Brompton have made a peculiar-looking folding bike one of the most fashionable — and practical — accessories for city dwellers around the world.
More than 150,000 of the bicycles have been sold in London, where Bromptons make up around one in five of the bikes on the road. Customers love their usability — folding them up to be stored in their apartments and workplaces, or to carry them on trains or in taxis. And owners of the bike have formed clubs similar to those enjoyed by devotees of prestigious brands of classic cars, especially in communities in Asia where a Brompton is seen as much as a status symbol as a means of transport.
Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams has been instrumental in building the brand into a powerhouse in the UK, where they are about to build a futuristic new $125 million factory in Ashford, Kent, as well as in other bike-loving countries across the globe.
Their next focus is growth in America, with the company’s biggest ever Stateside push currently underway, in particular targeting New York, where Brompton’s only US store is open in Greenwich Village.
Here, Will discusses his hopes for the brand, and the planet, as he encourages more folks to embrace this simple and environmentally friendly form of transport.
The Brompton P-Line
Tell us a little about where you’re at as a company, I know you’re the biggest bike manufacturer in the UK which is an impressive feat, and you’re now expanding the business in the US.
The brief history of Brompton is Andrew Ritchie, a legend and mad genius, invented the bike in 1975. Everyone thought he was potty, including Raleigh who at the time were the largest bike manufacturers in the UK. It took him 13 years of ridicule and turmoil to get this thing off the ground, but it finally really got going in 1988.
I was from the north of England, and was visiting London and bumped into one of Andrew’s best friends on a bus. I saw the bike and knew I could help from an engineering perspective. I was 28 and about to do an MBA, so my plan was to do a couple of years in London then go back and do that MBA. But that the bike changed my life. I had a blast in London, all my mates were in cabs and on the tube, and I knew London better than all of them because I was traveling around on my bike. I met my future wife, and we would go to nightclubs then head home with her standing on the rear rack as we cut across London.
I realized I was involved in a business that made people happy, and that’s very alluring. So many customers also told me this bike changed their life too. So I set about focusing on trying to make this business fulfill its potential, but that’s quite difficult when you have a fairly eccentric, purist engineer running it. Eventually that came to a head in 2008, when I did a management buyout and persuaded Andrew to give up his controlling stake to allow me to do what needed to happen to the business, some of which he didn’t approve of. When I started at the company in 2000, we were turning over about £2 million, and making about 5000 or 6000 bikes. Now we should do about £100 million with a fair wind this year, and we’ll make over 100,000 bikes, and are selling in 50 countries around the world.
The mission of the business is to change how people live in cities, and to bring a little bit of freedom and happiness, because cities have been messed up, and we need to change it.
I feel like you’ve made folding bikes cool, when I’m sure at the beginning it was seen as a rather eccentric thing to own.
When we started out it was certainly not cool. But things that really are cool change your life. There’s a whole load of stuff that people try to tell you is cool, then when you buy it, it turns out to be overrated crap. The reason the Brompton is cool is because it makes your life better. But it’s not obvious. You look at it and say, ‘I’m not getting on that, it’s going to collapse!’
And we have never oversold our bike, there are too many companies promising the world. We believe in modesty and selling something that will over-deliver, and still work 15 to 20 years after you bought it, and something you really love and can make memories on. The Brompton delivers value to your life. And it’s cool because that’s what we need in this world, we are buying too much stuff and we need to buy less. I don’t want to sell our product to someone who doesn’t need a folding bike. If you don’t need a folding bike, then buy a normal bike, they are less complicated and cheaper. But many of us live in cities, or engage with cities, or don’t have much space at home, or want to take it on the train. Then you do need a folding bike, and it’s worth paying a bit of a premium.
The Brompton P Line
Do you have examples of how the bike is used differently in different parts of the world?
