Episode 9 Season 2020
The Role of Digital in Scaling from Family Operation to Global Leader with William Butler-Adams (Brompton Bicycle)
Length: 63 minutes
Chief Business Guy on a Bike, Will Butler-Adams, shares how he and his unconventional team used digital tools to take Brompton from a solo inventor's passion project to #1 globally beloved folding city bike.
– Brompton Bicycle
14 April 2020
Read the Transcript
[General intro omitted.]
Today, we’re speaking with William Butler Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycle out of the United Kingdom. Now if you’ve never heard of these guys, you’ve almost certainly seen their products because Brompton manufactures, the very best, folding bicycles in the entire world.
So if you’ve ever seen one of those goofy looking bikes with the little wheels, and they have that weird joint in the middle of the frame, that’s a folding bicycle. The reason they’re getting so popular is that cycling is seeing a huge comeback for city dwellers who are increasingly choosing to forego the rush hour commutes and expensive cars for the wind on their face and just a simpler, healthier lifestyle.
So this is going to be a really exciting episode for me because I’ve personally been traveling the world full time for the last four years with a Brompton bike as one of my only two bags. I can tell you that from the mountains of Bosnia to the streets of France, these bikes are incredibly well made and that kind of Superior Engineering is impart enabled by digital tools that helped Brompton stay competitive and loved by customers all over the world, including Asia, Europe and the Americas.
So Will is the guy responsible for Brompton phenomenal success since he took the reins in what was a small family run operation in 2002. And he’s going to share some of their secrets to that success with us today. Will, thanks for joining us.
It’s my pleasure.
Now, I’m obviously a huge fanboy and I could spend hours just listening, listening to your own experiences, writing your Brompton all around the world. But what I’d like to start with is a little more about your role at Brompton and what you’ve been able to accomplish as a business since 2002. So that we can then find out how digital has played a role in all of that.
So I would say that my role has changed. In the very early days, as you said, we were a very small family owned business. When I joined age 28, I’m now 46, I thought my job was a job, I thought my job was just to add a bit of efficiency looking and optimizing design. But increasingly a bit like you, Chad, it was the use of the bike, the way it changed my life as a user, that really cemented my life and career into the company. And how I saw that the experience I had, the positive experience I had, with this bike affected others, our customers all over the world. At that point, it became clear to me that there was something special about this product and its relevance to society, and relevance to society all over the world because we are becoming urban.
Once I had that ambition and realized what was possible, and I knew I was going to commit my life to it, then you really start firing up your imagination, you start having lofty ambition, you start searching out for tools that will allow you to offer better value to your customers, whether that’s in how you make the product, and how you engage with the customer, and how you personalize every last element. It becomes not a job, it becomes a life, and you can’t help thinking about it. 24 seven. In every context, in every conversation, you’re looking for opportunity that would be relevant to your business and how you could improve what you’re doing, and ultimately deliver a better experience to the end consumer.
Yeah, so it sounds like you very much embodied the thing that you are not only making and manufacturing in your day to day life, but you in fact, are the end user you want to have a better bicycle. So if you don’t mind me asking, how did you know that these bikes were so good? Because I can’t really put my finger on it as an end user, they just feel so good.
So when I started it, I started as an engineer working for a company that made bikes. I wasn’t CEO of Brompton. It was funny, I was brought up in the north of England, I am a country boy. And you know, cities were intriguing, but they weren’t sort of delightful, they weren’t places that were going to be great fun to live. I was slightly fearful of moving to London. But somehow this bike just gave me this incredible freedom. And I loved it. I loved the fact that I would be coming back and I remember I was a bit younger than, coming back from a nightclub at one in the morning, crossing London, watching the world go by, seeing people at the traffic lights.
I love the fact that I was so independent, if there was any issue, I could just cut through a different part of the city. I got to know my city so well I knew the back streets, the canals, the parks. I just loved the freedom that a bike brings to a city and in particular a folding bike because you know, you can just fold it up and chuck it in a cab or jump on the train and it doesn’t give you that worry and inconvenience that can come with a normal bike. Yeah, I think beyond anything else, it was my own personal experience and then feeling slightly quiet about that and maybe feeling that was only personal but then the more people I met and then I’m out in Taiwan and visiting customers in Singapore and I’m over in San Francisco and I’m down in Madrid and the sort of this enlightenment.
It sounds a bit naff, and that’s why initially you’re a little bit shy about it. But like my customers are saying, well, this is me, that’s what’s happened to me, this has changed my life. This has brought freedom This is bought health, happiness. And like that is so rare. So it’s intoxicating to be involved in a business that delivers that sort of positive effect on people’s lives, it’s absolutely intoxicating. And then if you think about the challenges that we face, as a society with our environment, our health, you know, this little bicycle, that is, in so many ways overlooked, because it’s not trendy, it’s not the latest tech, but it delivers some absolute pure value, and it has a longevity.
Something that is often forgotten today, you know, we live in such a throwaway society. We’ve got Brompton that are 20-30 years old, going strong, and it’s so rare to have a product today that delivers that much value.
And this is one of those situations, this is one of those businesses, one of those products, where you really, really have to be in touch with the downstream value that you’re creating for the consumer. Because it’s not just like, oh, you decided to make another bicycle, you decided to make a bicycle that looks kind of goofy, and is a little bit strange and a little bit different.
