Friday 20 April 2018

20 questions for Brompton Chief Executive, Will Butler Adams

Just over five years ago Brompton Chief Executive, Will Butler Adams agreed to answer some questions about all things Brompton. Five years is a long time in business and there have been lots of changes at Brompton.  Very kindly, Will agreed to do the same all over again. 

I put twenty questions to him and said that he could answers as many or as few as he wished. Despite being undoubtedly busy, he answered all twenty questions. My questions and Will's complete answers appear below without any alterations.

I think his answers are brilliant but please see for yourself.

1.    A few years ago, I asked you what sort of Brompton you owned. You said it was a black 15-year-old M3L. Do you still have this bicycle? Do you now have another bicycle and what is it?

Sadly the 15-year-old Brommie finally died a death at circa 18 years of very hard labour. I could have fixed her up but actually after that much time everything is about to conk out, so it was time to move on. Since then I haven’t really had my ‘own’ bike. I have a red, white and blue, 2-spd steel that I use often but have been more keen to be trying out more of our r&d bikes, be that Brompton electric or other plans we have afoot.

2.   Since we last did this Brompton has moved from its former home in Brentford to its larger one in Greenford. What was the reasoning behind the move and how did it go in the end?

We needed more space, we moved into Kew Bridge with 20 or so staff and left with nearly 250 it was just not sustainable. We had taken on another unit round the corner which bridged the gap but it was not sustainable and inefficient to be transporting stuff up and down from each site. Also we needed space for more r&d facilites, space to put in an electric line, space to bring paint in house and space to have a bit of fun. It was scary, daunting, expensive and none of us were 100% sure it was the right decision. Two years on we are all sure it was the right decision and are very happy in our new home. 

3.   When it came to moving day, were there any moist eyes?

The last day of production was a sad day and the end of an era but our mission is to change how people live in cities and we need to evolve, innovate, grow and take risk if we are going to pull that off so at the same time we were proud to be taking the next step. 

4.   The ‘Brompton Electric’ is finally here. (I am pleased that I will still be able to ride a Brompton in my dotage). How did this all come about and what was the rationale behind Brompton making an electric bike?

It has been a long and hard journey and we in many respects are still just beginning the journey. We want more people to enjoy cycling, many people do not have the confidence to cycle as they don’t feel they are fit enough or don’t want to sweat. The electric takes these barriers away. The problem has been that electric bikes weight a tonne and are bulky things so not much good for something you have to fold and carry. We looked to find a solution, there wasn’t one so we took the rather more challenging path of developing our own. We were lucky to have some help from Patrick Head (Long standing Brompton rider and ex CEO of Williams F1) who said he could help. We have invested much of our savings and it has been a real challenge to become an electronics and software company as well as a metal basher. We are getting there, it has taken longer and cost more than any of us imagined but we now feel we have something we are proud of. I have been using the electric for six months now and love it!  

5.   In 2015 you were appointed OBE. What did it feel and what did it mean for you to gain this honour?

Other buggers efforts is what OBE stands for. It was a complete surprise and an honour to accept the appointment on behalf of all the Brompton staff. 

6.   Did you travel to Buckingham Palace on a Brompton?

The award was given at Windsor Castle and I was able to bring my wife and two of my daughters. It is a bit for from home on the Brommie but we went in our Pink Austin Vanden Plas Princess 1275 car 😊.

I have though been to Buckingham Palace several time and on all occasions went on my Brompton. 

7.   How does Brompton deal with other manufacturers who copy make components that are not that dissimilar to those found on a Brompton?

We have copy bikes, copy components etc They will always exist and we cannot stop customers buying them. But it is worth reminding everyone that a Brompton is not a toy, it is a tool and the responsibility that comes with making it is serious. If any part breaks on a bicycle it can be catastrophic, not only the shock and impact but also the consequences of being on a road with other traffic. We test our bikes to standards that we know are needed to look after our customers: we carried out a 144 thousand bike recall last year because we had the smallest concern for the safety of our customers. Those that copy without understanding the design intent or carrying out the right quality control and testing put our customers at risk. 

