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Bicycle Man

An interview with Andrew Ritchie, father of the Brompton bicycle

The Ecologist, September 2006

In an unremarkable industrial estate in West London , in the shadow of the M4 flyover, sits a company that shouldn’t exist. A successful, expanding British manufacturing company, making expensive products which it barely advertises but can hardly produce fast enough to meet demand. A company that defies the outsourcing mania that characterises globalisation, and employs sixty British employees on decent wages instead of teenage Taiwanese sweatshop workers. A company which makes a unique product, much imitated but still never bettered, whose inventor stumbled into its manufacture by accident, and now has a major success story on his hands.

Andrew Ritchie, founder, director and owner of the Brompton bicycle company pours me a wineglass full of tap water and leads me upstairs to a small meeting room. We are in the Brompton HQ, which consists of a factory floor and a few small offices. Everywhere, be it boardroom, stairwell or shop floor, there are bikes or bits of bikes – folded up, opened out, in racks on the wall, boxed and ready to go.

Ritchie has something of the air of an eccentric professor about him. He is tall and spindly, dressed in a stripy pink shirt, blue shorts and socks and brown leather shoes. He has striking blue eyes and an upper-class accent. He doesn’t look like a company director is supposed to look, which I suspect he would probably be quite happy about.

For at heart, Ritchie is an inventor. By his own admission he is ‘not a team player’, not a professional manager, never intended to run a business. Today though, he finds himself at the head of a successful company making innovative, even mould-breaking products.

The product is the Brompton folding bicycle, easily the best-known and most successful folding bike on the market, of which Andrew Ritchie is the begetter. He has dedicated over three decades of his life to this machine, and he is quietly proud of it. In the process he has proved that an essentially green product can be an economic success story.

The Brompton story began in the mid-1970s, almost by accident. Ritchie, a Cambridge engineering graduate, was working as a landscape gardener in London (‘my heart was never really in it’), and using a bike to get around.

‘I’d never been a mad keen bikie,’ he says. ‘I’d always used one as a way to get about, but I’m not the kind of guy who goes in for races and the like. But I’d always thought how nice to have one that you could stick in your pocket, so to speak. I never did anything about it until, by chance, my father bumped into a guy who was trying to raise money for another type of folding bike. And my mother said, “my son Andrew’s very interested in inventions, better go and see him”. I saw his design and thought, “that’s interesting, but I’m sure I could do a bit better.” With a free evening on my hands I sat down and sketched out some ideas, and I’m afraid I got hooked.’

After working his way through several designs, he persuaded ten friends to part with £100 each to allow him to build the first prototype, which he put together in his bedroom in West Kensington, overlooking the Brompton Oratory church, from whence came his company name. He shudders when he thinks of it now. ‘It was thoroughly unattractive’, he says. ‘It went into a skip a long time ago!’

But he persevered, because he was – and is – a perfectionist. Others might design a bike, produce it and hope it sells. Ritchie designed a bike – then redesigned it and redesigned it again, all the time looking for ways to make it lighter, easier to fold, simpler and more robust – whilst all the time maintaining the simple strengths of the original design. ‘There are a lot of other folders out there’, he says, ‘but no others with the folding mainframe that makes ours unique. That was a key part of the original, basic design, which we had up and running by 1980. But we’ve only recently got to the stage where I really think the thing is a fairly watertight product.’

For the record, that’s 26 years of perfectionist tweaking; surely the reason for the Brompton’s success. Today, that success is of a level that Andrew Ritchie initially would never have imagined it would reach. The company has sold around 100,000 bikes. Next year it plans to make 16,000, up from 14,000 last year. It employs 57 people, and expects to be employing seventy a year form now. Bromptons sell all over the world, and demand continues to rise.

What’s the secret? Perhaps, I suggest, the company is benefiting from a growing eco-awareness amongst the public? Ritchie smiles. ‘People have said this to me ever since I started!’ he says. ‘“What a good time to be producing bikes, everyone’s taking to bikes, there’s ecological problems, cars everywhere….” Maybe there’s more of a focus since the media homed in on global warming. Certainly it’s written about more, if not acted on. So, we’re right there, if you like, in the middle of that. Whether that endures, we shall see.’

But another reason for the company’s success must be the fanatical devotion to the Brompton that is exhibited by many of its owners. The company spends virtually nothing on advertising and promotion – word-of-mouth sells its product. On its website you can flick through photographs people have sent in of them and their Bromptons at the South Pole, in Cambodia , in Afghanistan or up Himalayan peaks.

