Entrepreneur and motorbike enthusiast Stuart Garner rescued the ailing Norton Motorcycles brand when he bought the company in 2008. Find out how he revved up the fortunes of the great British bike.
In the reception of Norton Motorcycles’ offices and factory at Donington Hall, Derby, a Norton Dominator SS motorcycle is on display. It’s not just any bike, it’s the bike used in the James Bond film Spectre (2015) – that most British of film franchises – and it’s a beauty.
The revival of the Norton brand is nothing short of a miracle. The first Norton bike hit the roads in 1902 and over the years became known as ‘The World’s Best Road Holder’. But by the early 1960s, the ‘Big Four’ Japanese brands had left Norton languishing. After a number of attempts to revive the brand, entrepreneur and, importantly, motorbike enthusiast Stuart Garner seized the opportunity to buy the company in 2008.
Garner, 49, began his working life as a 16-year-old gamekeeper, but it wasn’t long before he was running his own businesses. He made his first million with a fireworks business, called Fireworks International, in his early twenties.
Having always loved bikes, Garner says that where Norton’s concerned, he’s in it for life. He’s even bought a stately home ‘above the shop’ as it were. The imposing Donington Hall and its grand grounds are a stone’s throw from the Donington Park motorsport circuit.
The past three years have seen a huge period of growth for Norton, helped along by a government investment of £4 million in 2015, which Garner requested by tweeting the then-chancellor, George Osborne. The UK factory manufactures a thousand motorbikes a year, exporting around 80 percent to 26 territories, with price tags ranging from £16,000–£44,000. The demand for handmade British motorcycles shows no sign of slowing.
THE STAND spoke with Garner about how he made Norton a success, the importance of brand synergy and the Brexit opportunities he sees on the horizon.
Why did you buy Norton?
I’ve always loved motorbikes, and the potential for the brand blew me away. The business was on its knees when I bought it. But we had no idea what we’d got until we were a year or two in. I remember it being described as a ‘tiger’ of a brand. But for the first couple of years, we had it by the tail, and every now and again it would turn around and bite us. We didn’t have any real control – we were just passengers!
Brexit is an absolute game changer for Britain and the UK, in a positive way
Even now, when we launch a new bike, the media buzz can overwhelm us. We recently partnered with motorcycle racing champion John McGuinness ahead of the upcoming Isle of Man TT race. That generated millions of hits on social media – it’s exciting and it keeps things very real and very raw, even though John is now injured and unable to ride. Being a motorcycle brand and racing the TT, there’s an earthiness and an honesty to what we do, and our customers know that.
Josh Brookes is replacing John McGuinness at Isle of Man – how is the day shaping up?
Josh has been out testing relentlessly over the past few months, and we are all very confident we will build on the 131mph laps and sixth position Josh recorded last year. He is the fastest short-circuit rider to race the TT and has a huge wealth of racing knowledge to transfer onto the road-racing scene. With John McGuinness as his experienced teammate, we’re looking forward to a very strong performance from the Norton team.
Do you think there’s a kind of alchemy to creating a great company culture?
I think seeing the owner around the place mucking in helps – it means employees appreciate everyone’s chipping in to make it work. As a team, we play hard together. I’ve bought a hotel, The Priest House, at the end of the road. It’s set within 100 beautiful acres with a mile and a half of river frontage. Last summer I took everyone down there to the private bar, and some of the team ended up swimming in the river at 2am.
This week I have John McGuinness coming to meet customers in a money-can’t-buy evening. We put on a free bar and free food, and then I interview John. It’s a great night. These are points of difference other brands are never going to get close to.
What makes you successful at what you do?
I don’t worry. Nothing really keeps me awake at night. One of the key skill sets I’ve unwittingly developed is that I can assess risks and make decisions, and once the decision is made, not worry about the consequences. Also, losing my money and going back to having nothing doesn’t scare me, because I’ve been there.
Daniel Craig rode a Norton Dominator SS in Spectre. Will Norton feature in a Bond movie again?
Featuring in Spectre generated loads of interest. (And no, we didn’t give Daniel Craig one of the bikes!) It’s one of the biggest brand deals we’ve ever done: Bond is a great British brand and there’s great synergy between us. We’re talking to them about the next one, but it’s all down to the studio and the script.
You have Norton accessories already and have just agreed a deal with Breitling watches. Is it important to extend the brand?
The deal with Breitling is a fabulous bit of branding – a global lifetime partnership. We’re designing some limited-edition Norton Breitling bikes for later on this year. A brand like that gives you such good global scale, through their retail footprint and distribution, so it works very well for us. And they’re able to trade off our quirkiness and ruggedness. But you can’t do deals like this until you have your core product right and the business is rock solid. You have to have good people at home who can transact the business when you’re not there. It’s happened to me a few times; I’ve gone away and come back to find the wheels have gone all wobbly. Make sure the foundations are strong.
How do you view the uncertainty around Brexit?
I think Brexit is an absolute game changer for Britain and the UK, in a positive way. The opportunity it’s going to provide us in terms of trade deals is fantastic. We’re English speaking, we’ve got a great currency, we’ve got the financial capital of the world, we have a fantastic banking system for all transactional business. And we have brilliant British law that is respected around the world and an excellent regulation base coming from the EU, so we’re already ahead of the game with all our regulatory discipline. When you put all that together, we have probably one of the best places in the world from which to trade and grow business.
I was lucky enough to be on the RAF Voyager as a guest of the Prime Minister and MP Liam Fox, along with 12 other businesses, on the trip to China in January. It’s fascinating to get behind the scenes and see our senior politicians travelling the world negotiating trade deals.
At the moment we’re in the middle of a negotiation, and we’ve got a customs union and a free trade agreement. Whatever happens in the next few years, it’s very difficult to think that deal will dilute and get worse on the basis that the EU is a net contributor to Britain. We buy more from them than they buy from us, so it’s commercially in their interests that those trade doors are open wide and that we find solutions regarding the customs union while enabling Britain to negotiate trade agreements around the rest of the world.
Is business already growing in new and emerging markets?
Norton currently exports 80 percent of the business, and we expect that to increase as we grow. In the past couple of years we’ve licensed China’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer and engine maker, Zongshen, with Norton’s next-generation engine – a low-emission ‘green’ engine that meets Euro 4 standards. We’ve also done a joint venture in India and set up a company called Kinetic-Norton. They’re now building a factory to make Norton bikes in India for the Asian countries that have free trade agreements. As we come out of Europe, these deals will become more prevalent as we open our eyes and turn to other opportunities outside of the Eurozone.
How do you switch off when you live so near to your factory?
I did eat, sleep and dream Norton, and for the first few years after I bought the company I hardly left the premises. Over the long term, that’s not healthy – both as an individual or for the business. Nowadays I try to relax a bit more; obviously I like getting on a motorbike, and I have some nice cars. I have some Aston Martins (a 2010 DBS, 2007 Vanquish, a 1996 V8550) and have just bought a Range Rover SVR. Just going out for a drive in something like that chills you out. Or I like walking the dog in the grounds of my house. I also have a place in South Africa, and it’s nice to spend time out there.
My son, Zac, has just moved in with me, and I’m getting married to my girlfriend, Susie, in the summer. I have two daughters: Sophie, 19, is a budding entrepreneur who has an ethical swimwear brand called Kekini. My other daughter, Samantha, is 17 and is very academic. They’re all very different and I’m very proud of them. I try to pass on my mantra to all of them: ‘Be prepared to work hard at what you do, but most of all, be happy’.
Ally Oliver is an award-winning journalist, editor and brand content specialist.