The boss of the company behind the famous folding bike Brompton has described the importance of supplier relationships for the success of a small business.
Will Butler-Adams, CEO of Brompton Bicycles, said supplier relationships in the early stages of the venture were key to the developing the company’s now ubiquitous product, particularly in the early prototyping stages.
“In the early days a lot of [suppliers] didn’t know what they were making for us. They didn’t know we made bikes, so I always turned up on my bike and walked around the shop floor with it and showed it to people who were making our stuff,” he said.
He explained how important it was for small firms to get buy-in from suppliers. "In the early days people liked us. We got on, which meant people did things with us they wouldn't normally have done," he said.
For bigger companies, “spending a couple of thousand quid on a bit of prototyping work for a little company called Brompton, that gets swept under the carpet, no one even saw it”, he said. “That was make or break for us.”
Brompton Bicycles makes just the one product, albeit customisable. “From a supply chain perspective it should be absolutely awesome… because the thing doesn’t change,” said Butler-Adams.
“We’re not changing the product every season so we should be able to really optimise our supply chain… but that’s a perfect world and unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world.”
Butler-Adams said challenges remained around finding efficiencies and mapping the supply chain.
He gave the example of an injection moulded parts firm which was previously supplying set quantities of widgets in bags ready for the production line. The company “had virtually employed one person permanently to count out, to the exact one, how many of these parts were going into each plastic bag,” said Butler-Adams.
Changing from separate bags to large tubs and optimising the delivery schedule saved them around 10% on the part price. “No one is making less money, we’re just being clever,” he said.
“You don’t go along and say: ‘I want 10% out of your price and if you don’t do that you go somewhere else’. You say: “Look, we want you to make a profit, how the hell do we do this using our brains.’… It’s so obvious but it’s amazing how we don’t do it.”
Butler-Adams described how the company had hit two procurement "bottlenecks" during its history, the first time six years ago when it became clear they needed someone to take on a full-time purchasing role. Recently it hit another which meant they had to expand the team, and they have just employed a purchasing and logistics manager to "take them to the next level".
Brompton has come full circle with its supplier relationships in pursuing its next development, their own electric bicycle. “It’s quite difficult because some of these companies are very big, particularly the ones that are in the automotive [industry]. We’re back to the situation where basically we’re a tiny, tiny player and I need to build a relationship,” said Butler-Adams.
Next week Butler-Adams said he is flying out to meet a CEO in Germany and “sell him the vision”. “We have to spend a lot of time out there… just to keep encouraging them to remember who we are and we’re important,” he said.
Butler-Adams said he will be taking his bike.
Will Butler-Adams will be one of the speakers at this year’s CIPS Annual Conference 2016. Find out more and book your tickets here.
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