But because you’ve connected so thoroughly, with your customers, myself being one of those, you are able to succeed with this concept that might otherwise be a little out there. I think that that, based on what I’ve been hearing in the industry, actually kind of makes its way back upstream to how you run the business and how you think about things like digital tools. What can you do to make this better, make it easier to offer that at a better price point. So with that in mind, I know that you mentioned last time we talked that when you came in at some point, you conceived of this modernization plan.
So I want to hear a little bit more about that. When did that happen? And what did that look like?
So in the early days, we really were very, very basic and how we made the bike. And there wasn’t lean thinking, in my degree, I’d spent time with Nissan, I’d spent time with other world class manufacturers. And here I was working for an inventor of a bike using tools that you haven’t seen for the 1970s. So I knew that what we were doing was massively suboptimal and there were certain things I knew I could bring to the table, and that is pretty basic. You can see you’ve got a problem, and you know what the solutions are.
But the real kicker to all elements of business, not just manufacturing, it’s communication, design, is when you have a perspective where you also recognize that actually most of the upside you don’t know and that you’re permanently looking, sensing, trying to find opportunity elsewhere. And often not elsewhere inside your industry, but outside of your industry, and finding best practice and finding tools that are being used very successfully, but not in your industry. Once you have that mindset, that everything you look at, every interaction you have with another brand, every factory you visit, every website you touch you think hey, that’s interesting.
When you go and check into a hotel, how are they managing to train staff who are 17 to be so well trained, so immaculate, so beautifully looking after the end consumer? And Can’t you take some of that and apply to your business? So I’ve always been one to recognize that my role isn’t to come up with the solutions, but my role is to facilitate the solutions to come to us. And that’s from outside of our industry that’s from our staff and allowing them to bring new ideas. Through that, we’ve managed to jump onto some fantastic tools that have made our business stronger.
Yeah, and like you said, that cuts across everything, that cuts across how you deal with people, how you deal with suppliers and partners. We’re not just talking about digital tools, we’re talking about a mindset, which is really what the whole industry 4.0 is all about.
So I think that I have a note here somewhere that it was around 2006, maybe correct me if I’m wrong, but when did you really start to think about that? And then what did it actually look like to start making those changes? Because you weren’t the CEO, you didn’t necessarily have the authority to do that from the very beginning.
So, in many respects, I was lucky that I was reporting to the inventor, because Andrew who invented the bike is an absolute legend, but he is a typical inventor material. So he is a genius. He’s involved in the minutia 11:20. He had a terribly tough journey getting the bike off the ground, no one believed in it. He did. And he fought through thick and thin, but he is an absolute detail extravaganza.
So pretty early on, he was so obsessed with the detail, he was allowing me to run the business care about people empowerment, bringing new ideas. As long as the engineering minutei he was worrying about, he didn’t really care about hearts and minds, best practice, lean manufacturing, industry 4.0, that just wasn’t even in his field of vision. So I was given the freedom because he just wasn’t even looking at it.
Initially, I started by getting any free help I could. I mean, in those early days we had no money. So, if there was an opportunity to get some advice for free, if people wanted to use us as a guinea pig as a case study, we had guys from Cranfield University, we had guys from Rolls Royce. The great thing is they stopped bringing in ideas, they start bringing in best practice, Triumph motorcycles, big manufacturer in the UK, they said, you can come and look around our factory and we were all piled up there to go and sniff about and learn. We were realizing, the more that we looked, the more that we brought in perspective that like, whoa, we haven’t even started on this journey.
I mean, there’s so much for us to do. We don’t need to reinvent it, we just need to go nick it. As long as you’re not nicking it from your industry, people give it to you. They don’t like to hide. They’re in a completely different industry. They love to give it to you. Particularly when you’re small. You’re cute. People love you, they want to help you, they want to see that little plucky, underdog succeed. So beg, steal, borrow, get out there. The killer for small business is, you’re so caught up in the minutei day to day you’re, so caught up in just getting next month’s orders out that you don’t have a chance to look up and see the opportunity. You’ve got to be spending 80% of your time looking after your business.
But the most precious and most important is giving yourself time and your key team 20% to just think outside the box, experiment, try make mistakes, learn push, twist, and that gets you forward. Otherwise you will just get caught up in the day to day and stagnant.
Right. Was that pretty overwhelming when you first really started to take inventory of what all was possible or was that more invigorating?
Oh, completely invigorating. The funny thing is, you know I’m 18 years in and I look around the factory and we’re still riddled in inefficiency. There’s tons of things we haven’t done. I mean ah, I’ve been here 18 years, we haven’t even started. There’s tons of things I’ve now seen that we’ve got to put in place we haven’t done yet. I mean, it’s just the opportunities are immense.
And of course, in the last 18 years, we’ve delivered huge change. But the great and exciting thing is, there’s tons more to begin with. So, you know, the opportunity, you’d think we’d start running out of stuff to do, it’s just never ending, the opportunity is huge. I mean, 3d printers didn’t exist, you know, FDA didn’t exist, Raspberry Pi’s Python didn’t exist, you know, the power of computers didn’t exist, IOT didn’t exist.
So we might have, you know, knocked lean manufacturing and Kaizen and PokaYoke on the head 10 years ago, but the tools, the techniques, the power, the opportunity that we now have is just invigorating, exciting. How we train our staff now, it’s all going digital. You know, it’s so exciting, and it’s so exciting because we can do better. If we can do better, we can offer better value to the customer. And that’s ultimately what we’re about.
