Brompton bike CEO: ‘People have no idea what goes into a product. That’s not a good thing’
That factories are tucked away out of town, or overseas, is a frustration that he compares to animal slaughter. “We eat meat. We see the fluffy sheep. And then suddenly we’ve got this pink thing, and it’s called [lamb]. It’s belittling our intelligence that we hide it away.”
Showcasing engineering, he hopes, will help attract “the best brains … solving the world’s problems, not going off into the City and creating reams of paper like lawyers”.
Another way to get the public onside is a new site which he hopes will open in 2027 in Ashford, Kent. Twice the size of Greenford, it will not only have a manufacturing facility but a museum and visitor centre.
My tour is a rehearsed piece of showmanship. Past photos of factory visitors include the late Prince Philip and David Cameron, the former UK prime minister. Brompton is now a British success story, but in the early days, “embassies were so snooty”. He made it his mission to get publicity and to network with politicians and businesses. “We had no money. You’ve got to find ways to leverage awareness.” For example, getting Prince William on a Brompton bike in Shanghai for a photo.
I’d been told this book described spats with Ritchie, who Butler-Adams replaced as chief executive. The odd couple (Ritchie’s pernicketyness and Butler-Adams’ determination to make the company commercial) is part of the mythology. The book seems rather restrained.
“This isn’t about some vitriol,” Butler-Adams tells me later in a tucked-away corner of the open-plan office. Brompton exists, he says, because of Ritchie – “genius [and] nutter. I had the easy job. Andrew had the tough bit, getting it off the ground…If you have a mad inventor, somebody else has to take it over.”
Has Ritchie read the book?
“He hasn’t even seen it. I don’t dare send it.”
Ritchie is no longer on the board but has an engineering consulting role. Aside from work, they meet socially, most recently, over dinner at Ritchie’s home. “Yummy leftovers … He’s a complete sodding legend. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a monstrous pain in the arse and occasionally drives me potty. He’d probably say the same about me. He doesn’t think I listen to him. I listen to him a lot. I just don’t do everything he says. And that’s like parents and children.”
Butler-Adams’ actual father was in the family wine trade business before the company was sold to Griersons, then part of the Forte Group. Rugby school, he says, kept him on the educational straight and narrow. “If I hadn’t had that very privileged education, I would not be here now. I found formal education thoroughly boring, totally irrelevant.”
After studying engineering, he went to ICI, which taught him, among other things, that it was easy to tweak projected earnings to win over investors or managers. “If all the projects we did delivered what they said they were going to deliver, that thing would have been printing money.” It reinforced the need to understand worst-case scenarios. “When it goes completely tits up, that is a very accurate thing you can measure. Rather than wasting energy with over-exaggerated upsides, if you want to innovate fast, protect the downside.” To that end, he has created a “f***-it fund” at Brompton to develop ideas with money they can afford to lose.
Butler-Adams wants his staff to find him approachable. The Brompton T-shirt is key. “If I’m in my ivory tower … and I’m wearing a suit and tie … I very much lose [the feeling] we’re in this together … People know what I earn.” How much? “At the moment, £210,000.”