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Will Butler-Adams

Become – High Profiles
September 6, 2019

On paper, Will Butler-Adams sounds like a serious man.

Like a Type A, high functioning businessman with his life kept in meticulous order, the 45-year-old gets up at 5:45am each morning and checks up on the Brompton Bicycle factory before anyone has reached the office. The family man, with three adolescent daughters aged 10, 12 and 14, isn’t just the CEO of a globally vaunted 350-strong bicycle maker—the largest in the UK—with a net worth of £15 million. He is also an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). Seemingly a man who doesn’t suffer fools.

When you meet Will in the flesh, however, the first thing that strikes you is how much he looks like a big kid. I’d expected to see a proper Englishman in a suit—or at least a shirt with dress pants and a pair of Oxfords. But expectations and assumptions tend not to align with reality. This time, it’s not a bad thing. Perched on the edge of the parapet, his legs dangling over the ledge on the rooftop of the refurbished Funan mall, Will shoots an easy grin at the camera. The photoshoot continues for a while at the open-air urban farm. Even in the shade, I am sweating bullets. Yet, utterly unfazed by the blistering weather, Will remains upbeat and gregarious.

Despite his towering stature, he comes off as unintimidating, thanks in part to his disarmingly unpretentious nature. It could’ve also been his armour of choice, which entails a light-coloured shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, salmon pink shorts, deep blue Converse sneakers and matching blue socks—the wardrobe of a playful, unpredictable man. Chief among the things he believes in is the importance of “creating disorder” to progress, an example of which is choosing to cycle 20km from the airport to his hotel the day before.

“Periodically, in my business, I will do things to challenge my team, things that I know they feel uncomfortable about… If I’m all super professional, sitting in a cab, and everything’s immaculate, then my staff won’t feel like they’re allowed to be anything but perfect. You’ve got to be un-perfect to innovate, to fail, to try,” he declares.

Like Will, Brompton doesn’t do things the normal way either. Known for their handmade foldable bicycles with high seats and slender silhouettes, built for urban dwellers, the London-based brand has gained a cult following since its inception in 1975. This year marks a new milestone with the opening of their first store in Singapore.

“I make mistakes all the time. I went to the wrong place this morning at 10am for a meeting. I’m so consistently shit, it’s unbelievable,” confesses Will. It’s uncommon to hear a business leader speak so candidly, completely unencumbered by ego. Call it honesty or modesty, but there’s no doubt he’s smart enough to figure out how to be silly, while still respected by all.

Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams Thrives on Creating Disorder

CEO, Brompton Bicycle
Text by Angela Low
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

ANGELA LOW: When did you arrive in Singapore?

WILL BUTLER-ADAMS: I arrived yesterday at about 5:30pm. 

ANGELA: I heard you cycled from the airport. 

WILL: Yes, but it took me longer than I thought. I had a dinner, so I was getting slightly terrified that I was going to miss it. I kept pedalling faster and faster. 

ANGELA: Was it hot? 

WILL: It was. I had my rucksack on my back, and I was wearing jeans because I come from the UK, but it was great! It’s far more enjoyable than sitting in a cab. When I went out for dinner at a satay restaurant, I just stuffed my face. Then again, I’d just pedalled 20km, so it doesn’t matter. 

ANGELA: That’s incredible. Do you always do that in a new city? 

WILL: Yes, I always try to get to know a city, so I will do a lot of cycling. And you meet people along the way. I met four Brompton owners as I cycled from the airport. 

Brompton-Art-4

ANGELA: Tell me about the impetus behind creating Brompton bicycles. 

WILL: We’re all living in cities, but weirdly in these cities, the air quality isn’t good, and people are working way too much to pay for their little flat. Even though we’re wealthier, are we really happier? I’m not so sure. I think we need to change how we live in our cities. We need to design our cities around the people that live in them, and make them friendlier for walking and cycling. At the moment, cities are designed around vehicles, which doesn’t make sense. There are people who cycle, but they are a minority. Most people who know how to ride a bike, don’t cycle, so we need to find a way to engage those people. We’re trying to make cycling more of a lifestyle choice, and we’re learning as we go. Each country’s slightly different. 

ANGELA: And Brompton has outlets in Japan and China. 

WILL: We sell through 1,600 stores in 47 countries, but most of these stores are not our own. Now, for the last eight years, we’ve begun to open our own stores. We have them in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, and Singapore. We also have two stores in London, Barcelona, and New York. We’re trying to experiment, try weird things, and put a bike shop right in the middle of a mall.

ANGELA: So why Singapore, and why now?

WILL: We’ve been in Singapore for about 10 years, and our Singapore community is really strong. Singapore is actually pretty adventurous. The Botanic Gardens are off the charts, the Jewel at the airport is amazing. So if we’re going to take a risk, Singapore’s a good place to do it. After all, this is the only shopping mall [Funan] in the world with a cycle lane through the middle of it, which is pretty cool. It’s quite forward-thinking. There are many shopping malls that want all the known brands. We’re still small, so the fact that Funan let us in… It’s a bigger risk for us though because we’re committing to rent, we’ve to do the fitting right, and it’s a long, long way from London. 

