Shaper: Will Butler-Adams

Show aired on 27th May 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was John Lee Hooker with Boom Boom here on Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Thank you very much for joining. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and the treat especially for you is that we bring someone who is also shaping something and that is the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. I am very pleased to say that my Business Shaper today is Will Butler-Adams and Will is the chief exec of Brompton Bicycles now they are a beautiful British company selling very natty things all the way round the world. You may even have one yourself. You will be hearing lots from Will very shortly. In addition to hearing from him you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and then we’ve got some fantastic music of course as I promised earlier. We’ve got Roberto Fonseca, Van Morrison and this from Eliane Elias.

That was Eliane Elias with Oye Como Va. Will Butler-Adams is my Business Shaper today here on Jazz Shapers. As I said he is the chief exec of a brilliant business called Brompton Bicycles and he’s been with them fifteen years so he’s not your traditional founder but he’s someone who has created through his entrepreneurial brilliance a business of some note and it’s going to be interesting finding out how he’s done it. Will, hello.

Will Butler-Adams
Good morning.

Elliot Moss
It’s really nice to have you here. I have followed the fortunes of Brompton Bikes over the years, bicycles I should probably say. I was a keen cyclist, middle age has set in and I have to do other things now but I have admired from afar what you’ve been doing. You joined as a lowly project manager he says, probably wasn’t low at all back in 2002. Tell me why you have stayed with the business? Tell me why you’ve fallen in love with it? Tell me what you have been up to.

Will Butler-Adams
Well I did engineering at Uni and then ended up working for ICI Middlesbrough which wasn’t the sort of dream job that I imagined I was going to get. I thought I’d be whizzing off around the world and doing glamourous things but in the end I had an absolute awesome time, was given ludicrous amounts of responsibility but after five years decided that I needed to move on so approaching thirty thought right off to go and do an MBA, was busy studying for GMET and as the world is full of weird things I was sitting on a bus going from London out towards Henley sat next door to a bloke who happened to be the best friend of the inventor of the Brompton Bicycle that I had never heard of and he got chatting to me and when he found out I was an engineer that they needed some help and I was just the guy and I thought, oh that’s a bit peculiar, never heard of this weird looking bike, sounds intriguing I’ll go and have a look. I went to the factory, met Andrew. Whizzed around the car park on his bike thought London was pretty cool thought I wasn’t probably going to pass my GMET because my CV was a bit boring so I thought well I’ll do this for a couple of years and that was fifteen years ago.

Elliot Moss
And Andrew Ritchie who was the founder then back, I think he’d invented the bike in 1975 had to get the finance to get it off the ground and eventually it happened in 1988. You go twelve years in or fourteen years later. It sounds like serendipity but behind it I mean the last fifteen years would say this, you are a pretty focused guy who knows where he’s going. Why did you think it might be a good thing? Was it out of character to have just gone and done it based on a conversation on a bus?
Will Butler-Adams
No. I have always been of the opinion that I look at things of what have you got to lose and I did weird expeditions into weird parts of the world and was always quite keen to do things a little bit different on the basis that you know when you’re twenty eight really what have you got to lose, next to nothing? And a year or two is nothing and so the aim was to do something different, have some fun, learn, London I was brought up in the North of England. London sounded like a blast and carry on in my MBA way. What changed that was this bike which is sitting in the studio and got me here faithfully. Initially I just got on it, I’d never seen one before and you know it was pretty good and that was fine. Then I started living in London and using it, loving it, having a laugh and London you know people going down a hole in the ground looking pretty grumpy day in day out that’s no fun. But I wasn’t doing that I was whizzing across London on this bike. I was meeting friends in the pub I was you know handing it to ladies with long nails in the cloak room in nightclubs and they were sort of squirming at me and I just shoved it through and piled into the nightclub and had a laugh and then whizzed off home on it. This thing was awesome and then I met our customers and they loved it and I’m thinking, my God this is completely awesome we need to be doing more of this and then I was just totally sucked in and sort of it just ate me up and I’ve been at it ever since.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out what happened after he got eaten up and absorbed into the wonderful world of the Brompton Bicycle that’s my Business Shaper today CEO of Brompton Bikes, Will Butler-Adams. Time for some more music this is Roberto Fonseca with Family.

Roberto Fonseca with the upbeat Family. Will Butler-Adams is my Business Shaper today; CEO of Brompton Bicycles and wasn’t always CEO, was the new kid on the block who as you said you just fell in love with the product and the customers. At what point was it evident that this wasn’t just a passing through a couple of years offering your advice as a nice guy who liked the products and was a mechanical engineer. At what point did you say, do you know what I am invested in this place and at what point did they say to you Will can you do a bit more than you’re doing?

