Federico Ercoli travelled to Brentford to learn more about Brompton’s latest developments and plans for relocation.
Finding manufacturers in London is hard. But the reasons why there aren’t more is because setting up headquarters in the UK capital is prohibitive for most.
Regardless of this, there’s one that found its home at the Kew Bridge DC factory in Brentford back in 1998 (when it was still “affordable”): Brompton bicycles.
This made it very easy for me to reach out and visit the company that manufactures the iconic foldable bikes, which just turned 40.
“First off, have you ever tried one?” asks Nick Charlier, communications executive at Brompton, before starting the factory tour. “Actually, no,” I reply. “Oh well, let’s fix that,” Charlier said. After unfolding one of the bikes in a few seconds, I found myself cruising along the site on the city-sized bicycle.
As soon as I hopped off the bike, I started to think about the levels of engineering and design it takes to manufacture something like that and how hard it must have been at the beginning.
“When the company started out it was just the idea of our inventor and founder, Andrew Ritchie, and the concept was just to design a bike that was useful to get around cities. It was something that Andrew wanted and so in the very early days he was just designing the bike and hoping someone else would manufacture it,” Ross Hawkins, global brand manager at Brompton tells me.
“When he found that no one wanted to manufacture it, after going to lots of different bike manufacturers he decided to make it himself. He decided to do some crowdfunding, he went out to his friends and in the early-80s he said ‘I’m going to build a few hundred of these bikes’,” Hawkins adds.
Such was the success that Brompton now needs to relocate to expand its business. As mentioned, the company has its roots firmly in West London and it doesn’t intend to go any farther. In January, Brompton will relocate to almost double-sized facilities in Greenford.
“We’ve always been based around West London. It really is our home, it’s where Andrew set up the company. We’ve basically outgrown the place we’re currently in. We’ve been here since 1998 and having taken on a newer house down the road and taking on extra storage facilities is due to the fact that we’ve expanded at such a rate that made us need more space,” Hawkins explains.
“At the moment we’re constrained. We couldn’t take on any new people to do new stuff, but there will be opportunity as we bring out development on the bikes, new products and look to expand into new markets around the world. We’re hoping to grow in the next five years.”
After seeing how technical and unscrupulously precise the manufacturing of the bikes is, I wonder if Brompton is a victim of the skills gap too.
“The UK has a long past of creative engineers and people doing interesting stuff and those guys exist, but we need more of them, we need more people, particularly young people going into engineering and doing exciting stuff,” Hawkins said.
I am told technicians go through months of training before they can be fully operational and to prove their qualitative approach and results, their initials are engraved on the brazing of every single bike they set their hands on.
“Two thirds of the parts that are on a Brompton are unique to a Brompton. That consequently leads to a lot of technical challenges when we are designing the bike or manufacturing it and making sure everything is right on it,” Hawkins told me.
Having seen rejected parts of the bikes and having learnt why those parts have been rejected, I realise the London brand’s success is not only due to its innovative, unique product, but also to its uncompromising commitment to excellence.