Interview with Norton CEO Stuart Garner

September 14, 2010
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

He doesn’t so much walk, or even jump, down the metal steps from the first floor of the Norton factory but more descends in a series of leaps. The physique is slim – almost that of a gymnast. There is a fashionably crumpled

Stuart Garner
Our interview with Stuart Garner took place at a large industrial unit housed within the the Donnington Circuit.

white shirt bearing a small Norton logo; faded jeans and scuffed brown boots. This is not the normal Chief Executive of a motorcycle manufacturer. This is Stuart Garner: the brains and powerhouse behind Norton.

It is easy to say that Garner is a million miles away from the corporate archetype but it’s much harder to find a familiar slot for him. Think rock promoter – without the earring – and you are in the right area. He waves a hand dismissively and breaks into an infectious grin. “Just go where you want and take whatever pictures you need. Just go anywhere.”

Not that there are a lot of places to go at Norton because the factory is, at present, comprised of a single, large industrial unit living just inside the perimeter fence at the iconic Donington Race Circuit. As I prepare to take some pictures of the assembly area Stuart bounces across. “Come, leave that, let me show you our machine shop.”

We jog along the corridor – Stuart never walks anywhere – and into a small production unit. CNC machines are busily churning out alloy parts for the Commando 961 which is Norton’s only product. The grin breaks out again as he shows me the footpeg hangers.

Stuart Garner
Garner showcased alloy parts the company recently crafted for the Commando 961.

Like an upmarket custom bike builder, the hangers are machined from solid blocks of alloy. “We could make them for $3 like the Japanese but these are the real thing – $60 each and they look it.

“When a Norton owner touches one of these he will know that he has bought something special – something with care and permanence that will last a lifetime.”

He thrusts the hanger into my hand. “Go on, feel the quality!”

And I do. And yes, there is all of the quality which comes from a hand-made part; produced to a specification rather than a price.

Then we are off again, jogging back through the corridor and into Norton’s tiny reception area.

The interview is to take place at a table I know well, sitting on chairs which are old friends. This is the same table, and the same chairs, which go on Norton’s stand when the company exhibits at bike shows. Truly, Norton is a lean, cost-sensitive organization which is incomprehensible to the dark blue-suited corporate world of the major motorcycle manufacturers.

Stuart never sits still. He leans forward and then back. He grins and scowls – snarls and smiles – in a bewildering kaleidoscope of emotions. On the small glass table are his Norton watch and his cell phone. He constantly spins the phone, looks at it – but never answers a call or reads a text while I am with him. Every word I say is heard – every comment evaluated.

Stuart Garner
Garner left school at the age of 16 and afterward entered the fireworks industry.

Sometime in the future, we may well have alien masters like Stuart. This interview is good practice for when I first meet an extra-terrestrial super being.

The conversation is conducted at a frantic pace with ideas pouring forth in such a direct manner that this interview would have been politically incorrect 40 years ago – and utterly unthinkable today.

“I left school at 16 with no qualifications. School gave me an egg collection and a fondness for snooker but nothing else. I really was the black sheep of the family. I started work as a trainee gamekeeper. I was good with a shotgun and I liked the life but I was paid $40 a week and had to give $24 a week of that back to college. But I was learning a lot about girls, bikes and beer so everything was okay.”

“When I was 18, I had a girlfriend whose Dad was a bit of a Victorian. He said that anyone dating his daughter had to have a real job so he had me working in his fireworks business humping boxes around. I got paid over $100 a week – which was a big pay raise but still sh** pay.”

“The lights came on when I looked at the lads I knew from school. They were coming back from university and buying things because they had real jobs. They could go out and buy things like cars – and even houses – and there I was shifting boxes. The cogs really started to go around so I started my own little fireworks business because that was the only thing I knew.”

“The ‘little business’ grew into Fireworks International, which is now one of Britain’s biggest suppliers of fireworks, and Stuart Garner – the boy who left school at age 16 with no qualifications – is now Chairman of the British Fireworks Association, the trade body for the British Fireworks Industry.

The Commando engine ready for assembly
Garner was later introduced to legendary British frame builder, Stuart Tiller, who offered Garner a partnership in Spondon Engineering.
The Commando engine is strongly built

Fireworks have heavily influenced Garner today because, in 2001, the industry was about to be closed down by government pressure.

“The fireworks industry was stupid,” Garner said. “We were selling fireworks which were like bombs. Some kids were literally blowing cars up with the things we were selling. The government came along and said: ‘Fix it now or we will regulate you out of business.’”

“We had to make fireworks acceptable to the non-believer who didn’t like any fireworks, and that meant making sure that kids didn’t buy them and that the noise levels were reasonable. Medium and long term sustainability were more important than short term profit.”

It was a mantra that Stuart was going to carry into the motorcycle industry.

Then came one of the strange quirks of fate. Stuart went shooting with Stuart Tiller, who owned half of the legendary British frame builder and parts manufacturer, Spondon Engineering. With the retirement of Tiller’s partner, there was a chance to own half of the business.