ANGELA: How did this new outlet in Funan come about?

WILL: We wanted a store in Singapore. We don’t have many stores, so we can’t afford to get it wrong. That’s why we tend to take a lot longer. I think this project took us about nine months to accomplish. Obviously, there were locations that existed, but we thought, “Do we go for this?” And then we found that it wasn’t even built. It was also delayed, and ended up taking 12 months. In the end, we decided to be patient and go for the really awesome location.

ANGELA: I assume that you’re more familiar with local markets like the UK and Europe. How do you navigate the Asian market, for instance, where the cities are not as familiar to you?

WILL: In the early days, we didn’t really get involved in Asia. We were very small, but we had customers, who had been working in or visiting London, buying a Brompton and taking it home. Their friends would then say, “Cool bike! I want to get one.” In various ways, all we did was ship them. We didn’t do anything. We let the market interpret our bike and use it how they wanted to use it. That allowed the market to define its own space. Having started in those territories and let the customer define it, we are talking slightly differently to different markets depending on what their needs are and how they use the bike.

"We’ve never been one to try and tell our customers how they should use our bikes."

ANGELA: It’s about allowing the community to grow organically.

WILL: Yes, it’s much more organic. We’ve never been one to try and tell our customers how they should use our bikes. We want the customers to lead, so that we can support them. It makes things more fun, because they do weird stuff that we wouldn’t have imagined, and it’s great.

Brompton-Art-3

ANGELA: You talked about how different each city is. What’s Singapore like to you?

WILL: London and Singapore are quite different. Principally, in Europe, our bikes are tools. My bike, which I use every day, is bashed, dirty, worn and grubby. It’s a workhorse. That’s not the case in Singapore. In Singapore, it’s much more recreational and it’s used with a community of friends.  It’s my personal observation that in Asia, there has been a transition in the last 25 years. In the past, your main roles were to work and look after your family, with very little free time. These days, there is much more free time for you. It’s great, but in many cases, people don’t know what to do with that free time, so there’s a little bit of loneliness. You can have lots and lots of friends, but it’s not very fulfilling. One of the reasons why our customers really enjoy the Brompton is because when you buy a bike, you immediately become part of a community. It’s like becoming a member of a club. You meet interesting, like-minded people. It’s not virtual. People will go out together to a restaurant, cycle and have fun.

ANGELA: With so many stores around the world, how do you make sure the in-store customer experience remains consistent?

WILL: Quite tricky. Actually, one of the reasons we’ve opened our own stores is as much to sell to the retailers as it is to sell to the end consumer, because we have a lot of retailers and if they come to our shop, they can see how to sell our bikes. They will be inspired by the shop and finish and the cleanliness and the staff, and they can take some of that and bring it into their stores. Funnily enough, our shops have improved the quality of our dealers. But it’s still difficult. We’re in London and our shops are all over the world in different time zones. I think the day you think that you’re perfect, it’s time to give up. You need to be permanently dissatisfied because you’ll always want to get better.

ANGELA: Speaking of that, as the captain of this ship, what is something that you’re trying to get better at?

WILL: As a CEO, your number one job is vision and leadership. You’re supporting the business in different areas as it grows. Those are the key blocks. The foundation is the business of the bike, and we’re building the blocks on top. Recently, what I’ve realised is that the glue between the blocks is weak. As the company got bigger, things like HR, giving people an understanding of our history and mission, making sure we have great career progression, making sure we look after our staff and their family… there’s work I need to do in these areas, in strengthening that team spirit. It’s quite invisible. If you need more designers, you get more designers. If you need more marketers, you get more marketers. But the thing that connects everyone, the culture, is quite sticky. I’m getting quite obsessed about the minute.

ANGELA: Would you say you’re a hands-on kind of boss?

WILL: Well, funnily enough, I don’t do anything. I mean I’m pretty useless. And that’s important, because I should be employing people who are better than me. You need them to help your business grow. You need to tell them where you’re going and ask, “What do you need from me to help you get us there?” I’m very hands-on in asking my staff this question. My job is to serve my staff and help them fulfil their potential. My job is not to tell them what to do because I don’t know. People think I’m the big boss. I know everything. But that’s not true.

Bronmpton-Art-1

ANGELA: What does it look like then to empower your staff?

WILL: Classic example. Our strategy has been to open a shop in Singapore for nearly a year. In the middle of that strategy, an opportunity came up for Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. Very fantastic shopping mall. We went, “Do we do it, or not?” My team said, “There’s a risk, but I think we should go for it.” Now that’s possible suicide. Half a million pounds. But they believe it’s worth doing. It’s very, very rare for me to say no when my staff tells me, “Sir, I believe in something. I think we should go for it.” If they believe in it, 90% of the time, it will succeed. If it fails, we learn a lot and we’ll be a better company for it. You just need to let your staff feel it’s them, it’s theirs, and they’ll be determined to do well.

ANGELA: What do you think makes you a good leader?