8.   Last year I heard Andrew Richie give a talk at the London Business School at one of the TELL Series talks. He spoke very fondly of you but alluded to differences between you both. Are you able to elaborate on what these differences were?

Andrew and I are both engineers but he is an inventor who is obsessed with detail in an extraordinary way and I am a person who is a leader wanting to drive growth and impact society. We have huge respect for each other but we do disagree about some areas of how the company is run. Just as I can often disagree with my management team about things we do in the company. I think this is a positive as I believe that it is through teamwork and positive debate that you get the best answer. 

9.   The Brompton World Championships will be held in July in London for the fourth time. It is a brilliant location and circuit but what plans do Brompton have for future events?

Our problem is capacity, the BWC costs money and a lot of time to organise and whilst we would love to organise other events in the UK so more people can get involved there is a limit to our capacity. We sell 80% of our bikes in 44 countries and have BWC events in circa 12 countries so there are other events several of which we also organise, but we also rely on our customers to organise events, be they weekend rides or grand tours.  

10. You collaborated with David Millar and the rather fine ‘Brompton X CHPT3’ was the result. Explain how this relationship was build and how the ‘Brompton X CHPT3’ came about?

I sat next to David at a hobnob lunch, I had no idea who he was as I don’t follow professional cycling. He was so modest he listened to me rabbit on about Brompton and kept quiet about his achievements. He then invited me to an event where he was launching his clothing and then I realised who he was. I met his Mum at the event sold her a Brompton. David used it when in London, loved it. We then made him a special funky one which he took back to Girona and the rest is history. 

11. With regards the ‘Brompton X CHPT3’ did Mr Millar have an input into the components, colours and design of the bike?


12. I seem to see a Brompton on every street corner in London. Where is your biggest market overseas and what are Brompton doing to tap into new ones?

Germany, Japan, US, Benelux, S. Korea, Spain…………. get more out of what we have got.  

13. In terms of sales, which Brompton type and colour sells more than any other? Why do you think this is?

Black M3L, rather boring but sadly safest stock bike for a shop to hold. 

14. If you were Prime Minster / Mayor of London for the day, what would you do to make cycling safer?

Stop investing in shoving people underground and spend 1/10thof that money improving cycling infrastructure. Band combustion engine for all private vehicles by 2020 and for commercial by 2023. 

15. The Brompton Bike Hire looks to be going really well.

Early days still but it has the potential to act as a catalyst to get people back on a bike. 

16. Despite there being hundreds of Brompton users in London, very often I find myself demonstrating the fold and unfold to people whose reaction is often as if they have just seen a unicorn. Why do you think a Brompton has this reaction for people?

In our own little world, we think everyone knows about the Brompton but actually real awareness is still very low. 

17. Who is the most famous person you definitely know uses a Brompton and who is the one you have only heard might use one on the grapevine?

Not bothered as long as they like it.  

18. Brompton users can be an eccentric bunch with many…ahem…fixated on one colour for example. What are your thoughts on Brompton users in general and the more exotic varieties?

We are a bit eccentric because the bike is not normal but we don’t care because it make our lives better. 

19. Having two daughters I am very conscious of the absence of women from many roles in design and engineering. What are your thoughts on this and what does Brompton do to try and encourage a more inclusive environment?

It’s nuts, half the potential customers for any product are women. Women are the decision makers for most of the money spent in any household yet most of the products they buy are designed by men. There is a lack of understanding of what design and engineering are, the innovation, artistic flare and fun but it is changing. We now have four women in our design team of sixteen, bit by bit.   

20. The next question is not an interview question but as I asked it last time I felt it was only fitting to ask something similar. Where do you see Brompton in five years in terms of sales, design and manufacturing?

Continuing to change how people live in cities, making life more invigorating and fun.

A very big thank you to Will for agreeing to do this. It really is appreciated. If you are interested, you can read my original interview conducted just over five years ago via the link below. 

Link to original interview

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