Andrew Ritchie: gadget buff who reinvented the bike

Andrew Ritchie dedicated 30 years to building the world's best folding bicycle. Having started out in a west-London railway arch, his firm, Brompton Bicycles, now turns over £8m a year.

British manufacturing has snuffed it, as the Monty Python team might have put it. It has ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker. It is an ex-industry. "Or so the spin goes," says Andrew Ritchie. Yet the 61-year-old has created a manufacturing success story in the shape of Brompton Bicycles, an £8m-a-year bike-making business in west London (although it's taken the Gauloises-puffing gadget buff 30 years to achieve it).

The son of an RAF pilot, Ritchie got a degree in engineering from Cambridge just "theoretical stuff, no preparation for the metal bashing I'd later have to do". He sold potted plants door to door for a while until, in 1975, his father met Bill Ingram, an Australian trying to raise money for the first genuine folding bike, the 'Bickerton'. "My father said, 'Oh, my son loves gadgets. Come down and see him.' So poor old Bill, who I'm sure had better things to do, had to waste an evening fetching this bike up to my flat in Kensington." It was light and compact, but also "rather flimsy and awkward".

Ritchie thought there had to be a better way. "I became hooked from that moment." He immediately sketched a design for a new bike, making the rear suspension point the hinge on which it folded. He then did a whip-round with friends, raising £1,000 to build a prototype, planning to "flog it to the Raleighs of this world". But even after developing a "sturdier and slick" third model in 1978 on his bedroom floor, "no large company would go near us". So Ritchie persuaded 30 people to order bikes at £250 a pop. He built another 20, which he managed to sell after 18 months from a small warehouse in Kew, after a friend of a friend "got me a nice splash in the FT's 'Spend it' column". Still, "there was a wariness to invest", as the British biking industry was contracting.

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The late Julian Vereker, founder of Salisbury-based hi-fi maker Naim, took a punt, after buying one of Ritchie's contraptions. He guaranteed a £40,000 overdraft in 1986, which led to another whip-round where his father and friends invested a further £50,000 or so in equity. "I am very fortunate to be born in the bourgeoisie where they knew I wouldn't run off with their dosh. If I was a working-class boy I would never have got the £90,000 or so needed to get this off the ground."

After moving into a railway arch near Kew Bridge, Ritchie showed the Brompton off at the annual Cyclex Bike Show in Olympia in 1988, where it won best new product. Bike suppliers began taking it, and in 1994 he hit £1m turnover and took over a second arch. In the 12 months to March this year, the firm will sell 22,500 of its foldable bicycles. That's up from 14,000 last year, when it turned over £6.7m and Ritchie sold a 25% stake in the firm.

After 30 years of being "married" to the firm, he's now getting married for real-to his long term girlfriend-and buying a "jolly nice house" in Oxfordshire. "It's nice to get a good salary out of it to keep me in my humble lifestyle," he says, "but I have no desire to buy a yacht. I'm not that interested in making money. I'm much more interested in making something I believe in. And that's what's really driven me all these years."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.