Coronavirus. COVID-19. The pandemic. The Plague of 2020. I don’t know how we’ll remember this extraordinary, strange, terrible time we’re living through, but it’s certain that we will, and that it will be—has already been—transformative, for businesses and for society more generally.
I’m an entrepreneur, and my business is reputation. What’s been fascinating for me is how companies in all sectors have adapted to the circumstances of lockdown and quarantine not only to position themselves advantageously for their public image, but also, in many cases, genuinely to do good for the world. That’s the zeitgeist: while politicians may say ‘we’re all in this together’, the words themselves mean little, and the public is now looking with a critical eye for deeds to put flesh on the bones of the words, and genuinely get things done.
I’ve known Will Butler-Adams for about a year now, though of course I’ve known him by reputation for much longer. He’s the CEO of Brompton Bicycles, and he’s an ebullient figure with a straightforward can-do attitude that always appeals to me. (In that, I’ve learned and absorbed a lot from spending so much time in the US: if my team come to me with a problem, fine, but it’s so much better for everyone if they also bring a proposed solution.)
Brompton are known globally for their hugely successful folding bikes. A staple of suburban commuters and urban travellers alike, they are easy to use and handy to store, a brilliant example of British engineering. The passion of the team at Brompton comes through in everything they do, from the craftsmanship through the marketing to the after-sales care, and it really is true that when you buy a Brompton, you buy membership of a community of enthusiasts: a community which includes celebrities like Owen Wilson and Hugh Jackman as well as the travelling public like me.
Part of Brompton’s response to the crisis has been the Wheels for Heroes scheme. They sought crowdfunding assistance to provide a fleet of thousands of Brompton bikes to rent to NHS workers for free, allowing these key employees to travel to work safely, efficiently and without exposing themselves to the potentially infectious atmosphere of public transport. Simple, straightforward, open-handed and open-hearted: and, what’s a joy to see, matched by the generosity of the British public, who have so far raised over £300,000 to help the scheme.
What really stands out for me is that this isn’t just a temporary fix, a sticking plaster on a fresh wound. Brompton, true to their vision of a sustainable and cycle-friendly future, have already planned a legacy for the Wheels for Heroes scheme. The bikes will remain in use by the NHS for a nominal maintenance fee of £1 per bike hire, and some of them will be donated to hospitals to manage as a fleet, or for graduate doctors and nurses. The pièce de resistance is that Brompton Bike Hire have said publicly that they will not make any profit from the scheme, and that any money donated which cannot be used by the factory to build and supply bicycles will be donated to NHS charities. It really is a win-win-win scenario.
Will Butler-Adams may have a keen philanthropic sense, but he has a sharp marketing eye too. The Wheels for Heroes scheme is being replicated in New York, where the public are encouraged to donate bicycles which Brompton and their partners Spinlister will help to supply to key workers in the healthcare sector. This is a brilliant piece of profile-raising for Brompton in a growing market, but it is complete societal good, too, encouraging philanthropy, fitness and engagement with the workforce on whom we all reply. I’m proud to say that we are helping Brompton in this enterprise, and it’s an honour to do so.
This really encapsulates the new spirit of our times. We face an unprecedented crisis, and we are forced to find new ways to respond and to dig deep into our resourcefulness. Wheels for Heroes represents a perfect synergy between the private sector and the public at large, between private capital and public generosity, between commercial opportunity and the good of the many. I hope other companies, here and in the US, will take this as a model, and understand that this is the sort of thing that the public wants to see—and will reward in the long term.