Yeah, yeah, you’re all about that downstream consumer value, and of course, that is really the driving thing that has made Brompton successful. Because even without some of these changes, I mean, I don’t know how you built the bicycle, I just know, I was able to buy it easily, I am able to service it easily at last, you know, I haven’t had any problems.
And in fact, it got thrown off the airplane! I had this massive hardshell case, I guess for lack of a better term, that had a some sort of metal ribbon around it that gave it rigidity. And that metal ribbon was totally mangled but the bike was just fine. So, by the way, thank you for that.
But what I want to get back to is that there’s really two different things that come up when you start talking to successful small business owners and experts about this whole process of going digital. You hear about the tools, and of course, there’s lots of people that are interested in selling you things. Some of those are good. Some of those aren’t that useful. But what I hear about a lot is what you keep talking about, and that is the people side of things. How you train and interact and get people to start thinking about this.
So what I’m curious about is, once you had it in your mind, that you really wanted to take this thing to the next level. What was your first kind of broad focus area? How did you get people on board with this? And how did you get this to become a habit and how the company operates?
I mean, I’ll give you one story, but really, it’s a mindset. That is what you need in your organization is a mindset of play, experiment, try, fail. And people say this all the time and they make it sound trend and they don’t really mean it. But we mean it.
A classic example because we had Kane, who joined the company, lovely guy, and his job was to check the paint. So obviously, we’re painting many different colors, many different parts, and the bizarre thing about a bicycle is people are obsessed with the paint. I mean, totally obsessed with it when they buy it, you know, the tiniest little snitch or anything they’ll be terribly upset. But within a week, the thing is covered in cuts and it’s not like a hi fi, this thing is written down the road. You know, so the illogicalness of that, but that’s just the way it is. So therefore, we deliver it perfect, perfect as we can get it. And Kane’s job was to check the paint.
At the time, you know, the guy had a special light and he had a piece of paper and he checked it over. If there was a problem, he made a little mark and he said this and who was responsible and off it went. He came to me and said, Well, you know, I’ve been doing this for a year or so, I reckon I could do a better job. Do you mind if I take a few paint parts home with me and you know, I’ve got an idea to make it better partner. You know, sort of well, Kane, isn’t that sweet? You know, it’s great that you want to put a bit of extra time. Yeah, go on, you go on.
Like two or three weeks later, he came back and said, oh, well, I’ve got a few little ideas, you know, and if I could show, so I potter across his desk and think he’s come up with some sweet little thing. I’m like, oh, wow, that’s impressive. What you got there?
He’s got like the frame part, every frame pop in 3d that he’s drawn on the computer, you can turn it 360 degrees in every direction. You then hold your mouse over it, and then it’ll automatically put a dot on the frame in particular place, then a drop down menu comes and it asks you what type of failure is it. Is orange peel? Is it inclusion is it dent? Then who’s responsible? I mean, this is insane. And then it recorded. It then means that what happens after a month is you start finding that you can see where the dent is on the frame. If you look after the last button, all the little dots and then you go well hold on, there must be something in the process creating that down because that dense in the same place on every frame. It allows you, that data allows you to get through root cause of what’s going on? Why are we getting orange peel here?
It was unbelievably powerful. It gave us information, which was extremely easy to correlate to give us useful data to help us design out error and improve right first time. That guy is now running our software at Brompton. He’s now got a second software engineer. This is a skill that he’d had in his previous life, we knew nothing about. We thought he was just a guy looking up bits of frame for a little scratch in the paint, and the skill, the knowledge, his ability to program, that enlightenment, went from there.
Then I gave him through, I gave him freedom, I let him think, I let him he understood our business better than me in many respects and came up with ideas. And then he moved into the idea of having a smart line, introducing Raspberry Pi’s, every station becoming smart. We have 16 million combinations of permutations of bytes. Then we did 3d rendering. I mean, all from that one conversation, though I was a bit skeptical, I let him have a go.
I wasn’t so patronizing that I didn’t even think I give him a chance. You’ve got to not underestimate the talent you have in your team and not underestimate that a little something is just always worth a little glance. It may come to nothing. That’s the 20%. If that comes to nothing, you haven’t wasted much time. But it just might pull and pull and pull, and you have got value. If you’re not looking, if you don’t give yourself time to just explore outside of your comfort zone, you will stagnate and others will overtake.
Wow, yeah. There’s so much to unpack there. I mean, I don’t even know where to start. So, first question is, when you looked at that, did you immediately grasp the value of what could be done in terms of data and then quality and identifying problems later, or did it take a while?
So in the context of the particular paint problem, the penny dropped immediately. But what I hadn’t appreciated is just the power of digital across the business. I mean, it’s so cheap, it’s so amenable, and it’s so powerful, and it’s so you can get what you want. If you know what you want, you can get it and that has taken me longer to understand, but I’m riddled in it now and just all I want is more.
Yeah, once the bear gets a taste of the honey. You know, this is a very powerful lesson in so many different ways. But one way is that if you’re skeptical, if you’re a small business owner and you’re skeptical, this is a really good lesson in those situations where if you just hit on something that has a little bit of positive ROI, so to speak, not even necessarily directly to the bottom line, but just get a taste, it just opens your world.
