From the top · 21 April 2017

Brompton Bikes CEO Will Butler-Adams thinks success should be measured by continuous screw-ups

Brompton Portraits
Will Butler-Adams has headed up Brompton Bikes since 2002

Chief executive at the UK’s largest bicycle manufacturer, Will Butler-Adams, sat down with Business Advice to talk exclusively about his experiences growing Brompton Bikes.

These days, you might think that for successful CEOs at fast-growing companies, it’s essential to move roles regularly to stay on the ball.

Not so for Will Butler-Adams, CEO at Britain’s biggest bicycle manufacturer – Brompton Bikes. The 42 year-old entrepreneur has been at the helm of his company for 15 years, and has no intention of going anywhere.

In an exclusive interview, the London-born boss told Business Advice why he thought business leaders at growing companies needed to stick around for longer to make a difference, and why his brand’s almost cult-like following is likely to continue to attract new customers across the globe in years to come.

“Businesses are big things to get to know, and to turn around,” he said. “Today, CEOs join companies, and after just three years people are asking questions about why they haven’t left to go somewhere else.

“You barely get to know a business in three years, I’ve been at Brompton for 15 and I’m just getting started!”

After meeting Butler-Adams, you understand the enthusiasm he has for his company’s product. The duration of our interview was spent in presence of the chief executive’s own personal Brompton Bike, and he periodically shot glances over at its sleek, foldable steel frame, ensuring its safety like a worried parent.

“I rode here on this one today,” he told us. “I’ve become obsessed with these bikes – using them has just made me so much happier.

“More than anything, the quality of the product has been driving me to stay [at the company]. Most people still have no idea the bike exists, and there could be so many more people using this urban tool.”

Brompton
Around 100,000 Brompton Bikes are ridden daily in London

Sold at roughly £1,000 each, Brompton Bikes are by no means the cheapest bicycle available in the UK, yet by keeping product development at the forefront of his business model, Butler-Adams has created legions of devoted customers who wouldn’t choose anything else.

“Maybe it’s my background in engineering, but I’ve always considered R&D more important than advertising, or developing a complicated marketing strategy,” he said.

“Customers would rather see you invest the money they spend into improving the product, and the technology that goes with it, than spend money on advertising billboards in a new market you trying to break into, for example.”

Thanks to this view, demand for Brompton Bikes has steadily increased. Around 500,000 of the bikes have been manufactured so far, and Butler-Adams guessed that roughly 100,000 of these are currently ridden around London.

The bike’s home-grown success has seen the company balloon under his stewardship. Since the chief executive joined in 2002, Brompton has grown from a business with 24 staff to over 250, and turnover has increased from £2m to around £32m in that time.

“People look at our growth and think we exploded,” added the business owner. “We’ve been steadily growing for years, it’s just people didn’t know we existed.”

The Will Butler-Adams approach

Strikingly, for a company owner whose product has revolutionised the way people travel in one of the world’s biggest cities, it’s this steady, so-called “compound” growth at Brompton of which Butler-Adams is most proud, rather than the innovative tech behind his foldable bikes.

Brompton Factory Opening
Brompton makes 100 per cent of its bikes at it’s London factory

He revealed that overseeing ten to 15 per cent growth year-on-year at Brompton has been his biggest achievement in business, but insisted he was not about to become complacent because of it.

“In business, if you’re in your comfort zone, you’re not growing,” he said. “Success should be measured by continuous screw-ups. The nature of innovation is to make mistakes, and only once you accept that you can begin to make real change.”

Offering his own analogy about his approach to business, Butler-Adams went on to say: “It’s like getting from one side of a gorse bush to another. You can either pick your way through the bush delicately, taking hours but coming out unscathed, or you could pile through the gorse bush quickly and take scratches along the way. It does hurt, but it won’t kill you.”

Seemingly the next gauze bush Butler-Adams will be piling through will be that of popularising “pedelecs” – a hybrid form of bicycle with regular peddles, but with an in-built motor for riders to avoid the strains of constantly stopping and starting when cycling in busy cities.

“We’ve spent ten years developing electric-drive bikes, and there’s nothing else like it,” he assured us. “We’ve taken light-motor technology from Formula One cars and included them in our bikes, it’s monstrously clever.”

Whatever the future of Brompton Bikes, it’s likely Butler-Adams will remain at the forefront of developments at the firm, as it’s clear the chief executive has plans for the brand that stretch beyond the immediate future. He told Business Advice he hopes to be around in 40 years’ – enough time to see at least half of Londoners riding a Brompton.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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