Legendary British motorcycle manufacturer Norton looked destined for the scrapheap until bike-loving entrepreneur Stuart Garner bought the business in 2008. Now, the marque’s putting UK production back on the map – and on the big screen too
Stuart Garner has a rock ’n’ roll air about him. He wears leather biker jackets, jeans and scuffed boots which scream “I am not a ‘suit’!” He looks, in fact, like a man to the motorcycle industry born.
Garner, 46, may look as though he wears the mantle of CEO of Norton Motorcycles lightly, but many hoops were jumped through to reach the point in his life where he could live and work in the very epicentre of the biking world.
Today, he lives in Donington Hall, Leicestershire, a stone’s throw from Donington Park racing circuit – pretty much ‘above the shop’. Norton’s 45,000 sq ft factory is in the grounds of the hall and is the hub from which 1,000 bikes a year are now manufactured.
Garner bought the estate in March 2013 when the need for expansion – and a perfect location to display ‘The World’s Best Roadholder’ – became apparent.
Petrol in the blood
Garner grew up in south Derbyshire, not far from Norton’s new premises, and admits to an early love of bikes.
“One of my first memories is of doing a wheelie on a C70 Honda moped with my granny on the back. We went through the garden gate, knocked it off its hinges!” he grins.
“My uncle was a race mechanic and when I was 16 or 17 I did a couple of motorbike projects with him, little go-faster projects, which got me into the spannering and maintenance of the bike and I guess that’s lived with me.”
Garner left school at 16 with no qualifications – and no particular aspirations to work in the motor industry – and began work as a gamekeeper; “much to my parents’ horror,” he says now.
After getting the sack for lateness, he found a job in a firework factory and realised he needed money to fund the lifestyle he wanted to pursue.
“I had a job but I couldn’t afford a decent car, to go on holidays with my mates or even buy a drink.” It was this experience which seemed to light the spark: “I set up my own little firework business [Fireworks International] and, with a few hundred pounds I’d saved up, invested in stockmarket shares.”
Garner taught himself about stocks and shares by obsessively reading the Financial Times and during the late 1990s and early Noughties, alongside the firework business, ran his own futures and options trading desk. It was experience that was to prove invaluable over the years as he launched other businesses.
“Learning about the stockmarket gave me very good lessons in risk-reward and how to mitigate risk in investments.
“Equally, I spent 20 years dealing with China for my firework business, learning how to trade. Some of those skills have taught me how to look at how we go about generally forming and running a business.”
By the time Garner was 19, Fireworks International was valued at £1m and is still a leading force in the UK’s pyrotechnics industry.
Over the next 10 years he made headway owning businesses in mobile phones, baby sleepwear and baby buggies and by 2007 had become the owner of Spondon Engineering, makers of bike frames and parts.
As Garner has explained in previous press interviews, it was while building a prototype ‘rotary racer’ for the National Motorcycle Museum that the Spondon team hit a problem: they didn’t have the rights to use the Norton name.
Garner argued that permission had to be granted, so contact was made with the owner of Norton – by this time American investment banker Ollie Curme – and the go-ahead was given.
By this point, Norton had fallen hard from its position as ‘King of the Road’ and the company was in a bad way.
“During the Nineties, Norton had three or four global owners but between 2002 and 2006 Ollie Curme had done a great job of consolidating the ownership under one (American) umbrella,” says Garner. “Still, it wasn’t enough to save the company and by 2008 it was on its knees.”
Norton Motorcycles was started by James Landsdowne Norton in Birmingham in 1898, with the first bikes making it onto the roads in 1902.
The engineering magic behind the bikes propelled Norton to stardom – over the years the manufacturer has won 94 times at the Isle of Man TT races.
Norton had become synonymous with Great British workmanship: vintage styling combined with modern engineering.
Until the 1960s, Norton bikes ruled the racetracks as well as the private collectors’ market. The brand was riding high, with the Commando model selling 500,000 units in 10 years.
A decade later, though, the advancing Japanese motorcycle industry beat Norton into submission and the last Commando was made in 1976.
By the late Noughties when recession hit, Curme and engineer Kenny Dreer had spent a rumoured $12m (£7.9m) on the project – including development of new prototype bikes.
The passion and love for the Norton brand was still there all over the world but the Japanese ‘Big Four’ – Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha – ruled the roost. It looked like the end of the road for Norton.
“One day in early 2008, I got a phone call from the US asking if I would like to buy the Norton brand,” says Garner. It was a call that was to change the course of Garner’s life. On paper, buying Norton seemed a crazy proposition and he admits:
“Yes, I had that simplistic gut feeling that it would work, my heart was saying ‘go for it, what an amazing brand, why would you not do it?’ But there was no guarantee of making a profit, there was no guarantee of selling the motorbikes. My only underlying belief was that Norton belonged in the UK, and once you brought the brand back into the UK it would take off and get traction.
“But you need to qualify that with your head in the cold light of day – saying, ‘OK, you’ve got a gut feeling, amazing, but let’s just risk-assess this process and make sure we’re not going to lose the ranch’.
“It’s very difficult to quantify the risks of these investments, it’s akin to buying a stately home for a quid, but there’s moss coming out the gutters and the roof’s fallen in, so it’s going to be £20m to put it right.”
Buying Norton took just four days, from first call to completion, and included the bike parts, four prototype bikes and the intellectual property rights.
While Garner is coy about the price he paid for it, he will say: “It was in the singles of millions of dollars and it was partly funded by me, partly by a bit of debt.”
Within a year, Garner’s team, led by head of design and executive director Simon Skinner, had redrawn the plans they’d inherited from Dreer and redesigned a prototype which went on sale – to great acclaim – in 2009.
