Brompton has revealed plans to invest as much as £100m in a new UK factory that will secure its place as the UK’s biggest bicycle manufacturer.
In an added twist it has decided to reject the normal grey shed, instead opting to build its plant on stilts amid a newly restored wetland.
The folding bike maker plans for the new site at Ashford in Kent to be open by 2027, on a 40 hectare (100 acre) floodplain. The stilts will be needed to prevent the factory being regularly inundated. It will also have no new car parking, instead relying on new pedestrian and cycle paths from the train station.
“The whole reason this works is everything about it is slightly mad,” said Will Butler-Adams, Brompton’s chief executive, speaking before the plans were approved by Ashford borough council’s cabinet on Thursday evening.
It is part of an expansion that will increase employee numbers from 850 to 1,000 in the next year. Butler-Adams said Brompton will also develop new products at the site, with an ultimate goal of building 200,000 bikes a year, compared with just shy of 70,000 in the year to March 2021, when Brompton made revenues of £76m (including a bike subscription service in some cities).
The company will move from a “nondescript great big grey box” in Greenford in west London to a custom-built facility that will also host a museum, visitor centre and café, Butler-Adams said. Brompton hopes the facility, designed by architect Guy Hollaway, will be distinctive enough to attract a small portion of the 4.5m annual visitors to the designer outlet next door. The Greenford factory will continue to operate until at least 2030 during a transition to the new site.
Part of the plan will involve restoring the new area to something similar to what it would be without human intervention: 24 hectares will be dedicated to a “rewilded public nature reserve” with a cycle path and trails open to the public.
The cost of the factory will be as much as 50% higher than building a new shed-style factory, Butler-Adams said. However, he hopes it will save money in the longer term and avoid competing for shed space against booming online retailers.
The company will also be able to spend on energy-saving measures such as insulation, ground source heat pumps and solar panels on its roof. Brompton has a net zero carbon emissions “ambition”, and so will aim to use materials with a lower carbon footprint.
The factory will not include the usual expanse of tarmac for car parking (beyond a few spaces for disabled employees). Instead, workers will be able walk or cycle directly along 4km of new paths from Ashford International station. Those workers who do drive will have to use existing parking around Ashford, possibly in the nearby shopping centres.
Hollaway, the architect, has also designed Ashford’s upcoming Newtown Works project, as well as galleries, a winery for English vintners Chapel Down, and even a multi-storey skatepark. Hollaway said he wanted the Brompton building to ask, “what is the factory of the future?”
The complex – with floor-to-ceiling windows around much of the circular main building, according to digital renders – is designed to celebrate manufacturing and inspire workers, Butler-Adams said.
“So much manufacturing is in some industrial estate hidden away, and nobody sees it,” he said. “It’s like an abattoir. It’s hidden.
“We want to turn normal upside down and redefine manufacturing. Everyone thinks it’s dark satanic mills and people with boilersuits and monkey wrenches. It’s not.”
In the shorter term Brompton is still coping with pandemic supply shortages, shipping delays of up to a month to add to normal 10-week lead time, and disruption caused by Brexit. Butler-Adams said he thought they were “over the worst of it” on supply issues.
“The Brexit situation has been a bit of a nightmare – that’s improving,” he added.
Brompton is sitting on an £11m cash pile, and it has not raised external capital in the 20 years Butler-Adams has been with the business. He said he would prefer not to raise new capital unless required, but added it would not be difficult if necessary.
When Brompton started talks with Ashford, the council had initially put forward the site that eventually became a vast lorry park to cope with extra Brexit customs checks. The council will provide undisclosed financial support for the new factory.
The Ashford site offers easy access to and from London, with its millions of commuters and potential Brompton customers, but Butler-Adams said the proximity of the Eurostar station would also allow the company to “engage with Europe really easily”.