnings in a South Kensington flat opposite Brompton Oratory, where the Brompton was originally designed in 1975 by Andrew Ritchie, the company is now the UK’s largest bike manufacturer, making more than 45,000 bikes per year.

The secret behind the firm’s success, Butler-Adams tells me, is because it doesn’t lose sight of what it actually does. “We are obsessed with the product,” he says. “The difference between a business that turns over £200,000 and a business that turns over £600,000 isn’t Brexit or the market it is basically finding good people, focusing on the product, keeping to the things you know and being really obsessed with them.”

Butler-Adams thinks SMEs have an advantage because they have the freedom to innovate without the slow-moving bureaucracy that larger companies face. “When companies get big they have people that do not love the product, they are just paid to do the job,” he says. “When you are little you love it. It might be something random to someone else, but you love it.  Focus on the love because that will give you the competitive edge, because these big corporates they have lost that ownership.”

He believes the best way to grow an SME is through old-fashioned word of mouth: the idea that if customers like what they buy and get a good service they’ll end up promoting the brand themselves. And with Twitter and Facebook, the feedback is instantaneous – and instantly damaging if they do not like something.

“We were lucky the customers were quite enthusiastic and used to send us letters,” says Butler-Adams. “If we can look after our customers, if the bike does its job and our customers are happy, they tell friends and we will grow a little bit more the next year. In the early days it was all about our customers.

“We had all sorts of people telling us what we were doing was wrong, and that we weren’t doing it the right way, but our customers used [the bike] and liked it and that was enough for us. We did not bother with the other stuff. We just focused on our product and worried about our customers. Our customers told other people and they told other people and it started to grow.

Butler-Adams doesn’t have a lot of time for the idea of putting branding ahead of the product it’s meant to sell. “People talk about a brand and get these agencies in and they fiddle around with logos,” he says. “That is not a brand – that is naff rubbish. We make a product that works. A good product that you still use, it adds value. If someone has a product after five years and they are still using it, then it has added some value.” Indeed, any branding or social media the company does get involved in is refreshingly off the cuff. “When we communicate we do not communicate our stuff, we communicate our customers having a laugh with their stuff,” he says. “We take their cool stuff and tell a load of other people there is a mad Brompton person doing this cool stuff in Canada. It is fairly basic and reasonably honest.”

The preoccupation with service and product even extends to encouraging dealers not to sell Brompton bikes to people they think won’t appreciate them. “We spend a lot of time teaching our dealers who not to sell the bike to,” Butler-Adams says. “Someone who has lots of space in their home doesn’t need a Brompton. If you are living in the countryside and want to go cycling on the weekend from your house then you don’t need one.

“If you give the product to the wrong person they will never love it, because it is the wrong product for them. We are persuaded to buy so much rubbish that half of it does not meet expectations and the other half we never needed in the first place, so to find something you actually use and you care about… there are not many products that you really love.”

For all the focus on quality and tradition, innovation is a big part of what Brompton does too – from the original Brompton bike to the firm’s recent work in partnership with Formula One racing team Williams to develop an electric drive system for it. The electric Bromptons are not on the road yet, but should be able to help cyclists power up hills, with the speed capped at 15 miles per hour.

In Butler-Adams view, being comfortable in business usually equates to complacency. “If you are comfortable your business is in trouble. You need to be perpetually anxious and worried. You need to be wanting the business to be better and not be satisfied with what you have got. We have come along way, but we have not even started. I have been here 15 years but we have hardly even started. That perpetual wanting to get better to take risks is just the nature of the beast.”

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: SMEs.


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