WILL: I would say passion and humility. There are some leaders who shout at everyone, and they’re not very nice, but they’ve succeeded. I don’t like that. I feel like that’s old-school.

"If I’m all super professional, sitting in a cab, and everything’s immaculate, then my staff won’t feel like they’re allowed to be anything but perfect. You’ve got to be un-perfect to innovate, to fail, to try."

ANGELA: Do you think you’re a natural leader?

WILL: I’m not sure if I’m a natural leader, but I am passionate. I did expeditions up the Amazon. And I can make decisions. I think people like passion. If somebody’s enthusiastic, they’ll follow that enthusiasm. All I’m trying to do is my best, and I expect the same from my staff. We’re friendly, supportive and allow our staff to have a lot of independence, but if somebody does not give a shit, we will actively remove them from the business.

ANGELA: Do you maintain open communication with every one of your staff members, even down to the intern?

WILL: You can when you’re smaller, but when you’ve become so big, it’s just not possible. I’ve learnt that I can’t have that relationship with everyone. What you need to do is to have a pretty good relationship with your region reports, and their reports. You need to really know all of them. And then, every now and again, go deep into the company. I’m in the factory nearly every morning at about 7:30am, and I spend a little time in the shopfront chatting. If you listen down there and it all sounds okay, you go back up. If something doesn’t sound very good, start following it and maybe you’ll find a problem that someone’s not telling you. If you spend all your time up here, you’ll lose touch with what’s really going on in the business. For example, in our Westfield shop in London, it closes at late at 10pm. Sometimes when I’m pedalling back from my dinner, I’ll go to the shop. I’ll have a little chat, and they’ll just tell me stuff. Maybe they’ll give me some good feedback. You have to spend time with your customers also because they will tell you your problems too.

ANGELA: In a previous interview, you talked about the importance of creating disorder. How do you do that?

WILL: If the CEO said, “We’re all meeting at the zoo at 12 o’clock tomorrow for lunch”, you might say, “What? Really? Oh no, I can’t go to the zoo. I’ve got a meeting and an interview. I’ve got plans!” That’s an example of creating disorder. Periodically, in my business, I will do things to challenge my team, things that I know they feel uncomfortable about. It reminds them that we can try different things and experiment. That’s how you innovate. Even cycling from the airport. That’s me creating disorder. If the CEO can do silly things, then they should too. If I’m all super professional, sitting in a cab, and everything’s immaculate, then my staff won’t feel like they’re allowed to be anything but perfect. You’ve got to be un-perfect to innovate, to fail, to try.

Brompton-Art-2

"The mistake I have a fear of is upsetting my customer. That is the one thing that I hold very dear."

ANGELA: What’s an example of something that you’ve done with your staff?

WILL: We met some guys from Bollinger. They make champagne. Turns out, they were quite keen cyclists. So I said, “Hey guys, why don’t we cycle from Brompton, our factory, to Bollinger, your factory? Wouldn’t that be fun?” It was 300 km to go from Brompton to Bollinger. Twenty eight of our staff came. I paid for it. It was really exciting. Quite tough, but brilliant. We got special T-shirts and Bollinger Bromptons made, and we cycled. We arrived at this amazing château, and had incredible champagne and meals. And it was just not normal. You don’t have to be super radical. You just have to be slightly different, and it’ll create huge benefits. Most innovation is actually just a couple of degrees off the normal.

ANGELA: What has been your greatest mistake thus far?

WILL: I make mistakes all the time. I went to the wrong place this morning at 10am for a meeting. I’m so consistently shit, it’s unbelievable. But I don’t see a mistake. Every time I make a mistake, I learn and the business gets bigger. When the business grows, it becomes a different type of business with different challenges, so I make a whole lot of new mistakes. I see them as part of the journey. If you want to do anything in your life, if you want to be good at something, you’ll have to train, fall, and get bruises. If you’re afraid of making mistakes, you won’t succeed.

ANGELA: So you have no fear of making mistakes?

WILL: The mistake I have a fear of is upsetting my customer. That is the one thing that I hold very dear. We make mistakes, but we protect the customer. If our customer is let down by us, that is a very hard mistake to recover from.

ANGELA: Besides this new store, what’s next for Brompton, and how far ahead do you plan?

WILL: About 20 years. I’m 45. In 20 years, I’ll be 65. My dad’s 81, and he’s still working, so I’ve got plenty of time, hopefully. We need to make useful products, products that make people’s life a little bit better. For instance, this bike is fine for me to lift, but it’s too heavy for you. We need to make it better. There are lots of things we can do with modern materials, science and technology to improve the bikes still.

ANGELA: Finally, what is your business philosophy?

WILL: I believe very, very strongly against the philosophy that the role of business is to deliver to shareholders. I think that is naïve. I think the role of business is to deliver to the customer and I think today’s customers expect the business not only to produce a nice product, but to look after the environment, their staff, their suppliers. If they find that a business isn’t doing these things, they won’t buy from it, and that business will fail. That’s what I hope because business has a really important part to play in solving many of the world’s problems.