Garner always had a keen interest in bikes but he took a wider view at Spondon. “They were fantastic engineers, with a full order book, but the premises were on a good site too with solid value in it. Yes, I was keen on the business – but just as keen not to lose money.”

Stuart was in Spondon one day and saw a one-off NRV Rotary being finished for the British National Motorcycle Museum. The final touch was to apply the Norton logo to the fuel tank. When Garner inquired if anyone had authorized the use of the logo, the old school Spondon staff dismissed the idea of doing the job by the book and laughed at his idea of approaching whoever held the rights to the Norton name to seek their formal permission.

The conversation became very heated and in the end, one of the Spondon staff flipped a 10 pence coin to Stuart and said that was to pay for his wasted phone call to the USA. The gesture didn’t go down well – but Garner pocketed the money and confronted the mocking engineer. “Now I am already 10 pence ahead of you – and I’ll still do the job right.”

Commando valve gear
Stuart Garner soon found himself purchasing Norton Motorcycles after it was under threat of being bought out by a non-motorcycle enterprise. 

Stuart tracked down the Norton trade name to an American investment banker called Ollie Curme. At this point in the conversation, Stuart breaks into a smile and his voice softens.

“Ollie had done such a good job at saving Norton. He had spent many millions of dollars consolidating the various Norton trademarks which had been scattered all over the world, and got them all completely under his control. Ollie is a real Norton fan. Without him, the Norton name would be a total mess and worth nothing to anyone.”

“We had a chat and Ollie authorized the use of the Norton name on the one bike we were building and then everything went back to normal. Then one Monday morning in October 2008, I got a phone call which really got me interested. It was Ollie’s company. They had an offer for the Norton brand from a non-motorcycling concern and it was acceptable. But Ollie wanted Norton to make bikes and that just showed what a true Norton fan he really was.”

“The problem was that they were blunt about the time scale. Norton was being sold in five days time unless I matched the offer dollar for dollar. I thought, well, at worst I’m going to waste five days of my life, and an airfare, so I went straight to the airport and jumped on a plane.”

“On Tuesday and Wednesday, I did all the due diligence stuff and it was all good. Then I thought I could have a bit of a haggle with them and reduce the price. The problem was that the contract was too simple. It was written on a single side of A4 paper and just listed all the intellectual property rights. It was a case of take it or leave it. There was also a box of cds, four bikes in various stages of development and some tooling – but that was it.”

Massive Commando crank
Stuart Garner: “Making a motorcycle business earn money didn’t seem to be a very complex problem. You made a good product and sold it at profit: that’s all there was to it.”

“I thought that I could get a bit of a deal on the time scale but they were clear. If you want it, then you’ve got one day to decide. Take it or leave it: that’s the deal and the only deal.”

“It was a lot of money but I just had to have Norton. A brand like Norton just never comes on the market. Can you imagine it? Norton won its first race in 1907 and now I was sitting in a plane looking at a sheet of paper which would give me the chance to own it. It wasn’t a once in lifetime chance – it was a once in five lifetimes’ opportunity.”

“So, halfway across the Atlantic I got a blank sheet of paper out and drafted a business plan. Everything was clear and everything made sense. You build a good bike and sell it at a profit. That was all there was to it. I knew I had to own Norton.”

Garner wasn’t stressed by the mountain he had to climb. He explains: “Making a motorcycle business earn money didn’t seem to be a very complex problem. You made a good product and sold it at profit: that’s really all there was to it.”

“Yes there was over 100 years of heritage and you do live with this every day but, at its core, Norton was just like every other business I had run. You make money and you stay in business. You lose money and you go broke: that’s really all there is to it.”

As well as the sheet of paper listing the Norton Intellectual Property Rights, Garner had purchased 100 cds containing the engineering drawings for the Kenny Dreer Norton Commando, plus four bikes in various states of finish.

Norton factory assembly
After purchasing the company Garner faced a massive overhaul which included re-designing everything from the ground up.

“I brought in Simon Skinner from Triumph,” Garner said. “He is a young designer with an excellent reputation and absolutely up to date with what was needed to make the Commando work. I gave the bike and cds to Skinner – that’s a term of affection, even Simon’s wife calls him Skinner – and told him to tell me what we needed.”

“A week later he came back and gave me the bad news: nothing made sense. In particular, I remember looking at the footpegs. The footpeg on the bike didn’t match the tooling for the part and neither the tooling nor the actual footpeg was anything like the drawing on the cd. The information on drawings and designs was incomplete and things had been lost in the breakdown of the old company: it was a mess.”

“One of my most important jobs at Norton – perhaps the most important – is to make decisions and implement them. I said to Skinner: ‘Stop trying to sort out the mess and just re-design everything now. Don’t spend another minute on the stuff we’ve got – just give me a bike which works.’”