‘People ring up and tell us how much they’ve carried on their front carrier, how many miles they’ve done in a day, that sort of thing’, says Ritchie, smiling. ‘I think many people are so devoted to it because it does set you free, in an extraordinary way. You can pretty much go anywhere, and take the bike with you. Simply, it does the business of being a reasonably portable form of personal transport better than all the others. I know that sounds rather arrogant, but it’s true. I’ve tried them all myself so I know.’

Walk through the factory and watch the machines being assembled, see the painstaking attention to detail that goes into them, and you can well believe it. The factory is a hive of activity: frames being spraypainted and assembled, welders shooting sparks across the floor, racks of washers, ballbearings and tiny, intricate fittings. The assembly process is a circuit which begins with the racks, shelves and boxes of single fittings, and ends with a boxed Brompton, ready to be delivered. This is old-fashioned craftsmanship, and it shows.

The workers on this factory floor are all from London , and all have been trained here in the specifics of Brompton manufacture. Everything is checked and double checked. Brompton’s ‘a la carte’ approach means that a customer can order a personalised bike, and many do. There are 13 billion possible permutations of the basic Brompton design. Andrew Ritchie, when asked precisely how many parts make up a single bike, replies, cheerily, ‘God knows’, but guesses that it numbers in the thousands.

Yet this is not the beginning. This is the Brompton’s nerve centre, its assembly plant and its distribution depot, but those thousands of individual parts, from spokes to handlebars, seats to ball-bearing joints, tyres to pannier bags, come from all over the world. Ritchie and his staff have spent decades sourcing the best parts from the best suppliers, all of which are required to create parts precisely to Ritchie’s design. There are 150 suppliers, some in the UK and Europe , others as far afield as China , Taiwan and Russia., supplying parts made of everything from steel to plastic to – a new development – lightweight titanium.

The question that any economist would surely ask Ritchie is: why here? It would be cheaper, surely, to outsource this work to low-wage economies like China , India or Taiwan . This is what most other British-based manufacturers have done.

‘In a way it’s crazy manufacturing in London now’, he concedes. ‘Most people have decamped. The rents and rates are higher here, I’m the first to admit it. But in return for that you get some very good quality management staff. Partly for sentimental reason, partly for strategic reasons we regard our 22,000 square feet here as a centre of excellence. To uproot it now would be a major project. We’ve now got suppliers for some parts in Russia and China , for example, but my God it was a three year development just to work with them get a little part like the front fork right. The expertise and know-how that’s here was needed. We could outsource it all, but it would be slower, less reliable and we wouldn’t have control over the product in the same way.’

It is precisely that creative control that allows Andrew Ritchie to be apply his perfectionism to the final product – and it’s that perfectionism that has made the Brompton what it is.

So is it as good as I’m being told? It’s time to find out. The company’s marketing manager, Emerson Roberts, lends me his Brompton for a test drive. (I’ve noticed that many people who work here own and use a Brompton themselves, which has to be a good sign.) It’s tiny when folded, and surprisingly light; the weight of a small suitcase, and easy enough to carry around a city with you, or onto a train. Outside, he shows me how to fold and unfold it – a process that involves four or five simple movements, and takes under a minute. There are no fiddly brackets or complex manoeuvres. It’s easy, and quick.

Then I’m off, riding it around the estate, getting the feel of the gears and the handlebars. As a cyclist myself I suppose I’ve always assumed that folding bikes are very much second-class rides. Yet this one is quick, smooth and comfortable. I could imagine riding it through London ’s traffic, but it would also be a fine, robust machine for a long ride in the country – something that both Emerson and Andrew Ritchie regularly use theirs for. The idea of folding it up, sticking it in a bag, stowing it under the seat on a train and setting out for the day is an exciting one.

In short, this is a real, good-quality bike that just happens to fold up, not a folding bike that’s an adequate ride: exactly as Andrew Ritchie always intended it to be. It certainly demonstrates to me that Ritchie’s 30-year search for perfection has paid off. When he started, he never imagined it would take him this far, and though he says that he is looking to relinquish control at some stage in the near future – ‘I need to award myself some free time’ – he seems to enjoy it to much to want to walk away.

‘I do enjoy it’, he agrees. ‘I enjoy it a lot. I’ve been very lucky. Though to be honest, you know, looking back – designing the bike was the easy bit.’