Yeah, and we’re talking digital, but this is relevant in every other aspect of the business, you’ve got to have an open mindset and just allow people to play, allow them to experiment, allow them to fail. Small, where they’re not busting the farm, but let them play because that is where these opportunities come. Once you understand the opportunity, and it becomes sort of endemic in your business, suddenly, you suddenly unlock vision, oh, my God, but we could do that, oh, but we could do that, oh, my word, think what we could do if we did it for that. Then the scales dropped from your eyes and the opportunity is everywhere.
Yeah, and this also goes back to what you were saying about people. So one of the things that has been consistent in what I’ve been hearing is that there’s this kind of generational divide, where you’ve got the old school masters, so to speak, the generation that is not digitally native. This is a lot of your business owners. This is a lot of the people who are leading certain aspects of the business that are master craftsmen. They understand the business. Then on the flip side of that, you’ve got the incoming generation, which I assume Kane was part of. How old was he?
Well, funny enough, he’s about my age. So he was a real tech geek, when tech geeks didn’t exist. I mean, that’s why it’s even more amazing because everything about him wasn’t what he is. He wasn’t, he didn’t look like a tech geek. He didn’t look like he knew anything about. He looked way too old to know this stuff. So I was pretty skeptical. But you know, he’s just, he’s away. Now we’ve got another member of the team who is your archetype of tech geek but you know you could never judge a book by the cover. Just let people have a bit of space and be prepared to fail. There’s nothing wrong with failing. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
Yeah, and this, this applies across the board. So you can find this talent, you’re more likely to find stuff like this in the digitally native generation. But you just never know where this is going to come from. the point I wanted to make was that when you have the freedom to have this kind of thing, emerge organically from the business, you may find that there’s cross pollination of ideas.
So this guy Kane happened to be a paint inspector, but it can also unfold, where you may have you may come up with some cool gadget or something on the line. So I’ll give you some examples that you had mentioned previously, you mentioned smart torque wrenches, maybe per station, Raspberry Pi’s and all of the things that you can do with that. Once the savvier or the more are established generation with the exposure to the business problems that they’ve seen over time, those things that you can only really get with experience that helps you follow your gut.
Those kinds of things can become catalysts to blend with this introduction of technology where they say, oh my God, you know, we can do so much more with this. So you can really see exponential returns from this kind of mindset.
I mean, it’s interesting. When we originally put the Raspberry Pi’s and the Raspberry Pi’s were used as a tool to tell the operator, what was the next bike to build? The element of that on each station because we’ve got 21 stations, but they would tell the operator on a station, what he needed to do for that particular bike because we have many different configurations coming down the line. Then we realized that not only will we be able to tell them, but we would know because the operator logged into that store, who the operator was that it was on that station.
So we had 100% traceability for who did what on every single bike that we made. Then we realized that we had integrate torque wrenches. So for safety critical bolts, we could have an automatic torque wrench, which would then measure the torque for that particular bike on that particular bolt done by a particular operator. Then we thought, we also want to know the traceability of serial numbers of safety critical parts, be their handlebar or bottom bracket. So again, we introduced a scanning in so that you know the serial number of the particular bottom bracket. And that was because we had a bottom bracket recall, we recall 460,000 bikes.
We didn’t quite know which bikes had this particular problem, but if we’d had a digital record of every serial number of every part on the bike, we could have just gone straight to those bikes.
So once you understand the power of digital, you realize it develops and evolves as your business develops and evolves. And you recognize that, you know, one thing we haven’t done, but we could do we had a bit of time is you could have a drone, you could have a drone on the line. If a customer paid an extra 10 bucks, when we started making that bike, the drone could follow that bike down the line, and they could watch that bike being built live on camera from anywhere in the world. And the drone finishes and sits down back at his starting point. I mean, that’s totally doable.
There is nothing, nothing difficult about that at all. It can all be driven out of the Raspberry, we just haven’t had time to get around to it. There’s just more and more and more of that. That’s just one area, that’s Raspberry Pi. We’ve got a myriad of other stuff that we’re doing, which is consumer facing, which is about health and safety, all of which is a combination of our business combined with the power of digital to collect information to help us make better decisions.
Hmm, yeah, something to highlight here that’s very, very critical to hold this whole discussion is that this was not a master plan. You were very deliberate about saying that you did this, and then this, and then this. And all those things, at any point, were small investments that may not have paid off, but in the long run, create cumulative value.
Correct, and I do think for small business, you want to be very wary of the consultant that’s going to come in and solve all your problems. You know, you’re taking way too much risk. You’re committing yourself to one route without recognizing that you really understand it. So everything we’ve done has been far more organic.
We’ve taken many more smaller steps. Some of those turned out to be the wrong ones. But when we find a step that works, we then take a bigger step, and then we commit properly, and it’s very much led internally rather than having an expert externally coming in and dropping in a system. Because you know, you’ve got to be wary about digital because you can be sold something that’s a pop. You know you’re sold something, it’s got a tremendous license fee, then you find out when you get it, it doesn’t deliver quite what you thought, then you say you want to adjust it. And they say it’s going to cost you a fortune, you sign into a three year deal.
So, you know, I think, certainly for smaller businesses, work with a local university, find out somebody who’s just a really keen, enthusiastic tech head, who can just come into your business, get a bit of work experience, and just let them play and see. Because young people who have this knowledge and this insight are not expensive, they’re keen to apply their skills. You keep playing and something will come.
What it is? No one quite knows. Don’t over, strategize, just give room for innovation. Because from that culture of challenge, of let’s try something different, of let’s try some new technology, let’s apply something from here and put it there, that’s where the opportunity lies.
