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Brompton CEO tells how workers helped him ride the storm 

IbyIMD+ Published 13 April 2023 in Competitiveness • 8 min read

At one point early in the pandemic, Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams thought the bicycle manufacturer might fold. But then he let go of the handlebars and empowered his 750 workers to find a solution. 


No plan survives first contact with the enemy, or so the military maxim goes. The same is increasingly true in business.If the past three years of turmoil have taught us leaders anything, it’s that business success isn’t necessarily about having a fantastic plan: it’s about how you respond when things don’t go according to plan. 

Facing the combined threat of economic pressures and geopolitical tensions, what counts today is your ability to set up a business that may have marginally greater costs yet is able to respond very quickly to things that you didn’t anticipate, like a pandemic, a war, or Brexit. 

I’ve been writing business plans for 20 years at Brompton,and I can tell you that we have never once delivered what we planned to. But pressure on the business has intensified since the UK’s departure from the EU in 2020, with some parts being held up at ports and disruption to our exports, too. 

Pressure on Brompton has continued in the years since, with a temporary drop in production and fall in demand for bikes during the first pandemic lockdown. The war in Ukraine also drove up the cost of metals, and geopolitical tensions in Asia have led us to explore diversification of our supply chain. 

These inflationary and supply chain shocks have led to a short-term drop in profitability, even as our revenue rose on the back of higher sales. But I take the longer-term view.What matters more than anything is the ability to respond quickly to threats when they emerge. This is how you build a business to last, not just a business that can make a quick buck. 

The limits of strategic planning 

Planning is how you set the strategic direction for the company, but even the best-laid plans can go awry.Consider that in January last year, we launched the UK’s first titanium-fold up bicycle to capitalize on a pandemic-driven boom in cycling. But only weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine, restricting supply of the lightweight metal out of these two countries.That drove up prices for raw materials and, combined with rising labor costs, that has eaten into our profit margin, even as we sold a third more bikes last year than in 2021.  

The point is that strategic planning will give everybody a sense of where you are trying to get to as a business, but the path will change.To reach that end destination, you may have to go off the beaten track. And the way to instill that flexibility is to build what I call an “autonomous business” with decentralized control, where the decision-making power is delegated to trusted employees. 

Will Butler-Adams has steered Brompton into becoming a global brand with over a million customers

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