Any other business

Come on, prime minister: a peerage for our peerless folding bike designer

20 August 2015

1:00 PM

20 August 2015

1:00 PM

Asked to name Britain’s greatest living industrial designer, most people might cite Sir Jony Ive of Apple or Sir James Dyson of the bagless vacuum cleaner. I’d certainly shortlist Ive, but I traded in my unreliable Dyson for a brutally efficient German machine called a Sebo and I’ve always thought Sir James was overhyped. I might also mention Dumfries-born Ian Callum, the director of design for Jaguar cars responsible for the sleek F-Type. But surely the top prize must go to Andrew Ritchie, the former landscape gardener whose one perfect product, the Brompton folding bicycle, first sketched in his South Kensington flat 40 years ago, has never been bettered or even precisely replicated by any other manufacturer around the world.

Having bought myself a Brompton a decade ago, I called on Ritchie at his Brentford works and found him ‘wearing navy-blue shorts and brown leather lace-up shoes, dragging on a thin roll-up, hunched over a desk strewn with cogs, chains and oily-fingerprinted invoices’: the archetype of the British backroom boffin. He was hoping to produce 14,000 bikes that year, having passed the 10,000 mark in 2002. It was all a bit homespun, but under the managing directorship of Will Butler-Adams since 2008 (with the perfectionist Ritchie in a role that suits him better, as technical director) the privately owned business has gone from strength to strength. It produced 45,000 bikes last year, 80 per cent of them for export, clocking up a £3.4 million profit; and this week it announced a move to a new factory at Greenford big enough to break through 100,000 units in five years’ time.

Brompton is already by some distance the UK’s biggest bike-maker, Raleigh having long ago ceased production at Nottingham. Dyson moved his factory to Malaysia; Jaguar Land Rover has just announced a new assembly plant in Slovakia. But Brompton, with a workforce of 240, remains committed to manufacturing here. Andrew Ritchie told me in 2005 that his bikes ‘are best built by people who ride to work on them through west London every day’, and evidently that maxim still applies. David Cameron should cross a party hack off his much-anticipated list for the Upper House, and find space for Lord Ritchie of Brompton.

Shareholders don’t care

The late Sir John Buchanan, a former finance director of BP who went on to chair two FTSE100 companies (Smith & Nephew and ARM Holdings) and hold directorships of four more, was a rare voice in the boardroom world against the explosion in executive pay. ‘Most of the jobs I’ve done,’ he observed, ‘I would have done for half as much compensation.’ I wonder how many others in the top bracket today would secretly make that admission, and can barely believe their luck.

Latest figures from the High Pay Centre think-tank show average FTSE100 chiefs’ pay last year at a fraction below £5 million. That average is boosted by a £43 million package for Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP — who should really count in a special category, as an entrepreneur-founder rather than a hired manager — and the underlying trend, adjusted for inflation, is slightly down compared with 2013: but only slightly, and still up by a million or so since 2010.

The enormous relative rise in rewards for a few thousand people at the top of the corporate heap, especially during the recession, is widely seen as unfair — by the left because it suggests top executives (to quote the Independent) are worth ‘183 nurses or 127 police officers’, and by the moderate right because it has rarely been matched by improved rewards for shareholders. Yet it seems impossible to change the tide. Coalition business secretary Vince Cable adopted the posture of Canute by giving shareholders a binding vote on pay policies every three years and an ‘advisory’ vote every year. But results so far show just how little shareholders care about this issue: there have been no binding votes against pay proposals in FTSE100 companies and only two majority advisory votes, at Burberry and Intertek, plus flurries of opposition at Centrica, HSBC and a few others. The average shareholder vote against board pay is a negligible 6 per cent. If owners won’t shake their own corporate trees — and George Osborne clearly has no inclination to do so — one thing’s for sure: the continuing scandal of unjustifiable executive pay will be a golden propaganda tool for the resurgent Corbynite left.

Careers unlocked

‘August is the season for conversation about career choices,’ I wrote last year, and probably the year before. Sure enough, I’ve been catching up in France and elsewhere with many of the youngsters — graduate offspring of my own cohort — whose progress I try to follow. The loafers are still loafing, but the upturn of the economy has eased most of the others into the world of salaried work. One veteran of innumerable unpaid internships is now on track to become a human-rights lawyer; a former student eco-warrior is ‘advising the government of Gambia on renewable energy’. Financial PR — following my previous aspersions on it — seems to have gone out of fashion as a career choice, to be replaced by ‘political risk analysis’ for insurance companies and anything under the heading of ‘wealth management’.

I was particularly impressed by a young man last seen lurking on the fringes of the rock music scene, who told me, ‘I’m working in the City… like, Lombard Street.’ ‘Congratulations,’ I enthused, ‘Historic heart of the money market, site of the goldsmiths who founded Barclays and the original Lloyd’s coffee house… So what’s your financial niche?’ He looked sheepish. ‘It’s called Escape Hunt. People pay big money every night to be locked in a basement. I dress up as Sherlock Holmes and give them clues how to get out… It’s, like, a gamer thing.’ No need to be embarrassed, I tell him: a job’s a job, and that sounds a less risky proposition than many that have parted City punters from their cash down the centuries.

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