UK: BLACK BIKES AND NO WHITE COATS.

UK: BLACK BIKES AND NO WHITE COATS. - With open antipathy to the 'men in white coats' and the accepted wisdom on diversification, the head of Brompton Bicycles keeps to a narrow path with his collapsible two-wheeler.

by Charles Darwent.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With open antipathy to the 'men in white coats' and the accepted wisdom on diversification, the head of Brompton Bicycles keeps to a narrow path with his collapsible two-wheeler.

A little test for those of you who reckon yourselves adept at the glamorous game of Business Trivia. Name the manufacturer of a wheeled vehicle who is purported to have said that his customers could have it in any colour they wanted, as long as it was black.

Ready? The answer, of course - you're going to kick yourselves - is Andrew Ritchie, chief executive of Brompton Bicycles Limited.

Actually, this is not strictly true. Consult Ritchie's latest catalogue, and you will find that the single product in it - an ingenious folding bicycle, of which more later - is also available, at a push, in black-and-red. Ritchie clearly views such aesthetic departures as faint sedition, however. When you point out, tremulously, that there is actually, on his west London shop floor, an aberrant blue-and-white bicycle, Ritchie's expression changes to one of quiet outrage. 'Our Dutch dealer demands them,' he grimaces, sensibilities quietly aflame. 'Odd people, the Dutch. We do charge the dealer an extra £40 for each model, including VAT, but it's a pain in the neck.' Now, for those numberless legions of you who have spent the last decade attending seminars on downstreaming or corporate nicing or the treating of dealers as customers, Ritchie's unashamedly solipsistic approach to business will doubtless ring alarm bells. Here, you will conclude with some anxiety, is an entrepreneur whose commercial days are clearly numbered. The fact that Ritchie's Henry Fordian views and relentlessly monochrome product have between them contrived to deliver his company annual compounded growth figures in excess of 30% for every year since 1988, may fill the more sensitive among you with something approaching dismay.

This year, Brompton Bicycles will sell some 5,000 of its two-wheeled marvels: 60% of them to dealers in Continental Europe, with a few crossing the Atlantic to the US for good measure. For this, the company was recently the recipient of a Queen's Award for Exports, although - given the existence of the EU - a sheepish Ritchie muses that 'calling them exports at all may have been stretching the point a bit'.

Be this as it may - and given a catalogue price of £365 for the basic three-speed Type L (rising to about £600 for a nippier variant with five-speed gears, inbuilt lights and other added gizmos) - Ritchie calculates his turnover for 1995 to be somewhere in excess of £1.5 million. He is somewhat vaguer about profits, but does concede that 'margins are not bad'.

That at least part of the reason for this happy state of affairs would appear to be his open antipathy to the teachings of what Ritchie calls 'men in white coats' - many of them doubtless readers of this magazine - may give some of you pause for thought.

Before contemplating early retirement, however, let us consider the whole story. In 1975, Ritchie - then 'selling pot plants door-to-door, in which my heart really wasn't' - met a man called Bickerton who had invented a small-wheeled folding bicycle. 'It was certainly an impressive piece of design, bar one thing,' muses Ritchie. 'When you rode it, it broke.' Reasoning that he could produce a rival without this questionable unique selling position, the young engineering graduate sat on the floor of his bedroom overlooking London's Brompton Oratory (whence the corporate name) and came up with the progenitor of the diminutive miracle now to be seen being pedalled in increasing numbers everywhere from Trondheim to Taipei.

Without wading too deeply into the swirling currents of cyclisme, the feat of engineering that has led such glamorous organs as Bicycle Action and New Cyclist to hail the Brompton bike as 'a definite winner' is as follows.

When Andrew Ritchie wheels his own (let it be noted, red) bicycle into his shambolic office, there is apparently little to distinguish it from the iconic '60s product of fellow British designer, Alex Moulton. A quick twiddle on a pair of levers, however, and an undeniably eye-catching thing happens. In rather under 30 seconds, the bicycle folds itself tidily away with a well-bred sigh, and turns itself instead into a piece of tubular metal origami.

Since this weighs less than 25lbs and comes with its own carrying case, it can be easily stashed in the airing cupboards of the sort of well-heeled urbanites who can afford to spend several hundred pounds on a bicycle but are both short on living space and neurotic about street theft. 'The other thing is that when you're on it, it rides quite decently,' notes the Brompton Bicycle's laconic inventor: a fact that even this wobbliest of scribblers will confirm.