Will Butler-Adams
So I joined in 2002. You know we were a company of twenty four people, quite a number of those are on the shop floor making stuff so the sort of team running it we were sort of six/seven. We had no monthly management accounts, we had no budgets, we had no meetings, we had no meeting room. Andrew signed every cheque. It was proper old school and you know in some respects that’s a bit frightening but in other respects it’s like oh my God the opportunity is immense. We couldn’t make enough bikes so you know from an operational perspective the scope was there we only had to make more. The market was there. From my perspective we were inefficient we had a stock turnover of about one, the space we had was mostly filled with stock not adding value doing stuff so it was you know it was a perfect place to have an impact and you don’t need to be clever to have had an impact anybody could have had an impact because it was all there for the taking.

Elliot Moss
But you’re a mechanical engineer by trade at this point. You’re a young guy?

Will Butler-Adams
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
You’re footloose and all that and how did you, obviously you’re interested in business in the broader sense because you were going to do your MBA but what enabled you to pick off you know turn around, creating basically more product for a start, managing stock better, looking at cash flow and all that. How did you become good at those things that you then needed to become good at?

Will Butler-Adams
In my opinion there is a part of my Degree which was very technical and you know, you need to understand and study certain things albeit material science or stress analysis. But there’s another part of a Degree which is irrelevant of what subject you choose it’s just about learning and anybody who has learnt to learn can do anything that they apply themselves to and you sniff out that you need to know what a P&L is and you don’t need to know the difference between ebit and ebitda and you soon work out that you have a whole load of knowledge that you don’t know the first thing about so when you’re looking to recruit someone you look for somebody who has all the skill you don’t have so it’s not, I don’t think it’s particularly difficult I think increasingly today its unusual that you are given the time to feel your way. Today everything is about returning you know a quarterly return never mind three yearly return. My philosophy slightly aspiring to Mr Warren Buffett is compound growth I’m happy, 10% to 15% year-on-year, twenty years I’ll have it and that’s doable particularly with manufacturing which is quite, you can’t just sort of copy and paste you need machinery people training and you know it’s been an absolute blast.

Elliot Moss
And you became managing director obviously you started there I think you were called the product manager, you became an engineering director and then managing director. Those first few days in the job where you’re actually starting to call the shots and I appreciate obviously there’s other people on the Board or Andrew is the founder at that point. First decision you made that was good in that role do you remember it?

Will Butler-Adams
Well funnily enough the way that worked in reality was increasingly I was probably from somewhere between 2006 and 2008, I was effectively the COO. I was running the business and the big, big decision wasn’t so much when I became CEO because that was sort of, that transition was happening some time before. The big decision was mobilising the shareholder group and being honest and sharing my thoughts with Andrew, the founder, who had a controlling stake at the time to say, look if I’m going to be here for the next ten/twenty years of my life I can’t do it if you own it and control it. You’re a complete legend but this business needs not to have your absolute control otherwise I can’t do what I think I need to do and when we as a group came to that conclusion then it was time to kick off and it wasn’t and isn’t still me, it’s the team I’ve employed they have the knowledge.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper today here on Jazz Shapers that’s Will Butler-Adams, CEO of the brilliant business Brompton Bicycles. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that it’s another part of our Future Shapers series, it’s someone who is going to be shaping the world of business in the very near future.

You’re listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business and very lucky I am too. If you’ve missed any of the previous two hundred and fifty shows or so I can’t believe it’s that many but it is go into iTunes and you’ll find most of them there. If you’re travelling with British Airways in the future you can look over there as well and CityAM.com is also an excellent place to go and fish out the good ones. Will Butler-Adams is my good one today, he is the CEO of Brompton Bicycles and he has been with that business for fifteen years and you were talking Will very interestingly about having an honest conversation with the founder and obviously we are discussing you as someone who has come into the business and is effectively running it but to have the important conversation along with the other shareholders. Once you’ve done that is it then much easier to do what you need to do? Or were there still, have there still been bumps along the way?

Will Butler-Adams
I think the measure of success at the end of each year is taking the number of screw ups you’ve made with the number of successes you’ve made and if you happen to have more successes than screw ups then you’ve done pretty well but there is a complete misunderstanding somehow painted in the world of success, entrepreneurism and business that you’re successful. It’s just accumulative addition, every day, every week there’s a complete boob, error, oh my God did we do that? But that’s life and you can’t worry too much about it you’ve got to keep pushing on and make sure that the positives outweigh the negatives and you grow.

Elliot Moss
Is recognition important to you? I know in 2015 you were made an OBE which is fantastic and you got to meet the Queen and all that and that’s very nice but does it matter? It strikes me as I look at you that it doesn’t particularly, there’s no harm someone saying well done but if that doesn’t motivate you what does?

