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There are many books about businesses, but very few are about bicycle brands – and not many cycling books delve into the business side of a company. The Brompton is one of the few that does, but it certainly isn't a dry management tome, being the product of Brompton's high-profile CEO Will Butler-Adams and accomplished writer Dan Davies.
The Brompton is 'the first look behind the scenes at Brompton Bicycle Ltd', a company that is deservedly seen as a great British success story. It's not the first book about the iconic machine – that will be Brompton Bicycle by David Henshaw, first published in 2009, but updated with a third edition in 2020. This earlier work is very much aimed at Brompton riders who also want to know about the product development of their machine.
While this new publication will still be of interest to Brompton riders, they won't be the main audience. Supporting the claim that The Brompton book is 'a masterclass in entrepreneurship, manufacturing, and scaling a business', it is to be found in the Business & Management section of Profile Books, despite the fact that Profile actually has its own specific cycling imprint, Pursuit, which has been responsible for some great publications about cycling.
Brompton (the business) is renowned for its effective use of PR: want to make a TV programme about bicycles or British manufacturing? Just go to Brompton. Need some comment about the state of the bicycle business? Brompton is ready when you are. Politician looking for a photo opportunity? Brompton's got it. Undertaking an unusual adventure? Have an unusual bike.
In many ways a book is a logical extension of this attitude. Much of this approach surely comes from Butler-Adams. He has clear objectives and is a great communicator – as anyone who has heard him speak will testify. That makes him well suited for being enthusiastic about his business and explaining his decisions – as well as co-writing a book about it.
The first part of The Brompton talks about the product itself – or really, more about the difficulties in building it. From the extensive use of complicated jigs, through manufacturing tolerances, to the unique brazing skills, it demonstrates Butler-Adams' background as an engineer and where his interests initially lay.
Next up is his experience of building the company and the brand: 'talking about money and control. The two go together because profitability is the basis of keeping control of your own destiny.' This has resulted in some traditional cycle retailers being sidelined as the company pursues ambitions beyond cyclists; increasingly it is also 'taking full ownership of our international sales', generally by buying out long-serving distributors.
Finally, a section called 'Changing the World' reveals why Brompton does not see itself just as a bicycle brand: it wants to 'reach out to new groups of people who haven't heard about the bike', and wants to 'change how people live in cities'. This is much more about the benefits of cycling than the Brompton specifically, but a good folding bike can often be the best tool for the job.
Even if you don't agree with the direction that the business is taking or the decisions being made, you can't argue with the logical thought and simple explanations.
Many businesses have transitioned from being owned and led by the founder, to having a new management team: the phasing out of Brompton's creator, Andrew Ritchie, wasn't easy, and Butler-Adams provides a candid account of the stressful period over the course of a chapter, and the challenge of 'Founder's syndrome'.
Contrast this with less than a page given over to the life-changing event in Brompton Bicycle, where it was felt there had been a 'smooth transfer of power' – because that book has an entirely different focus, and is complementary rather than in competition.
Butler-Adams is refreshingly candid about financial details and the mechanics of the buyout: as 'one of the first-ever customers of Barclays Bank's buy-to-let mortgage', he used the equity he had gained to fund his £250,000 stake in the business.
That spirit of openness continues throughout the book. I was interested to read that of the £700 that Brompton receives (on average) for each bike, what are typically known as variable costs account for £410, and fixed costs £230 – leaving a profit of £60 per unit. That's a great over-simplification, and doesn't actually give away any trade secrets, but it's rare for outsiders to have access to such information.
The one thing I was disappointed with is the images. A few pages of colour are supplemented with numerous black and white ones, and I suspect that many of the latter could have been in colour – larger would have been good, too, because it's often hard to make out any detail.
What's next for Brompton? We already know of plans for a new factory to run alongside (and eventually replace) the current one, but before that there is increasing electrical assistance, and an expansion of bike docks.
And soon the millionth Brompton will be produced. On a recent factory visit I witnessed frame number 972,421 being brazed, so all being well the major milestone could occur next month: look out for the Brompton publicity machine to make the most of it, building yet further on our awareness of the brand.
Very interesting account of the world of Brompton according to the man who matters
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road.cc test report
Make and model: The Brompton by Will Butler-Adams
Size tested: Hardback
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
From the publisher:
The story of the iconic Brompton bicycle and the company that built it
Lightweight, compact, and now, electric: the cityscape has been forever changed by the addition of the Brompton bike, with its distinctive style and clever folding design.
For over forty years, the Brompton's modular design has remained virtually unchanged. It has stood not only the test of time but every financial crash since 1976, Brexit, and COVID-19, not to mention every other risk which any business faces. Where, then, did this ingenious feat of engineering come from? Who were the minds behind it? And how did a small company grow to become one of the biggest cycling brand names in the world?
This is not only the first look behind the scenes at Brompton Bicycle Ltd, but a masterclass in entrepreneurship, manufacturing, and scaling a business.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: The Brompton
Author: Will Butler-Adams & Dan Davies
Publisher: Profile Books
Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose
As promised, it is more about the management and mission of a business; it's a bonus for us that the business is Brompton.
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
Hearing about the business side of a brand I know.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The disappointing pictures.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
Delivers extremely well on the promise of being an honest account of a well-respected cycle brand, and of being more about business than bikes.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding,