To have and to fold
Ben Laurance meets Andrew Ritchie, the Brompton founder who has created a manufacturing rarity – a flourishing British engineering firm that exports 60 per cent of what it makes
You see them nestling behind seats on trains. You see them behind desks in offices across the capital. Above all, you see them on the roads, piloted through the traffic by commuters on their way to work.
These are bicycles, but not ordinary ones. Their cross bars are strikingly low, their wheels strikingly small. Their riders appear to be perched above, rather than simply on their machines.
These are Bromptons, the product of a man who freely admits that for the past three decades he has been obsessed with one thing — making the best, most portable, most efficient folding bike on the planet. When folded, a Brompton can be secreted behind a sofa or carried up an escalator. Unfolding it takes around 15 seconds: it’s then ready to ride.
And for Andrew Ritchie, the self-confessed obsessive who invented the Brompton, three decades of hard slog have paid off: accounts just filed at Companies House show that in the year to this March, profits doubled.
No, Brompton is not a big operation. Sales last year were £3.7m, and pre-tax surplus was £415,000. It employs fewer than 50 people. But it is a rarity — a British engineering company that has survived, prospered and expanded.
While so much of British manufacturing has been wiped out or exported jobs to low-cost countries in the Far East or eastern Europe, Brompton has stayed put and done well — in west London.
Remember Raleigh? In its heyday its Nottingham factory churned out more than a million bikes a year. Now, all Raleigh bikes are made overseas. British bike production on a scale such as this is a thing of the past.
Only two companies remain that can genuinely claim to produce serious numbers of bikes in Britain. One is Pashley, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is best known for making Royal Mail delivery bikes — heavy and certainly not speedy but with a huge load-carrying capacity and tough as nails. The second is Brompton, which will this year turn out around 14,000 folders, of which 60 per cent will be exported.
And the story of Brompton — and Andrew Ritchie — is above all one of sheer dogged persistence. Now, the company is based in a modern factory in Brentford, within a stone’s throw of the M4, where riding a bike would be illegal and where no sane cyclist would want to venture.
Ritchie started making bikes in the bedroom of his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory — hence the name. It was, in his words, “a knife and fork business”.
He had read engineering at Cambridge, and spent some time working for Elliott Automation — later to become part of Marconi — and as a computer programmer. But Ritchie fancied working for himself and decided there must be money in selling potted plants. He was wrong.
“Selling potted plants door to door didn’t work out, but it did lead to a lot of interest in people having their gardens done, so we ended up doing indoor displays, maintaining gardens and doing landscaping,” recalls Ritchie.
“I rather lost interest, particularly when I met a guy called Bill Ingram, who was trying to lift a bike firm called Bickerton out of its garage existence into being a rather larger business.”
For cycling aficionados, the Bickerton bike marked a design milestone. It folded, it was light and it was genuinely portable. The trouble was that it was weird to ride. Cyclists used to conventional bikes complained that the Bickerton felt as if it was held together with elastic bands.
“I had always thought that a portable bike was a good idea, but never did anything about it because I was engaged with my plant business,” says Ritchie. “Then along comes this guy with something real, and I thought it left quite a lot wanting.”
After the meeting with Ingram, Ritchie started doodling. The design that was to become the Brompton started to take shape. “I managed to persuade some friends to part with £100 each — 10 of them, so £1,000, which in those days was obviously worth quite a lot more than now, but still a pretty meagre sum — to make a prototype,” remembers Ritchie.
A year later, prototype number one appeared : “It was rideable and it worked, but it is something I’m deeply ashamed of as a piece of engineering.”
Prototypes numbers two and three followed. “With those, around 1978, I hawked the idea round to the Raleighs and the Black and Deckers and one or two other would-be players,” he says. The hope was to strike a licensing deal. “We got some pretty serous interest, but it was nibbles, not bites. I was rather frustrated. I was a young chap; I thought this was a good idea.”
Most people would have given up. Ritchie didn’t. And significantly, he now reflects that his failure to tie up a deal with a big manufacturer may have actually been Brompton’s salvation: “In a way, I’m glad we didn’t get a licensing deal with Raleigh. I’m not sure the business would have survived. The bike probably would have been dumbed down and cheapened and it wouldn’t have flown.”
Ritchie tried to raise money from venture capitalists, and nearly succeeded in securing backing from ICFC, which eventually became 3i. Again, he failed, and again, he reflects that, in the long run, that failure was probably a good thing: “If the ICFC idea had come off, they would have been breathing down my neck. They would have been saying ‘Come on, you’ve got to get it on the market.’ And I would have been saying ‘Hang on, this isn’t right, that isn’t right’. To launch things when they’re not right is a disaster because you spend your time sorting out the mess. Now we send things all over the world, we’re petrified about things going wrong. Anything that might cause trouble miles away is simply untenable.”
So in 1980, Ritchie tried another tack. He persuaded 30 people to order a bike and pay in advance — “£250 a pop, which was a lot of money in those days”. The bikes were built — plus a further 20, which he sold straight away.
Over two years, Ritchie made a further 500. But the business did no more than break even, and at the end of 1982, production ceased.
At that stage, Brompton could have died. But encouraged by the late Julian Vereker, founder of Salisbury-based hi-fi maker Naim, Ritchie returned to his project in 1986, raised £60,000 in equity plus a further £50,000 in overdrafts, and finally got production proper off the ground in a railway arch in Brentford in 1988.
Brompton expanded into a second railway arch, then moved to Chiswick, and finally to its current premises. At the last count, it had made around 100,000 bikes.
By why has Brompton not joined the exodus of manufacturing from Britain in search of lower costs? “We are making things against the grain — in Britain, and worse still in west London, which is one of the more expensive places,” says Ritchie. “But I live here, and there are some bright people you can get hold of in London. Rents are more expensive and rates are more expensive, but that’s only a small part of the equation. If we were in a commodity market, it would matter more. There are so many features where the Brompton is different from others. We deliver value for money.”
Now aged 58, he remains obsessed. “I didn’t build the bike purely from an engineering fascination. I thought there was a need. I thought this was a useful thing to own. It does give you extraordinary freedom. In an ideal world, it should be like a magic carpet you can stuff in your handbag, but it has got to be rideable.”
Brompton continues to expand. Ritchie reckons the company could grow by round 20 or even 25 per cent a year. But he is looking to take a more back seat role. “I want to work 30 or 40 hours a week rather than twice that,” he says.
And in the meantime, every week, 300 more of Andrew Ritchie’s metal magic carpets emerge from Brompton’s Brentford factory to be tucked beneath desks, secreted behind train seats and ridden through the commuter traffic.