Will Butler-Adams
When I joined Brompton we were interested in making bikes and I think we hadn’t articulated what we wanted and if we had articulated it it might have been a rich but it is important as a business grows that as you have to communicate to your own staff that you communicate what you’re about and pretty early on after I took over we knew what we wanted to do as a business and our measure of success is how we change cities. We are in London, we have about a hundred thousand of our bikes in London. We are exporting to forty four countries around the world. We have exported cities in those countries. We have created a society weirdly where people get up in the morning, drink their expensive café latte and then go down a hole in the ground that they pay the privilege of doing, get spluttered on or shoved up somebody’s armpit, trundle along and pop out the other end and sit in front of a computer all day and that’s a pretty miserable life and its affecting our societies, we have health problems and you know mental problems and we live in great cities with amazing architecture and cool parks and we’ve got to get people back on a bike and that’s what makes me happy, that’s what floats my boat. Seeing people all round the world on our bike. Next week I’m in Seoul visiting our customers, racing with our customers it’s just immensely rewarding to see our product being used by people all round the world.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper today and hear about how Will is wanting to change cities and that’s not a bad goal is it? Time for some more music, this is Van Morrison the one and only with Moondance.

Van Morrison with Moondance. I’ve been talking to Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycles and I love what you just said about your purpose for the business which is we’re here to change cities. Can we make them better? That’s a really big goal and its connected obviously to the fact that you’re a bicycle business but how do you ensure that people don’t go, yeah yeah I get it that’s philosophy and that’s structural but you sell bikes give me a break?

Will Butler-Adams
So good question but we are doing it. We might be doing it a small way but we are doing it. In London about 5% of people ride a bike. We’ve got a hundred thousand of our bikes in London, in Greater London. We know that. In Berlin, in Amsterdam it’s not 5% of people that cycle its 35% so if London were Amsterdam we’d have seven hundred thousand Bromptons in London. That’s one city. We have our own shops in Beijing, Shanghai, Chen du, we are selling in Columbia, in Mexico, in Canada, in Spain, France, Portugal, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia – we have not even started. We have enough insight for what we’ve done for London, for Brussels, for Barcelona where we’ve changed those cities to know that we can do it on a global scale.

Elliot Moss
And this global scale is an important thing to me obviously in this post-Brexit environment and people talking about us being global players. You already are a global player what’s the reality of you as a chief exec dealing with forty four different markets with forty four different realities, with forty four sets of different customers in a way. Is it complicated? Is it overwhelming? How do you cut through it?

Will Butler-Adams
Its bloody good fun. What a laugh. I go whizzing round the world you know, I trot off I’m going to Korea, I’m popping into Taiwan on the way there. I munch fantastic food, I meet cool people, drinking their weird beer. It’s just great. I have staff to help me trade with those people so I have staff in the company from many of those countries because if you want to trade with a country you need people inside your organisation that understand the culture of that company. So our company benefits, we’re full of interesting people from all over the world. Our staff benefit, they love travelling around the world engaging with our customers and also our suppliers. It makes the whole business, it brings it up a level and makes it more exciting and fun to work in.

Elliot Moss
And I buy that Will but it must be stressful as well? You can’t tell me that you don’t go how am I going to manage that issue in Columbia its 4.00 o’clock in the morning here it’s 9.00 o’clock there.

Will Butler-Adams
No, no.

Elliot Moss
Nothing? Really?

Will Butler-Adams
No because we’re making bikes you know we’re not, get a grip you know let’s not, let’s not worry too much about it it’s not the end of the world. There are serious things – we worry about the safety of our customers, we’re making something that has integrity and it’s very important to look after our, the quality of our bike it’s not just a toy it’s a tool that needs to be well engineered and well-made but lots of other things if I finish the day thinking I have to complete everything and be perfect I’d be a nervous wreck. Sadly I have resigned myself to the fact that I’m fairly disorganised and I can’t get everything done and I’m doing the best I can and then I’ll just potter off home and not worry too much about it and you know we’ll get round to next week, next week.

Elliot Moss
Final chat coming up with Will plus we’ll be playing a track from China Moses that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was the sassy sound of China Moses with Watch Out and Will was enjoying that with me. We both liked that didn’t we? Now Will I’ve got a few minutes with you. You strike me as a very together person. You’re doing something you love. You’re an engineer who is making stuff you haven’t kind of sold out. You are care about the product. The product has a great image, a great reputation. Did you think you would end up running something when you were younger? Did you think about it or has it just naturally evolved?

Will Butler-Adams
Well I, from a very early age I wanted to sort of I’m not quite sure what I wanted to do but I wanted to, I initially made things and sold them, probably at the age of about ten. Then when I got to the next school I sold beer mats because dad was in the booze industry. Then I sold beer towels then mum turned the beer towels into sort of towels and I sold them. Then when I was at Uni I took out the first buy-to-let mortgage in Newcastle and managed to yeah get some mates so I’ve always…

Elliot Moss
You’ve got history haven’t you Will? I mean that all says that you like making stuff and the money side of it it’s interesting to you.