I think that that can be difficult sometimes to accept this notion, at least for me as an engineer. The way I think about it is kind of like, you could build software in the same way that you can build real world, I would say, like the same way that reality kind of unfolds, you can go centralized or you can go decentralized.
It can be very advantageous and can actually be a huge competitive advantage if you had the perfect system that was completely centralized and all data flowed through, you know, a central server or database or screen or whatever it might be. But the reality is, number one, the risk of building something like that, that isn’t fully known that where the needs are not fully known until you’re done with it.
The risk is so high that most small businesses shouldn’t be taking that approach. Instead, should be mirroring the real world where things are messy, you know, things happen, things need adjustment, things need human intervention. So it sounds like that’s very much what you’ve been doing.
Yes, it is. I think that the world is messy. The opportunities of business, I mean, I’ve written 18 business plans. Some years, we’ve hit them many years, we’ve beaten them. I can tell you, never have we delivered the results in the way we thought. It always ended up being slightly different, things have never turned out the way we thought.
So what you need above all else is flexibility. So actually, digital is a core skill within our organization. What I did very early on in Brompton was identify things that were core, things that were non-core, things that had DNA in them, things that didn’t have DNA in them. Somebody is bending a bit of wire, we used to bend it by hand, we used to do it ourselves. This guy in the north of England, he’s got a 250,000 pound CNC wire bending machine, you can bang them out absolutely right every time and you can knock out, you know, to a second. Let him do that, he’s good at that. It’s never going to be our core skill.
Now, we have contractors who support us with digital, but we need to understand what we’re doing. If you just entirely rely on a third party, you’re going to get hoodwinked and you’re going to buy stuff you don’t need. So actually, digital is increasingly become a core skill within our organization, so that we have people in the organization that really know and understand it.
Now, we are now 450 staff, when I joined, we were 24. So we have the capability to have that in house skill. But even from the first days of digital, we didn’t go rushing to the contract. We try to find ways of learning on the hoof playing because we’re engineers. Okay, I’m a mechanical engineer. You’ve got that mindset, you’ve got that logical thinking. So you can talk you can learn, you can apply yourself differently.
And again, beg, steal or borrow. Let someone use you be a guinea pig, set a challenge for local university and get a lecturer and 10 students all working on a problem and coming up with new ideas. You’ve got to just be innovative just in a way you find the solutions, never mind in the solutions themselves.
Yeah, and if my notes serve me correctly, you actually learned that lesson in a very real way. Because I do have a note that you guys originally were on an ARP. You went to a custom MCS system, and then you ended up back on an ARP, I’m not sure if it was the same one. And that’s amidst all the other experiments that you were working on.
So well, you’re sort of right. I mean, we had a sort of finance platform. We have I should say, finance platform, which we’ve been on for about 20 years. What we then did is we’ve just classic growing business. We just bolted on about 50 different Excel spreadsheets, little bolt on modules. And inside of that, we created our manufacturing control system, which is sort of at the heart of our operating system.
That is driven by the Raspberry Pi’s and the torque sensors. It’s a very, very powerful tool. It measures tack time, it could do training. It’s just very, very, very powerful. We are now, as we’re getting bigger and we have enough funds, and we were working more internationally and we have to do direct to consumer, we’re now consolidating our ramshackle many, many different bits and bobs into a single expensive world class ARP system. But you want to steer clear of these until you’ve got the funds to do it.
And until you really fully understand the requirements of why you in fact, you need it.
Absolutely. You need to understand what you’re doing before you rush to the solution. That is in the process of being implemented. It’s going to cost us a million and a half pounds, which is no small investment.
But interestingly, the MCS system will remain. So we went through a very detailed process. It’s been nearly a three year process, we’re very close to launch. Identifying what we’ve got and how we run, not rushing to the amazing Nirvana solution. It’s really understanding what you’ve got, and then what you need and then defining what the tools are to get you from where you are to what you need. But within that, the MCS was so powerful and so bespoke, there is no way this off the shelf powerful tool could accommodate that.
So we will have a scheme where it sits inside our ARP system, but the data drops into MCS, it whizzes through MCS, comes out and jumps back into the ARP system. So it’s a step by step process, but you know, digital, I was referring earlier to the fact that we did a recall on our blog.
We are very fortunate that we’re a privately owned company. We have no debt. We have a decent buffer of cash. In the context of where we are with Coronavirus globally, that is very, very pertinent. Notwithstanding that, we’ve always had that approach because that freedom with no debt and having a cash buffer has allowed us to make decisions that are absolutely in the customers’ best interest. We haven’t been pressured into doing short term things to protect our own position. But we did a recall extremely small likelihood of any issue to our customers but we didn’t recall nonetheless.
But the interesting thing is, we recall, as I said earlier, circa 400,000 bikes on the basis of an extraordinarily small likelihood of anyone hurting themselves. Actually, the likelihood was for somebody who was weighed, I’m not very good on pounds, but weight is like 90 kilos, plus, they’re doing 10 miles each way to work, they’re using the bike every single day, they’re jumping off curves, they’re going through potholes. I mean, the customer that we’re referring to that could and a very small likelihood have had an issue, were the customer who were the one and 1000 customer.
But because we didn’t know which bike had that customer on it, we had to recall all of them, every single one. There are 99.99% of those bikes will never ever, ever, ever going to fail. But we didn’t know which customer is on which bike. So we recall all them.