“That first couple of years was unbelievably hard,” says Garner. “We couldn’t borrow money off the back of the business plan because the business wasn’t solid enough, so it was very much flying by the seat of our pants. We spent that first two or three years living on wit and cunning.”
It made for a stressful time, with the fear never far away that the business might not make it. Finally, by 2011, Santander agreed to lend £650,000 to Garner under the Export Enterprise Finance Guarantee scheme.
This enabled Norton to reach the stage it is at today, producing 1,000 bikes a year and doubling the workforce to 60 by 2012 (it’s now 150). In 2013, the company moved into Donington Hall and Garner’s grand vision for the company sped forward another stage.
The big boost, though, came in July when George Osborne, the chancellor, announced £4m of government funding to support 600 new jobs for Norton and its business partners. How did Garner pull off such a feat?
“It started off when I tweeted George Osborne, who’d announced he’d invested £10m in Ford to make a cleaner Ford transit engine.
“I said, ‘What about us?’ and a week later his private secretary called me and said, ‘We’d like to have a conversation: we’ve had a look at your business because you’ve sent a tweet. What’s going off at Norton?’
“To cut a long story short, I knew that George Osborne could write the biggest cheque of anybody I know. I asked him for £7.5m to rebirth the British motorcycle industry supply chain, the academy and manufacturing.
“After following things up, he connected me with an organisation called Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI) and within three months the grant was agreed. But it took another year to go through due diligence; the bureaucracy was unbelievable.”
The £4m was supplemented with another £2.65m from Santander. So, in a shifting landscape which has seen the traditional lending models change beyond all recognition, what are Garner’s tips for finding investment?
“My message to businesses looking for funding is that the money is out there, but I wouldn’t use the traditional bank route. Go and knock on the door of the British Business Bank and ask them to give you a list of the institutions they fund, with the special interest you’re looking to finance. Don’t go and look for a bank that’s a one-stop-shop, look for individual funders.”
It’s been a time of remarkable growth for Norton and in the last three years the business has more than doubled its workforce.
Now, with the AMSCI funding, Garner is thrilled to be able to address the skills gap in engineering that faces the UK.
“We’re recruiting 50 apprentices a year from all over the country. In the next two to three years we will have an amazing workforce.
“The first 20 or so are in our main business now and the energy that they bring is great. We didn’t realise how infectious this energy would be – it affects everyone else. The older members of the team see a lad of 18 snapping at their heels and it gives them extra motivation too.”
It’s clear on a visit to Norton that Garner’s a hands-on boss who also likes to stay close to his customers. “I think my staff would say: ‘He’s in the business for all the right reasons, he lives and breathes it, and works very hard but he’s a bit of a b*****d and awkward to work with!’” he laughs.
“We’ve re-staffed the core of our business three times in six years but it’s very settled now. I’ve discovered that what happens when you get a good team is
they self-police and then you don’t have to be worried about it.”
Garner’s closeness to his customers is legendary and throughout the summer Norton hosts a regular ‘bike night’ at the hall where bikers go for a beer and a chat and, he believes, help him keep his ear firmly to the ground.
“It keeps us connected and whenever we do our shows, you’ll find me with a little polishing rag cleaning the bikes at the front of the stand, chatting to customers.”
Garner is reluctant to disclose turnover, “but we’re selling 1,000 bikes a year with a retail price of £10-15k”, he says. Currently 80 per cent of sales are for export. “The foreigners like us more than the British! They love the fact that with Norton they can buy a British, hand-built bike.”
A bike for Bond
The flourishing of Great British brands continues elsewhere in the motor industry, with Jaguar Land Rover flying high – and making appearances in that other great British institution, the James Bond franchise.
Garner is coy about Norton’s product placement but the secret is now out that a Norton Dominator SS is being brought to international attention in the new Bond movie, Spectre (keep your eyes peeled in the early scene where Bond reports to Q – both the bike and Garner can be spied in the background).
“You don’t get much more British than Bond,” he grins. “We get offered product placement all the time but out of 10 films, we’re probably only interested in one – it has to be right.
“Ultimately, us Brits, we all love a little bit of flag-waving, and we all have kind of a rose-tinted view of the past… some of these big iconic granddad brands come back and everybody’s like ‘Yay! Britain’s coming back!’”
Garner is gutsily expanding the brand. The Norton website now hosts a range of boots, racewear, scarves, mugs – even handbags. It’s a million miles away from that day in 2008 when the deal was sealed to buy Norton back from the Americans.
And for Garner, it’s just the beginning. In 2009, the new model Commando 961 SE was launched to the public, with Motorcycle News describing it as “a mouth-watering return of a legendary name, an instant classic, beautifully specced and never likely to depreciate.”
Six years on, the Norton legend continues apace.
Long and winding road – the Norton story
1898 James Lansdowne Norton founds Norton. The first bike hits the road in 1902.
1924 Norton wins the Isle of Man Senior TT race
1937–1945 Manufactures almost 100,000 side-valve motorcycles
1961 Launch of the Commando
1976 After the march of the ‘Big Four’ Japanese motorcycle companies, the last Commando is produced
1980 The right to the Norton brand name is split among several companies in different countries. Relaunched in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1988.
1992 Steve Hislop, riding an Abus Norton, wins the Isle of Man Senior TT – later voted the “greatest TT race ever”
2000s Rights to Norton are brought under a single umbrella by a US investment banker but attempts to revive the business fail. Stuart Garner buys the company in 2008.
2013 Garner moves Norton to larger premises at Donington
2015 Government investment bolsters the long-term future of Norton, creating apprenticeships for young engineers. The Dominator SS appears on global movie screens in Spectre.
To watch a video of the history of Norton Motorcycles, click here