Will Butler-Adams
Yeah it was, I don’t quite know what it is but you know I always knew, I tried to do a management buyout of a chemical plant that I ran in Middlesbrough, Dupont were prepared to sell it to me for £1 and I got a team together and then we decided, I decided actually, this was at twenty eight that the liabilities were too big and I should can it. Then the MBA thing came in but you know it’s not about being the boss, it’s about having an impact you know creating something that isn’t just frivolous and building something but the boss bits not important because of the way I manage the business is very, very much as a team effort.

Elliot Moss
And the building something talking about that these next few years you’ve been through some times at Brompton. People will have read about profits reducing but expansion happening as well. Where’s the next five years going to end up for you and for the business?

Will Butler-Adams
So over the last ten years people have talked about us building a brand and I am not hugely happy about this again this slight obsession with the word brand. The brand is the product, it’s the service that we give with that product that is our brand. So our focus is on making awesome products and delivering outstanding service. So we’ve spent the last four years working with Williams. We’ve taken the KERS technology out of their F1 cars, we’ve shrunk it, we’re creating a supremely cool electric drive system for our bikes unlike anything else in the world. It’s been a monstrous challenge and the funniest thing is Williams got involved and they’re like yeah, yeah we make Formula One cars, yeah bike easy, no worries and it’s like my God it’s so small and it’s got to be light and it’s got to be powerful and suddenly what seems so easy has been really tricky and we’re doing some quite cool stuff with material science, with 3d printing, with testing. We are doing some very cool innovation to try and make products that make our customers happier so more people jump on bikes and have fun.

Elliot Moss
Well that sounds good. Listen it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Very easy. I look forward to the innovations and I really hope they go super well. Hope the business grows, I’m sure it will too. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Will Butler-Adams
So I have chosen Blue Skies by Maxine Sullivan and you now we’ve got to come up with a trendy you know jazz song and I’m reading through all my flipping stuff trying to look for something that’s trendy…

Elliot Moss
There was no pressure on you Will.

Will Butler-Adams
There is, you’ve got to be you know you’ve got to sound cool and so I’m struggling a bit but I have had this sitting on a CD which I then downloaded onto flipping iTunes but it is, it makes me happy. It’s called Blue Skies. I see blue skies because I’m not down on the ground, on the tube because I’m whizzing around on my bike so get on your bike and see the sky.

Elliot Moss
Selling until the last, fabulous, here it is for you.

That was Blue Skies by Maxine Sullivan and her orchestra the song choice of my Business Shaper today Will Butler-Adams. Someone who basically said if you know how to learn you’re going to be fine learning what it is to run a business. Someone with fantastic perspective he really was a relaxed guy because he said we make bikes but also someone who alongside that believed in something bigger and his bigger was we are going to change cities. What a fabulous purpose to put in front of your customers. Do join me again same time, same place, that’s next Saturday 9.00am for another addition of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us because coming up next its Nigel Williams.

Will Butler-Adams

Will Butler-Adams is the Managing Director of Brompton Bicycle. He studied Mechanical Engineering and Spanish at Newcastle University, followed by a Chartered Mechanical Engineering course at the Institute of Mechanical Engineering. He began working as a Project Manager at ICI, a former chemical company and as a Plant Manager in DuPont, a science-based products and services company before moving on to Brompton Bicycle.

In 2015, Will was awarded an OBE for services to manufacturing.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

Follow Will on Twitter @Will_Brompton.

“…as the world is full of weird things, I was sitting on a bus going from London out towards Henley next to a bloke who happened to be the best friend of the inventor of the Brompton Bicycle…”

“I thought, oh that’s a bit peculiar, never heard of this weird looking bike, sounds intriguing I’ll go and have a look”

“This thing was awesome and then I met our customers and they loved it and I’m thinking, we need to be doing more of this and then I was just totally sucked in and sort of it just ate me up and I’ve been at it ever since.”

“We had no monthly management accounts, we had no budgets, we had no meetings, we had no meeting room.”

“London, you know, people going down a hole in the ground looking pretty grumpy, that’s no fun. But I wasn’t doing that I was whizzing across London on this bike.”

“I did weird expeditions into weird parts of the world and was always quite keen to do things a little bit different on the basis that, you know, when you’re twenty eight really what have you got to lose?”

“There’s another part of a degree which is irrelevant of what subject you choose, it’s just about learning and anybody who has learnt to learn can do anything that they apply themselves to.”

“I think the measure of success at the end of each year is taking the number of screw ups you’ve made with the number of successes you’ve made and if you happen to have more successes than screw ups then you’ve done pretty well”

“We live in great cities with amazing architecture and cool parks and we’ve got to get people back on a bike and that’s what makes me happy, that’s what floats my boat. Seeing people all round the world on our bike.”