Peddling through a gorse bush - How Will Butler-Adams quietly built an iconic global bike brand

“Business is about risk… You’ve got to have lofty ambitions and you’ve got to be prepared to take risks,” says Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bikes, during his interview with Mary Nightingale in our final episode of How I Grew My Brand season 4.

One big risk Will talks about is how Brompton inventor and founder, Andrew Ritchie, took him on in the first place. And it was an even bigger risk for Will to try and modernise the business. “I was just the lucky person who happened to be invited to have a look around, but we didn’t have a website, everything was done on MS-DOS [Microsoft Disk Operating System]. This wasn’t 1972, this was 2002… there were no meetings, there was no budget, there was no strategy.” Yet, it was a risk that paid off as the business has grown from £2m to £75m, and from 5,000 to 100,000 bikes a year, with three-quarters exported internationally.

Will and Andrew Ritchie couldn’t be more different, and Will thinks that is what made their founder and CEO relationship so effective. “We have huge respect for each other, but I drive Andrew potty, and he drives me potty… I could not in a million years have even started to deliver what Andrew did, but equally he could not have done what I have done in taking his masterpiece and growing the business… I just needed to clear out all the crap and try and identify what’s core and what’s non-core. And to establish what contained Brompton DNA and what’s really clever and made the customer feel special, and which things we could let somebody else do.”

He describes Andrew as a “genius” but someone who had no interest in making money – “Inadvertently while designing something for himself, he designed something that was tremendously useful to other people.” On the other hand, Will tells of his youth flogging anything he could get his hands on to school friends. “I had a very privileged upbringing but with no money,” he says. “I was surrounded by people who seemed to have lots of money, I never had any, so I had to earn it.”

You can see this early ambition mirrored in the way he talks about growing Brompton: “I am way too enthusiastic… I’m charging off at 100 miles an hour not really thinking about the consequences. If I don’t have a good team behind me I’d be a disaster. If there were five of me running this company we’d have nosedived in two seconds flat.” On his leadership style, Will is gratifyingly humble: “That sense of honesty, the ability to respect people, to care about staff, it’s terribly important that you are visible, and you give people confidence. You need to be vulnerable, you need to be weak as a leader, because if as a leader you are perfect and you never make a mistake, nobody else will be allowed to make a mistake, and then you won’t learn.”

Like Andrew, Will sees Brompton’s purpose and meaning as far more important than its balance sheet: “Our mission for the company is not shareholder value, it’s not profit, we want to create urban freedom, we want to make people happier, that is our measure of success.”

This sense of purpose feeds directly into how he speaks about the business. “I’m not that interested in competition. I’m interested in my customer, I’m interested in my staff, because they are the brand.” And this in turn influences how he sees the usually accepted staples of brand building. While he understands the value of his marketing team and in user generated content, he knows where the brand’s priorities lie: “People think great brand building is amazing logos and fantastic marketing campaigns – brand building is someone coming in with an 18-year-old bike and us caring for them.”

On Brompton’s infamously hefty price tag he’s refreshingly candid: “The Brompton is not cheap, absolutely not, but it’s phenomenal value. People are paying money to go to a gym and peddle on a bike that goes nowhere, that’s bonkers. A Brompton will last you 15-20 years.”

And if being this honest seems risky, well that’s just why Will does it. Throughout the interview, he returns to the power of taking risks. “Let’s just say you want to go to this lovely beach in Cornwall and there’s a ginormous gorse bush. Now one approach is to pick your way through the gorse bush with those little yellow flowers, every little step – pick, pick, pick – and you come out the other side with not a little scratch. But it takes you three hours, by which time the sun has gone down and you’ve missed it. My approach is there is a gorse bush, there is a lovely beach, f**k it, run! Run through this thing really fast, get a few scratches… then I’m going to have a brilliant time and I know the scratches aren’t going to kill me. That is so much to do with life and business, you’ve got to be prepared to take some shrapnel.”

His advice to others? “The journey you take is not linear, it’s in many cases wiggly. We could have been more ambitious earlier, but you know we don’t live in a perfect world so I wouldn’t change anything. I think that my advice to anyone in any business is life is short. If you believe in something you’ve got to take risk and you’ve got to go for it. Don’t be so protective.”

For more of Will Butler-Adams’ insights into how being a perfectly imperfect business drove them to success, listen to the full podcast here now.