The more acute among you may have noticed an unexplained 20-year gap between the buccaneering beginnings of this story and its happy ending, however. There is a reason for this. If Ritchie is a heart-warming exemplar of British ingenuity, he is also living proof of the hidebound nature of Anglo-Saxon venture capitalists. 'Having tried every backer I could, I finally persuaded 30 friends to buy a bicycle apiece,' recalls Ritchie, in harassed tones. 'In effect, they lent me money and I lent them a bicycle. Then we got some funding from the old Small Loans Guarantee Scheme and set up selling bikes as fast as we could make them. Admittedly,' he adds, 'that was partly because we couldn't make them very fast.' That, at least, is one thing that has not changed at Brompton Bicycles. Although an eventual injection of real capital from one of Ritchie's original clients, Julian Vereker (now a director), allowed the company to move into a pair of railway arches in Brentford in 1988 and thence, two years ago, to its current Chiswick Park plant, a sense of frenetic activity is not perhaps the first thing to strike a visitor to Ritchie's shop floor.

If his impeccably English dismissal of Brompton Bicycle's business as 'just metal-bashing, really' is not quite the whole story, the atmosphere is impressively low-key nonetheless. In one corner, a pair of youths are drilling holes in metal plates with machines that look as though they may be on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum: 'Fly-presses,' says Ritchie. 'Pretty primitive, really. All very tedious.' Production lines? 'They'd be hell,' Ritchie growls. 'Every bicycle has a small problem, and there would be the temptation just to say "sod it" and let it go.' BS5750? 'A mountain of paperwork. Not worth the trouble.' Just in Time? 'Don't even ask.' Now, lest you conclude from all of this that the Brompton bicycle is one of that peculiar genre of British goods - Jermyn Street shirts, Morgan cars - that owes its success to the perverse belief that no mere logical machine can ever adequately replace the palsied hand of man, think again. 'I don't think so,' says Ritchie, visibly wounded. 'Do you think our bicycles look hand-made? People in Germany, say, have no idea how they are manufactured, and they account for 60% of our sales, after all.' Enforced Ludditism has had its point, however. 'The thing about working slowly is that you have time to get things right,' says Ritchie. 'I look at the designs of our competitors and see all kinds of tangled nonsenses, most of which have come about because they had enough money to set up shop too quickly. I could never have done what I've done if we'd had to compete as a commodity.' Among other self-folding hares that Ritchie's commercial tortoise has quietly seen off over the past 20 years have been the Strida - 'very sexy design, looks nice hanging on a wall' - the Taiwanese DaHon - 'rather inelegant, but all right for a $200 bicycle you're going to use twice a year' - and the aforementioned Bickerton. This last triumph carries especial significance for Ritchie's philosophy of management. In an attempt to keep abreast of cycling modes, its makers disastrously attempted to produce a hybrid folding-cum-mountain-bike: a hybridised contradiction in terms that Brompton's overlord snortingly describes as a 'ridiculous, knobbly-wheeled thing'.

The moral - that innovation is commercially perilous - may not be universally popular, but it is easy enough to see from Brompton Bicycles' annual bottom line why it might be one that Ritchie should have chosen to espouse. As a result, ask him whether he feels any pressing need to diversify a product line more orthodox businessmen might view as being worryingly straitened and Ritchie will reply, 'not desperately. Of course, we're still vulnerable as a single product: but other people have tried to compete with us in the past and they've all failed.' If finding new products is not a priority, then one might at least reasonably expect the search for new markets for its existing product to be continuing apace. But no: 'The last thing we want to do is force people to buy,' winces Ritchie, with obvious distaste at the very thought. 'We'd have to make the bloody things, and I don't want standards to lapse.' Surprisingly, Ritchie actually suggests commercial method in this apparent corporate madness. 'New customers always ask for terms, which we simply never give,' says Brompton's gentlemanly CEO. 'We are in the happy position of being able to say, "Take it or leave it": but putting them off politely is trying.' The laughably orthodox convention of expanding supply to match demand is similarly poo-poohed. 'That would require a whole new management strategy, and I've already spent too many hours in this place,' says Ritchie. 'I could hire some man in a white coat to stand around for £50,000 a year in the expectation that he'd pick everything up overnight and double our size, but he wouldn't, of course. We may invest in a new brazing machine and maybe do a few marketing promotions: but increasing our size by 50% would mean 50% more jigs, more employees. Growth isn't always necessarily the right thing.' As further proof of this seditious view, Ritchie adduces his own experience of the Taiwanese firm with which Brompton recently entered into a licensing agreement to manufacture and supply its growing Pacific Rim markets. 'They were fearfully enthusiastic, set up a huge factory, lots of men in white coats, half-a-dozen salaried folk,' says Ritchie. 'But everything was jigged badly, nothing balanced properly. We're still working on that one.' In fact, the only thing that mars this rosy, Schumacherish picture is that most prevalent of human vices: greed. One other way in which Brompton Bicycles differs from the mainstream of small companies is in its share structure. Thanks to Ritchie's original bike-for-equity swop, his firm now has 35 shareholders, some of whom, he says, 'get rather fed up. The initial plan was that Raleigh or Black & Decker or someone would buy us out, and once or twice a year a few of our more active shareholders will say "where are we going, precisely?"' Andrew Ritchie ponders this phenomenon for a second, and then smiles seraphically. 'I must say, I never really have an answer.'.

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