William Butler-Adams: Always hire people who know better than you do in whatever field you are recruiting in
William Butler-Adams: Always hire people who know better than you do in whatever field you are recruiting in

Brompton boss: I don't have a clue

21 October 2016

The real value in leadership is vision, said William Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycle, as he unfolded his bike on the stage.

Butler-Adams was speaking at the end of the CIPS Annual Conference in London, to pass on his knowledge and expertise in turning a fledgling business into a global brand that sells over 30,000 bikes a year globally. “The second most important thing in leading is knowing what you don’t know,” he said.

“In business somehow you feel you have to be weird. [Business leaders] get on the radio and speak in funny voices in front of the microphone. Suddenly they are the CEO and they have to know everything… what a load of rubbish,” he said. “I haven’t got a clue. I have never run a business the size of the business I am running.”

Always hire people who know better than you do in whatever field you are recruiting in, he says. And give them the freedom to help you on the journey with the company. “That’s where I want to get to. You tell me what you need to get us there - skills, people, budget. I don’t know - that’s why I recruited you.”

Brompton Bicycle makes its bikes in the UK factory, and now exports 80% globally, which reduces the cyclical aspect of sales. “If there is bad weather, it ruins it, so the more weather patterns you have in your portfolio, the better,” he explained.

Seventy percent of the 1,200 parts that go into each bike are unique to the company, brake levers, brake callipers, etc so supplier relations are very important to the brand.

As the company grew, it was encouraged to better manage contracts. “Suddenly we get all these advisors. They tell us, because they are advisers, that we must have ginormous contracts, because if we don’t cover ourselves 500 times the company will go under.”

The challenge here, Butler-Adams said, is to decide when to take the advice, and when to say no. When the company requested a service level agreement to be drawn up, it was handed a contract that was 50 pages long. “We have a relationship with our suppliers. One of them is a husband and wife team who have been with us for 22 years. This thing is like a declaration of war, it is so aggressive,” he said. “What we need is a contract where we understand what is fair and reasonable. You need to build a strong relationship with your suppliers so that if they make a mistake you help them get out of trouble. You don’t drive them to the wall and make them go bust.”

Look to the relationships with the suppliers instead, he said. “The way we are saving money is by using our brains, not thumping them with contracts. There is so much scope to be clever, think, understand their business so you can design out cost,” he said. “How they pack it, ship it. We didn’t realise tons of people were doing stuff we didn’t need.”

In one case the supplier was over-specifying on a component and in another small parts were being unnecessarily counted before being packed into a box. “Spend money on building a relationship with suppliers. Fly out to see them, understand their process. There is so much scope for saving money.” 

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