Now, if you bring digital in, if you bring a strain gauge, if you bring Bluetooth, if you bring the ability to understand and make that bike smart. So for the moment it’s produced, you can measure the stresses that that bike is seeing, you wouldn’t need to recall 400,000, you might only need to recall 4000. Because you can say to the other 396,000, you don’t nothing to worry about. We can see that because your bike is well below maximum stress life, in which case, it’s never going to be a problem for you.
So the opportunities are everywhere. Once you understand the capability of digital, you unlock the opportunity. But it’s you’ve got to get your toe in the water.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and I actually remember that recall, I brought my bike in. First of all, it was very painless. It was nice that I could just schedule with the bike shop. So that the whole operation was super efficient. But as a consumer, I can really imagine, worst case scenario, in a situation like this, you would take it in and maybe they do it like a diagnostic on a car.
Like if you had that strain gauge. And that kind of thing, or best case scenario that just gets uploaded over Wi Fi. Now, obviously, you have a lot of privacy concerns or anything like that. But those aside, that is a huge opportunity. As a consumer, I mean, that’s the kind of thing that as a millennial and younger is going to be expected. So this is not only a cost saving opportunity, this is a competitive baseline, and so this is a absolute must.
Absolutely, it is an absolute must. The technology exists today to do it, we just got to make it happen. So, you know, this is the thing, so much of the technology exists, you’ve just got to get round to applying it in a sensible way. The costs of technology. I mean, I went into decathlon the other day, and they now have a process where every single item in the entire shop has an RFID chip on it. Even a 45P bar of chocolate. When you come to check out, you just put your shopping basket in a bin and it tops up your entire shopping basket and you just pick it up and walk out. When they want to do a stock check, they just walk down the line and they just wait gave a scanner down the line. No one has to pick up anything. These things are got so cheap, that the power that it brings…
I was looking at that and I said, oh my God, we couldn’t use that in our own factory, we couldn’t we use that in our stores? You know, my brain is always thinking can’t I nick something from there and apply it to here. And you know, I’m always open to… And this is not just me, I’m one of 450 people who have the same mentality.
If it grins, have a look, see, take it, try it, give it a go. And it’s pennies, pennies to try it. And it’s fun. It adds a bit of spark to your job because you’re trying something new.
Yeah, yeah. And just to add a little bit on top of that, in terms of how you would actually implement that stuff. The really interesting thing about stuff like this, especially if you talk about let’s say an RFID scanner, or even like a barcode scanner, is that you don’t need a big complicated central DRP to handle this, you could pipe that information into a spreadsheet. I mean, a handheld scanner is if effectively the same as a keyboard, it scans the number, it enters it in and it presses enter. And you can implement that today, tomorrow. That’s available to you.
Now, we’ve got scanners, I mean, the entire company is on scanners. Again, we’re in our entire logistics and our entire stores is all on scanners. And when we started, we were using bits of paper. You know, I mean that this stuff is so cheap. The other thing to remember is so much of the sort of drive ware behind a lot of this digital is free, you can just download it. You know, you’d only pay some third party consultants. You can get so much of this thing off the web for nothing.
Buy something off the internet and just play learn. That’s the key. You know, I always think of it like school; all work, and no play makes jack a very dull boy. It’s the same in business. You know, if all we do is work, work, work, it’s boring. We’ve got to do our work, but then we got to go out and play, and play is really important to our children, to their overall well being. It’s the same in a company. We’ve got to do our knitting, we’ve got to hit the numbers, we’ve got our KPIs, we’ve got to drive the business forward. We’ve got to have room to play.
Right. Yeah, and I want to go back to something more specific to your business, because I think it’s applicable to a lot of manufacturers, and that is your picking line. So you mentioned, last time we talked, that new hires do six months of picking first and you also mentioned that you were considering or had already started to experiment with a picking robot. So can you speak to that a little bit about what you’re trying to accomplish there.
So our new recruits won’t spend six months picking because they might shrivel up and give up the will to live. But they do spend six months at an induction which involves getting involved in many, many different parts of the company. Getting on the shop floor and getting involved in picking for induction of all staff is key. When we bring people on the shop floor, often they join us as a temp, and if they do well they become a permanent member of staff. And those temps will probably spend their first six months picking, proving they can turn up to work on time, do a good job, and then they have an opportunity to move into pre pre assembly, into assembly, into braising, depending what they find interesting and start a formal apprenticeship.
But coming back to picking we have just spent a decent amount of our money on some random acts, automated, picking robots. Which are larger storage, racking, but it’s an automated racking system. So we obviously have the ability for the consumer to configure their own bike, one of 16 million combinations or permutations of bike. We need to then consolidate those orders, feed that into the paint line so that we’re getting minimum volumes together to justify the paint changeover.
Because it’s a time lost, every time you change your paints, you consolidate those different orders with a different paint colors. And then that’s fed into the automated rand act six scheme system. And then our team pick from that and it goes, funny if the rand act goes and finds the right colors in the right order, and presents them to our pickers, who load up the trays and load it to the line.
That entire system is a fully integrated system, where the orders are talking to the paint plant, the paint plant is talking to the rand act. And the rand act is feeding the parts to the picker to load up the trolleys to feed the line. And still, there’s so much more to do. You know, you only have to go on to the internet and see a couple of these, you know, automated robots, which aren’t robots, they’re just little moving things that follow reflective tape on the floor. But I mean, gosh, if we haven’t gotten one of those in the factory in the next nine months, I’ll leave my hat.
