In conversation with the boss of the UK's largest bicycle manufacturer

Brompton boss: ‘UK manufacturing is in its best place since the 70s’

“Other Bugger’s Efforts" – that’s what OBE stands for, according to Brompton Bicycles’ MD Will Butler-Adams. BikeBiz quizzes the latest bike trader to be awarded the accolade for an in-depth interview…

On becoming an OBE
I am excited and my daughters are very excited at the prospect of going to Buckingham Palace and meeting a member of the royal family – it should be fun.

It’s an endorsement of the Brompton team. OBE stands for ‘Other Bugger’s Efforts’. We posted that earlier on the staff board so that everyone understands this is a team pat on the back. They did all the hard work and I just charged in to take all the glory!

On UK manufacturing
It’s in the best place it has been since the mid to late ‘70s. For the first time there is a cross party agreement, including any other party you care to imagine, that making and exporting is good news for UK PLC, both in terms of balancing the books and giving diverse job opportunities to our young children. Not everyone wants to sit at a computer. Some people are more artistic and want to create things. And I think it is very exciting.

We have a lot to thank Jaguar Land Rover for in terms of this shift. Anyone in government knows how much tax JLR are paying – it is contributing significant amounts to the government coffers.

The problem we have though, is the resurgence of JLR has occurred over the last six to eight years, and it takes us 15 years or so to create the next generation of engineers. Design engineers, production engineers…so we have this lag between this resurgence of manufacturing and the talent being available. Combined with that the fact that the government is being very sensitive about bringing in talent means that it is difficult to go and get talent from somewhere else. I think that is a threat to continue the growth of the manufacturing sector. It does worry me.

On engineering’s poor image and recruiting women
It worries me that the general population seems to misunderstand the word engineer.

I am trustee of a charity called Inspiring the Future. We go into schools. We have 20,000 volunteers and bring people from the world of work into schools to explain to them why they are doing all this studying and why it is worth knowing differential equations and why it is relevant to the real world of work.

There is a misunderstanding of what the field of engineering is. I still think too often parents influence the careers of children, where children say they want to go into engineering but they saw an engineer who fixed the boiler or sorted out their tyre. That’s perfectly fine, but I am afraid he is not an engineer, he is a mechanic. It’s not doing the industry a great deal of justice and I think there is more work the government can do. There’s nothing to try to highlight what a career in engineering is.

I do think we need more engineers and in particular more female engineers. We continue to struggle to recruit women. Half our market are women but most of the bikes are designed by men. We now have two female design engineers but they have been hard to come by.

If you are in Taiwan and visit bike companies they are full of women, but not in the UK. It seems a “man’s job”, but actually it is highly artistic, exciting and you need a real sense of user interface and how it is going to fit into people’s lives. Those are absolutely the kind of skills that women would enjoy using, but this perception that it is a boiler suit and a big fat monkey wrench and a bunch of grease guns – that’s still the predominant understanding that is holding people back from knowing what a laugh it is.

I mean, I make bikes for a living for God’s sake! It’s such fun. If we want to try something we just print it off a computer and play with it, you know – it’s a job! People don’t always see that fun.

On the USA
We’ve just opened an office in New York, opened by a couple of our long-standing staff members – no pressure, but they better kick arse! It is exciting. We took a lease on a cool office with maintenance space in Brooklyn space just near the bridge.

Who would have thought it eight years ago [a surge in cycling in New York]. Just try and take the bike lanes away now. The whole of Manhattan would be in uproar. They are loving it. But of course they are loving it, it’s a no brainer. The whole thing is as flat as a pancake – you can wizz up from 12th Street to 4th Street in two seconds flat. It is a no brainer. It is great and just the tip of the iceberg. And it is happening all over America. It’s an exciting time and it has gone beyond the fact that oil is expensive. So actually the fact that the oil price has gone down and there is fracking going on hasn’t affected that momentum there.

I think the greatest benefit of cycling is to your wellbeing. Of course you get there quicker and all that other stuff but you when you shove everyone in the city we all get a bit claustrophobic. So the simple pleasure of getting on a bike – whatever bike – is a lost simple pleasure that makes living in cities more enjoyable. We’ll have happier people in cities if we get more people into it.

On bike colours
I try to get involved in all areas of the business – that’s my job. Unfortunately as the company gets bigger my engagement with every part of the business is less. I am an engineer by background and it frustrates me I don’t do as much engineering as I’d like but I do get heavily involved in the engineering team, finance team, sales and marketing. When I am talking finance the design team don’t want to get involved and when I’m talking marketing the finance team don’t want to get involved but let me tell you when we talk about colour everybody believes they are an expert. The only thing that I do not get involved in at all is colour because every other person has a strong opinion. All that time cooing over colours… I think we have some really great colours – I’m not trying to be negative – I wouldn’t have chosen them because I am not cool and trendy enough. The bikes look great – they are fun and anyone who rides a bike it makes them smile – it is one of those simple things in life. It just makes you happy. If you can have a bit of fun with colours then all the better. Of course in an ideal world we wouldn’t get rid of old colours we’d just put more on top, but there is a limit to how much we can manage at any one time. We are pretty maxed out at about 16.

On Brompton accessories
It comes back to fun. I definitely think we need to have more fun with accessories. We have been doing some pootling around with some little wallets over Christmas. We are working with British manufacturers which we love. But what we won’t do is stick our logo on anything we can lay our hands on. We want things that are British made, fun and a bit clever. That makes us amused. To stick a logo on any old thing isn’t fun or clever so isn’t something we will do.

From running our own store we’ve realised there is a real market for it. People come back to the store but they’re not coming for another Brompton – the one they bought is going to last them another 15 years. They probably don’t need another helmet, they might need some more luggage – but to have stuff in there for Brompton fans – why not? Just make sure it is nice. You will see things come along bit by bit.

On Brompton reaching beyond London
London is still our largest market but we are definitely seeing growth in some of the regional hubs. Oxford is doing well, so is Manchester, Birmingham, York, Edinburgh and arguably – this is a bit contentious – Brompton bike hire is having an impact. Our bike hire scheme has the potential to accelerate interest in our products in new territories. It allows many people to see the Brompton working day after day. Many people are put off by the price. It is a jump because they see the bike as a recreational tool, but we’re an every day mode of transport. Still it is a big jump. With the hubs you can allow someone for £2.50 a day to get one for a week and find out if it is worth it. Then they can be confident in it and justify the investment. And a Brompton is an investment. It will last five, ten 15 years. It is a bloody good investment.

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