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Engineering for change

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 11 min read
Engineering for change
Butler-Adams: We don't want people to keep buying Bromptons. We want you to buy a Brompton and have it for 20 years, love and cherish it, go on adventures, and maybe even give it to your children.
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Suppose you, like me, picked up cycling during the pandemic. In that case, you might have seen groups of overzealous Brompton owners ploughing the PCN (Park Connector Network) in their cute little bikes identifiable by their long stems, curved frame, and tiny 16-inch wheels. My first thought was, how can something so tiny carry nine times its weight and still move as fast as a road bike, and where can I get one?

Brompton Bicycles is the brainchild of Andrew Ritchie, a British engineer who believed in a better way to move around the city. In 1975, in the bedroom of his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory, he invented a compact bike with an ingenious three-part fold that collapses into a tiny square you can neatly tuck into a car boot, push around in train stations, and even carry in a backpack. My favourite feature is when the back wheel flips inward to become a cool kickstand.

Other winning qualities of the Brompton include its indestructible steel frame and performance on the road, thanks to the superior quality of its components, which we understand consist of 1,200 separate parts manually assembled at its factory in England. This is why a Brompton can cost as much as a high-performance road bike: From $2,480 for its bestselling C Line model, $4,360 for the performance P Line, $5,900 for the Brompton Electric and $7,465 for the titanium T Line.

In the early days, Ritchie found it hard to finance the business while keeping up with demand, only building about 500 bikes in the first decade. He faced endless rejection letters from banks and bike companies to invest and was close to going bust until a customer helped him out of the red. They took part in the Cyclex Bike Show at Olympia London in 1988, and the Brompton folding bike won the Best Product Award. Demand started to take off, and by 1994, Ritchie finally hit a GBP1 million ($1.6 million) turnover and opened 56 outlets in the UK with a huge export market.

Today, Brompton produces nearly 100,000 bikes a year — or about 600 a day — and is sold in 47 countries worldwide, where over 70% of production is exported. The brand sells to a selected 1,500 independent bike stores worldwide, and its 15 flagship Brompton Junction retail outlets in London, Paris, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Milan, Kobe, Hamburg, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Munich, Valencia, Melbourne, Tel Aviv and Singapore.

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The group employs 800 people worldwide, including 650 at its flagship factory in the London suburb of Greenford, up from about 400 six years ago. In recent news, Brompton announced it will build a new factory at Ashford in the English county of Kent, which is expected to open in 2028. It is believed that the new factory would increase production capacity to approximately 200,000 bikes annually, with staff numbers rising to over 1,500.

At its height, sales for Bromptons last year rose by a third to 93,000 in March, and revenues were up 40% to a record GBP106.9 million. Although it is a slight dip as people return to the old normal of commuting to the office, Brompton’s chief executive, Will Butler-Adams, remains unperturbed. He expects sales to continue to grow as cities worldwide promote active travel to fight climate change, lower costs for citizens, and improve health. “The actual demand from consumers continues to grow steadily. Probably maybe the only market that is not growing as fast is the US, but certainly, in Europe and Asia, demand continues to grow,” he adds.

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While Butler-Adams constantly crunches numbers in his head, he is not in a hurry to push out new designs year after year. “Of course, we're innovating, and there are all sorts of things in the pipeline, but the focus is on what we have right now and nurturing and cherishing it,” he insists.

“Brompton will evolve, but we're not a company obsessed with new. We’re more obsessed with ensuring we still have the spare parts and caring for the customer so they can enjoy that bike for years to come.”

“We don't want people to keep buying Bromptons. We want you to buy a Brompton and have it for 20 years, love it, cherish it, go on adventures, and maybe even give it to your children. But we want you to tell your friends who don't own a Brompton that this is a great investment and that they would enjoy it.”

Riding on top

The other issue that Brompton is dealing with is the rise in cheap copycat clones coming mostly out of Asia, which is making Butler-Adams worry about the rider’s safety. “Imagine you’re whizzing down a hill at 30 km per hour, something gives way, and you hurt yourself, or worse, get hit by a car. The truth is the people copying the bike don't understand the principles of the design. With a folding bike, there are a lot of moving parts. We have systems in place, and the way we control the manufacturing process is exact. But you could be all over the place if you don't know what you're doing.”

We ask him if opening satellite factories in Asia might solve the problem of copies. He replies: “85% of the bike cost is the materials, and labour only makes up 15%, which is decreasing as a percentage because we are making the bike more efficiently. No matter where we are located, the material costs would be the same. For me, our team is the company that took us 45 years to build. They are the most precious thing we have.

“We're not rushing to try and save money because it won't deliver much savings since the labour cost is so small already. We're interested in doing it well, doing it with care and delivering something delightful. Yes, we've got to care for the business, but that's not what our business is about. It is about freedom and happiness,” he says.

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Butler-Adams joined Brompton in 2002 after a chance meeting on a bus with the brand’s chairman, Tim Guinness. Working at ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), he was en route to pursuing an MBA, but he decided to take a chance on Brompton because he thought it would be “an interesting adventure”.

