The unfolding story of London’s iconic bicycle

 
Philip Salter
Follow Philip
ANDREW Ritchie, founder and technical director of Brompton Bicycle brought his folding bike to market through perseverance and a little help from his friends. Talking with him in the company’s factory in Brentford, where every Brompton bike is made, it is instantly clear that he realises that success, and the accolades that followed, weren’t a foregone conclusion. And despite the achievement, Ritchie’s struggles come easily to mind as he talks modestly about his strengths and focuses on his weaknesses.

This modesty explains Ritchie’s decision to take a step back from the business in 2008 – allowing Will Butler-Adams to take over as Brompton Bicycle’s managing director through a management buy-out (MBO). In the process, Ritchie sold a significant chunk of his 55 per cent equity and fresh capital from new investors was injected into the business for growth.

At the outset Ritchie had never intended to manufacture the bikes himself. After hawking his folding bike to established manufacturers such as Raleigh without success, Ritchie turned to his friends to kick-start his business. In 1975 he took £250 from 30 of his friends to make them bikes. People liked them, but the banks weren’t interested in lending to him; venture capital firms were curious, but wouldn’t commit.

He raised more money from friends – this time to build 400 bikes, which also proved popular. But once again, the conversations to licence the design came to nothing. Despite the demand, Ritchie was back at square one. Years passed, then proven entrepreneur Julian Vereker, founder of audio equipment company Naim Audio, stepped in to backstop the manufacturing of more bikes and others investors joined. Ritchie raised £80,000, rather than the £140,000 needed, but he got back in his workshop, toiling away for next-to-nothing. Disaster struck when the frame manufacturer pulled out, forcing Ritchie to build them himself. He says it turned out to be a “cloud with a silver lining”, as he could focus his attention on getting the detail right. Outsourcing this crucial function would have undermined the meticulousness for which the bikes are famed.

With 120 staff, the company has grown rapidly and will grow even bigger to meet the growing international demand. However, Ritchie isn’t a “big company man” – one of his reasons for wanting his own business in the first place. This presents a difficult balance, but one thing holds it all together: a simple passion for producing bikes to the very highest quality. And although delegation has become essential, Butler-Adams believes firmly that the management must retain control of the business.

Butler-Adams considers Ritchie to be a legend and perfectionist, and while the latter quality was initially vital for the business, over time it’s a quality that became increasingly difficult – delegation became imperative. The MBO was the solution, bringing around £3.5m into the company. As Ritchie turned to friends to start the company and to fund the initial stages of growth, Butler-Adams turned to friends to invest in the buy-out.

Butler-Adams is proud that Brompton Bicycle is a London brand, noting “this holds tremendous appeal for customers.” He says they could never leave the capital and are in the process of trying to build a bespoke factory in Brentford. But as the company ship bikes all over the world – the bikes being made when I visited were destined for South Korea – the company is also very outward-looking. Butler-Adams says there “is nothing better than being abroad and seeing a Brompton shoot past.” Yet he is confident in the potential of the London market – comparing the fact 32 per cent of people cycle in Copenhagen with the mere 2 per cent that cycle London.

Brompton Cycles has engineered a loyal band of customers. A former colleague of mine once had his Brompton bike stolen and was startlingly distraught. Dodi, as he affectionately called his Brompton, was insured, but the loss meant more than money. At the time I couldn’t empathise – but having visited the factory and met the company’s staff, I’m starting to understand.