Because, you know, we’ve got people moving stuff around in the factory and a robot could do it. And then let’s train those people to do more interesting jobs than pushing trolleys around. So everywhere, there is room. It’s just we haven’t got time to get it all done.
And there in is a question, I think, that I personally know the answer to but I think that a lot of people look at automation and say, well, aren’t you replacing my job? So how do you make sure that not only do people come in to the business and develop this digital mindset, but also they look at this robot and see endless options, rather than seeing something that’s going to take their job?
I think you need to go back and go even higher. And it’s about the consumer, it’s about value, it’s about delivering value to the consumer. If you are so wedded, to doing things the old way, when there are tools that allow you to do it more efficiently, ultimately, there value proposition you have for the consumer will become less competitive until you don’t have a consumer. So then you won’t have any staff at all because you will be out of business.
If you then flip that the other way around and say, well, if I’m going to continue to strive to offer really good value to the consumer, and search for tools that help me offer better value, then you’ll find you’re going to grow. When you’re growing, you’re in a great position to digitalize. Because what happens is, as you digitalize, you can take and you tend to find that the areas in which digital helps, automation, semi automation, robotics, is repetitive simple operations.
Which quite frankly, for member stuff, are pretty flipping boring. So you can then take that member of staff, who you trust, who’s reliable, who’s a great member of the team, and give them more skill. Train them up, give them a more interesting job. Let the robot do the boring job. Let the robot do the repetitive job. Let the robot count for you. But the highly skilled interesting value add stuff.
So what we want and what our staff see through automation, digital robotics, is it frees them up to have more skills and at more interesting job. But that goes hand in hand with continuing to offer more value and being a successful business.
And from a management perspective, that also means that we’re really moving into this time period, where the issue is really being forced that you can no longer just be or just hire the kind of person that wants to do one thing and one thing over and over and over again. And frankly, like I don’t actually believe there are many people at all in the world like that, right?
No, you get bored senseless.
And now it’s a requirement, right? We’ve gone from the industrial, the original Industrial Revolution, to having that be kind of a requirement to now that’s no longer acceptable. If you are a growth minded business owner and you want to instill this mindset of innovation, you have to find people that see their jobs as an ever growing, shifting description or that’s achieving an outcome, not in a specific way of doing things.
But I think in line with what you said, you know, there is often a misperception that is a particular millennial, whatever it is type employee. I don’t buy that every single employee I’ve ever taken on, aspires to add value, aspires to have more skill, aspires to contribute more to the company. It’s embedded in all of us. It’s a more interesting job, it’s more varied.
I’ve got more skills, I can earn more, I can contribute more to the company, I can contribute more to society. Everybody from the people in our organization who are close to retirement, they still want more skills, they want a more interesting job. So to my mind, this is just endemic in the organization. And it’s worth world saying within Brompton, we’re brazing our frame, it is beautiful, it is highly skilled, it’s verging on artisan.
So It’s not like the business is like some white floored, robot driven, fully automated, 22nd century industry 4.0 mega trope. No, no, what we are doing is combining phenomenal skill, phenomenal artisan, real quality with digital tools. It’s a beautiful mixture of finding the right tools for the right job. We will look for the very best tool to deliver the best value to our end consumer.
And in many cases, that’s a human being who’s highly trained, who has great skill, which is combined with, you know, a Raspberry Pi or a semi-automatic tool. So it’s not one dimensional. It’s not one or the other. It’s multifaceted and it’s just taking bit by bit the right tools for the right job.
Yeah, if I could sum that up, I would say industry 4.0 is not only enabling greater downstream value for the customer, but it’s doing that by removing moving a lot of the inefficiencies and freeing up creativity among the people. So this is the opposite of how it’s sold in a lot of the media This is not just, let’s just take over, or let’s just replace boring jobs.
Completely, completely. And it’s funny. You talk about creativity, there’s this funny thing in engineering in particular, right from school, where you’re sort of, oh are you the Maths one, or are you the RT one?
Right? It has to be either one.
Yeah. And so far from the truth. The reality is, we all need to have imagination, we all need to be innovators. If you are in engineering production, engineering design, you need to have imagination, you need to try stuff, you need to have a depth of understanding of engineering, of mechanics, of physics. But that’s got to be combined with this idea of trying, innovating, inspiration, new ideas. So you know, that’s what we look for in our staff, that’s what we reward in company, is the ability to think outside the box.
So in terms of a practical approach to this, how do you ensure that you are in fact finding these people? How do you find these people? How do you talk to them? What are the questions that you ask when you’re onboarding or hiring or sifting through resumes?
So, we start with a philosophy. Just as an example, in the Brompton philosophy it says Brompton does not employ egos. And that is real. So there is a propensity for businesses to hire the A typical, A star, perfect, at sport, perfect, with A grades, tick all the boxes, did the right work experience. And that’s not who we’re after. When you’re at school, you’re trained to be the same as everyone else. You want to be in the cool crowd. You want to wear the same clothes. You want to listen to the same music. You will want to be the same education.
It’s making sausages, it’s trying to teach everyone to be the same, get the same grades, will be a star, going follow this route. Interestingly, what we want are the people who are not the same. The people who were prepared to be different. We want the outliers, because they bring a different perspective. What you need business is innovation. And interestingly, if you’re prepared to entertain the outlier, you get more loyalty, you get real talent, you get value, because often other companies can’t see the value in the outliers.