“Andrew (Ritchie) is a legend, but he’s very eccentric,” laughs Butler-Adams. “When I visited him at his warehouse, it was sort of like a tiny Willy Wonka factory with about 35 to 36 people in the company. There was stock everywhere, everyone was squinched in, and Andrew was rushing around worrying about this and that — it was the most inefficient factory I’d ever seen. It looked nuts, and I thought, ‘I can help this guy’.”

Very quickly, Butler-Adams rose in rank from the director in 2006 to managing director (or CEO) in 2008, where he oversaw a production increase from 6,000 to approximately 40,000 bikes per year, with a workforce expansion from 24 to 190. In 2015, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his outstanding contributions.

“I never thought I'd stay there long,” he says. “But this little bike that Andrew had created changed my life and gave me freedom in the city. I’ve met other people who described different but similar experiences of how this bike had made their life a bit happier, and this is the kind of effect a Brompton has on you.”

“We're not trying to be the trendiest or the most luxurious bike ever built. We're just trying to make something that is useful, well made, lasts a long time, and makes you a little bit happy.”

Butler-Adams owns several old and new Brompton models. On most days, he will drive halfway to work, park his car seven miles out, and cycle the rest of the way in. He adds: “Traffic can get really bad in London during rush hour, and the fastest, most efficient way is to cycle.”

Gearing up

Part of Brompton’s unwavering appeal is the community that rallies behind it. Somehow, Bromptons look cuter when they travel in a pack, which is why you will find so many forming communities within communities, and joining social events like the annual Brompton World Championship.

The demographics are just as diverse. In bustling cities like London and Japan, riders use the Brompton as a mode of transportation to quickly weave in and out of traffic. Whereas in Singapore, owners use it more for recreation on the weekends. And in places like Thailand, China and Taiwan, people are doing some serious long-distance touring on it and putting it through its paces.

“Germany has got our oldest demographic in age,” says Butler-Adams. “Funnily enough, in China, you’ll find more millennials and Generation Zs riding it, thinking about the environment and their health.”

“We are learning that the bike is being interpreted differently in different parts of the world. But fundamentally, cycling resonates with them, and everyone enjoys riding it. The Brompton has a mind of its own. People can credit the company for all sorts of things, but we deserve no credit. The bike is the real star here. We don't try to curate the brand over. The bike, for so long, has done the work for us. And there's a certain sort of honesty about letting the bike find its way.”

To draw in new audiences, Butler-Adams says that Brompton occasionally launches limited edition models in collaboration with lifestyle or fashion brands. In 2021, it released a special edition bike in partnership with French luxury fashion house Kenzo. The following year, Brompton launched a C Line Explore bike with British heritage brand Barbour. This month, the brand launched a fourth edition tie-up (pictured) with bicycle accessories brand CHPT3.

“Collaborations should be fun. It would be best if you were working with people you respect and who have a similar mindset but, at the same time, allow you to talk to a different audience because you need to reach out to other people who don't know much about Brompton. This is our way of saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to give up the Tesla and buy a Brompton. You’re going to be so much happier,” he says.

Last December, Brompton announced the release of its one millionth bike, made at its factory in Greenford, 47 years after it was first invented in 1975. The bike has been given a special design treatment inspired by one of the brand’s original models — the ‘Mark One’, with a red main frame, silver parts, and one-of-a-kind million decal, ID plate, and aluminium touchpoints. Both Ritchie (pictured) and Butler-Adams have also signed it.

The bike will be given to the Brompton Community, who will go on a global tour to 16 different cities as part of the company’s ‘All Together Different’ campaign to get its communities to enjoy the bike. In addition to ride-out events, Brompton will also create a space for discussion around different ways of shaping cities for the better.

“This is a magic moment in Brompton’s history, and we want to celebrate it with the people that made it happen. Instead of putting it on display somewhere, we want it flying down the Mall in London, across Orchard Road in Singapore, along the Sein in Paris, exploring and moving through cities as it’s always meant to,” says Butler-Adams.

Breaking the cycle

His ultimate mission is for everyone, including his company, to take a closer look at climate change and what can be done to mitigate it. For a start, he urges everyone to switch over to green energy. “Green electricity in the UK costs about 3% more, but that should be the starting point because we all use a lot of electricity.”

Still, Brompton has a long way to go to be fully sustainable in its manufacturing processes. Candidly he says: “We’re not perfect, but we have ambition. Increasingly, customers are getting fussier and won’t buy from a business that is destroying the planet or not caring for its staff. We need to do better.”

“Our mission is to create urban freedom for happier lives. Cities can be wonderful places to live, but we must change them quickly. We have a colossal climate emergency that's not going away. We must rethink how we live more equitably with the planet. The most efficient mode of transport ever invented was the bicycle. So let's not try and design flying cars to solve urban problems. We have a solution. It's really simple. Get a Brompton.”

Supposedly, one Brompton bike takes 6.2 tonnes less carbon than a car, and 42 folded Brompton bikes can be parked in the space it takes to park one car. “I think if we can contribute to that, if we can form part of that solution, if we can be the catalyst of change, then we can look back into 10 or 20 years and feel like we've done something.”

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