Brompton Bicycle shows British manufacturing how to shift up a gear

Sun Jan 26, 2014 5:18am EST
 
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By Brenda Goh and Neil Maidment

LONDON (Reuters) - Loan refusal letters and retailers' rejections frame the walls of the Brompton Bicycle factory, a reminder of the obstacles the firm has overcome to establish itself as the UK's top bike-maker, selling 45,000 a year around the world.

Brompton's success lies partly in its cool - the company cashed in on a trendy 'Made in Britain' tag, and the fact that its bikes fold up lends the label a geeky chic as well as popular practicality.

But beneath the image lies a carefully-constructed business strategy that reveals not only the level of innovation required for UK manufacturing firms to succeed, but also the number of bumps in the road many of them still face.

Britain's 1.5 trillion pound economy is among the developed world's fastest-growing thanks to a recovery in consumer spending last year. But its manufacturing sector, a tenth of gross domestic output, has been hollowed out since its post-war boom. From the world's number two exporter in 1948, the UK fell to No. 8 in 2007 before the financial crisis and fierce competition from countries like China bumped it down further to 11th position in 2012, according to World Trade Organisation figures.

The crisis in the eurozone, destination for around half of Britain's exports, has held back growth in recent years. But home-grown problems such as a lack of innovation on the factory floor and a shortage of staffing resources are longer-term factors at the core of the country's manufacturing malaise.

"The problem is you can't get the brains," Brompton's managing director Will Butler-Adams told Reuters on a quick tour of his busy factory. "That's the problem for the UK. We have the capability - we don't have the engineers."

When Butler-Adams joined Brompton in 2002 the firm founded by inventor Andrew Ritchie was selling just 6,000 bikes a year, held back by a lack of skilled craftsmen, a disorganised production line and a reluctance to outsource non-essential and time-consuming work.

For the forthright engineering graduate - talked into the job by Brompton chairman Tim Guinness during a coach journey when they met as strangers - it was clear Brompton's promise could only be met by tapping overseas markets, restructuring its factory floor and training more specialised staff.   Continued...