I’ve always been proud that Brompton, nobody in Brompton is from the Premier League. Maybe I should be saying for the US origins, the Super Bowl. You know, we’re all down there from the Second Division. But as a team, we are playing in the Premier League. And again, that is innovation, that is value, that is taking. Not taking the egos and just putting them up on your recruitment list, but taking people who genuinely believe in what you’re trying to achieve. Who are perspective that is similar to yours, who are prepared to shout out when they see something that doesn’t seem right. And if you respect them and you give them space, you will outperform the typical A star.
Yeah, well said. So I think we’re gonna have to wrap up here in a few minutes. I do want to touch on one thing briefly before we do wrap up. And that is because of the events with Coronavirus and everything that’s happening worldwide right now. It’s calling into the forefront the need for business continuity.
And of course, digital can be a massive advantage in business continuity, especially when people have to be at home. So I’d like to find out if there’s something that at this point, you’re saying, well, we need that or I’m glad that we had that. Like what are you feeling right now that may be helpful to other business owners in your situation?
Well, the challenge that we face, globally, and it is the only sort of positiveness with respect to the Coronavirus that I can see currently, because it is pretty tragic, is it reminds us that we all are a global community. Be that with viruses, be that with the health of the world, but we need to get back to reminding ourselves that we have to work together to solve global problems, and we can’t isolate ourselves in our little geographical arbitrary homes.
But the challenges that we face are immense. It’s interesting, we are reasonably solid in terms of our digital tools that we use to communicate that we use already because we have teams in America or teams in Shanghai, Singapore and in various offices around the world. But it is in the last month, we’ve accelerated the testing, integrity, communication, training of those tools. Necessity is the mother of invention but it’s amazing how quickly we are naturally falling in to using tools to help us do our work, principally meeting tools. We’re using a tool called teams.
You know, if you’d spoken six months ago across the organization, most people would never have heard of it. We had a small crowd who were using it. Again, a slight sort of pioneering crowd. Everybody is now using avid, everybody has it. It’s so seamless, it’s so easy. You know, it’s a testament to some of these tools just being there, ready for us to just take off and ready and so user friendly and so intuitive. You know, had we not had those tools, the inefficiency would have been operating in an environment like this would be way… I mean, it’s, it’s gonna be dire, it is dire, but without some of these tools it would have been hell of a lot worse.
Right, so the digital tools at this point really represent what amounts to a lifeline. You mentioned teams, which I assume you’re talking about Microsoft Teams?
So we’re talking about something that costs maybe $15, 15 euros a month, depending on what plan you’re on, that may actually save your business.
Yeah, it’s a very powerful tool. You know, even our most sort of untech, it doesn’t work. You know, it’s just overnight we are just, we’re in. And it’s as if we’ve always been doing it because it’s quickly become the new normal. Now, clearly, there are elements of our organization where you can’t take a bracing kid home.
Right? Well, you could, but probably not a good idea.
Exactly. There are challenges. I mean, the challenges are so immense, and so unpredictable, it is where leadership and support for your staff and honesty really come into fold. And I don’t know where we’re going to be in six months’ time, but I know we’re starting from Good place. And that gives me a lot of confidence. But I’m not under any illusion that this is not going to be difficult.
Yeah. And hopefully that will inspire some of the other business owners out there. It is going to be pretty challenging but the tools are there, the people are there. I believe that we’re at a point, we’re at a turning point in society. And this is true of why people are starting to ride more bicycles, as well as how they’re doing their jobs. People want to be more creative, they want to be more free, and this is going to force the issue.
So if you embrace that, and you use it as an opportunity to become more lean, to find the low cost digital tools that can facilitate the survival and eventually this new norm for a competitive market, then you’re going to be fine.
I agree, yeah.
Oh, great. Well, Will, thank you so much. I do want to end on one more question. And that is, if you wanted to leave our listeners with maybe lessons learned, like what is the most pointed thing that is in your mind that you think that business owners should be thinking about when they hear your story. And they too, want to go from some small family owned small business in 2002 to 18 years later, now one of the most respected small manufacturing, business and brands in the world?
I think my observation is that life is not a dress rehearsal. We get one shot at it. For those of us that are well educated, that have opportunity, we have a responsibility to contribute to society, and we’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to go for it because you rarely meet people in their older years who regret taking risk. You don’t find somebody who’s, oh you know, I wish I hadn’t tried that.
You have people who say, I wish I’d tried that, I wish I’d had a go, I wish I’d taken a risk. And that’s my philosophy, time is short. We’re going to be snuffed out. Our time on earth is so, so short, we’ve got a burn bright. If we have responsibility, if we have leadership, we should take that responsibility, that privilege and run with it hard, and do our best to contribute to society while we’re here. It makes life fun and invigorating.
Yeah, well said again, well said. So if somebody wants to get in touch with Brompton or they want to learn more about what you’ve done, or maybe even get in touch with you, what would be the best way to do that?
Well you can take your chances and send me an email, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t necessarily say, I would be the quickest to respond, particularly not in the current climate. The best thing you can do to help us is jump on one of our bikes and have a smile on your face, particularly in the current climate. We’re all trying our best in weird and wonderful world. And on we go.
Yeah. All right, Will, thank you so much, and I’ll leave us with a shameless plug. Absolutely, I agree. Buy a Brompton bicycle. They’re amazing. It will change your life.
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