Yeah, so in Europe, we were a utilitarian tool. If you look at my bike in London, or the inventor Andrew’s bike, they’re smashed, bashed, and beaten to bits. It’s just a total workhorse. The first time I went to Japan with Andrew, he was devastated because he saw his invention, and there wasn’t a piece of dirt on the bike. The Japanese had polished it, pimped it, dangled little mannequins on it. He couldn’t bear it because he invented it to be a workhorse. But across Asia, that market were not using the bike for transport. In some respects, the memory of, ‘If you’re poor, you ride a bike’ was too close. People used the Brompton for creating communities, friendship, and recreation. In Asia, if you buy a Brompton, you become a member of a club. And the members of that community are influential; they are architects, lawyers, and town planners. And they’re beginning to think about infrastructure, and build cycle lanes in cities like Taipei in Taiwan, and in Seoul.
What’s your moonshot mission in terms of how these bikes can improve communities and the environment?
The bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation ever created, but it was pushed to the side when the big, square automobile came rolling into town. But finally the tide is turning again, and we’re realizing that most of us are living in cities that are bad for our health.
There are 10 million people in London, and we have sold 150,000 Bromptons into this city. The percentage of people cycling in London is a bit less than 5%, so there are about 500,000 people regularly using bikes as a mode of transport. So if you estimate 50,000 of our bikes in London are not being used for whatever reason — which I think is extremely conservative, I think it is less than that — that means 20% of bikes being used in London are ours. We have changed the culture of how people think about transport in London, and the same has happened in Barcelona, in Brussels, and we’re now getting traction in New York and beginning to change how people live their life. That’s because the product is phenomenally useful.
We’ve got a mental health crisis, a physical health crisis, and a climate crisis in cities across the world. We can’t just blindly carry on. Everyone is saying electric cars are the way to go, but a simple electric car weighs 2000 kilos to carry a 90 kilo human. Is that an efficient use of resources? I have a bike that weighs 7.5 kilos, it will last 20, 30, or 40 years, and the cost of maintaining it is basically diddly squat. I love my car, but I’m not going to use a car to get three miles across town on a daily basis. On Manhattan island, there are more Suburbans than Bromptons, with parents pushing their pram around with their kids’ head at exhaust pipe level. How can that be sensible? We need to be more careful and stop taking stuff out of mother earth, and live a more simple life.
I think more people will agree with you now than would have done two years ago, before the pandemic.
Yes, amid the tragedy of Covid there were some positives. One of those was we’ve been born in cities that are full of cars, congestion, stress, noise, and fear; and then we had this moment of enlightenment where people stepped out from the sidewalks, had an opportunity to get to know each other, and didn’t hold their kids arms so tightly in case they made a bolt for the road. Suddenly the streets became a space for the people that lived in the cities. Of course, it’s not going to be the same as that forever. But that taste of what it could be is a tipping point in people’s perception that cities need to be designed around the people that live in them, not the automobiles.
Designs for Brompton’s new factory in Ashford, Kent
I saw some very sexy pictures of your future factory. Tell us a bit about that.
We need a home. And we’re an urban brand, we don’t want to be a manufacturer on some industrial state in the arse end of nowhere. We needed to find somewhere that allowed us to reach the melting pot of London, gave us room to grow, and kept us close to Europe. And we stumbled across Ashford in Kent, which is a hidden gem. We’ve got 40 acres which gives us room beyond our wildest dreams. And we want to inspire people to think about manufacturing. Making stuff is cool, and if we’re going to solve the world’s problems we’ve got to come up with some really tangible solutions. We’re not going to solve it with Bitcoin. We’re going to solve it by coming up with new ways to live and tools to help the world. But if every time we build something we hide it in China, or in some industrial estate, nobody sees it. So we want to build a factory that’s right there, and is see through, and anyone walking past can look in and think, ‘I want to be in there and make something.’ Part of the problem in my industry is that parents don’t want their children to do engineering because it’s some grubby job where you wear a boiler suit and carry a monkey wrench. But that’s not true, it’s an awesome, creative career.
And we want to be sustainable, and there are many cool things that we’re doing. For example, it’s on stilts and we’re rewilding 100 acres of wetland. Sustainability is an overused word. For us, it means doing something well so it has a long life. People talk about the circular economy, but you have to be careful with that. You could make a building out of cardboard so that it lasts eight years, then it has to be taken down, but you can recycle the cardboard. That’s not smart. What is smart is a bike that’s 30 years old, and it’s still being used and loved.
Learn more about Brompton here