“This caused delays in the short term but by the time Skinner had finished we had a fully functioning bike, fit for sale and capable of series production. Anything less and we would have failed.”

In fact, what Norton does have is a very saleable product and one which, very much against received wisdom, is unique. Despite being a technically simple motorcycle – a five-speed, Parallel-Twin with valves opened by pushrods is hardly state of the art engineering – the Commando provides a unique riding experience. And “unique” is the Holy Grail which all manufacturers are chasing.

Norton frame
After a few years of hard work and restructuring the Norton brand has been reinvigorated with truly unique products.

What the Commando offers is very subtle and complex. Imagine the best possible day’s riding you ever had on a classic motorcycle – where the bike started instantly, ran beautifully all day and the sun was shining. In reality, there were rarely days like that and your memory simply edits out the Lucas electrics failing, the clutch dragging in traffic and a puddle of oil under the bike when you stopped for a coffee.

Norton’s 961 Commando is that wonderful day’s riding every time you take the bike out. Somehow, the Commando manages to simultaneously feel like a traditional classic and a modern bike. Just as important, it also looks the value for the money. Nothing about the bike feels cheap, or built to a price, but rather the Commando looks totally honest – which it needs to be, selling at over $20,000 in the USA.

Stuart Garner is delighted both with sales so far and the Commando’s future. “It’s a great robust and reliable platform which will run forever. There will never be an over-supply of bikes. Big volume is not what Norton is about. Slightly under supplying the demand generates exclusivity and helps residual values: both are long term benefits for Norton customers.

“But most important is that the Commando will provide a quality of ownership which is rare in the motorcycle world. Commando owners will want to keep their bikes and want to ride them too because they are bikes worth riding and owning.”

Norton Rotary Racers are a part of the companys race heritage.
Stuart Garner: “Big volume is not what Norton is about. Slightly under supplying the demand generates exclusivity and helps residual values: both are long term benefits for Norton customers.”

Norton has been very fortunate in terms of being in the right place at the right time. Certainly, the hyper sportbike market is withering rapidly. When the Commando will manage a genuine 125 mph, and will run up to 100 mph in the flick of a wrist – a speed which will have your license instantly suspended throughout Europe – an ever increasing number of riders are questioning the need for a 180 mph missile.

At the same time, prices of premium bikes have increased dramatically so that the Norton is no longer at an isolated price point. There are now plenty of machines on sale at more than $20,000.

Garner is insistent that following the Commando will be other platforms which will each spawn a family of bikes. Fifteen years ago, this would have been mere fantasy – but not in England today. Many of our traditional heavy industries have disappeared but there is huge infrastructure of high tech companies supporting the defense, automotive, aerospace and both car and motorcycle racing industries. In fact, the Norton chassis are manufactured by just such a British firm.

The same goes for engine design. Ferrari might well help Ducati with their powerplants, but the rest of the Formula One industry is based in England and if you want a state of the art cylinder head design there are plenty of companies capable of doing the job – and manufacturing it.

Norton Commando 961. Norton Motorcycles are truly hand-built.
Garner has a future goal for Norton of selling between 8-10,000 units worldwide, but mainly within the US, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

This state of affairs suits Garner and Norton perfectly. “Our longer term aim is to eventually sell 8-10,000 units world-wide. Some markets are central to sales – Britain, Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand – and others less so. For example, we might just have one dealer in a Middle Eastern country to supply what will be a few customers.”

“What I don’t want to do is get involved in all the pettiness that goes with being a big manufacturer. For sure, you’re not going to find me in a suit sitting in a boardroom. I have structured the company so that I have complete control of Norton. It’s vital to have a quick and efficient decision making process – not one run by a committee! We have a fabulous team here – but every team needs leadership and direction not committees and indecision.”

“We are already in the final stages of doubling the size of our existing factory and we are bringing more things under our direct control. The next big project is to build the engines in house so that we can keep a tight control of everything.”

“About 80% of the bike is actually made in England and that is important to us. We do buy in things like Ohlin suspension and Brembo brakes, but this is because they are the best available anywhere in the world. If we could make them better here, we would. What you won’t find is us manufacturing lumps of the bike in cheap labor countries. Buy a Commando and you will buy the best of British engineering – made in England. That’s a promise.”

“All the other platforms will be the same: designed and manufactured in Britain.”

What isn’t made in Britain is the increasing range of Norton branded memorabilia. During our meeting, a pair of Norton branded jeans arrived for approval and this is one

New Commandos awaiting their happy owners
Garner has also constructed a franchising business to run parallel with making bikes, but he’s being careful to keep his brand exclusive.

of a long list of Norton souvenirs on sale. With a background in selling fireworks, Garner clearly has his eye on the very lucrative franchising business to run in parallel with making bikes, but not at the risk of prostituting the Norton brand. Certainly, Garner is fiercely protective of the Norton name and most of the company’s merchandise is made in Britain to Norton’s high specifications. For sure, anything bearing the Norton name will be a direct reflection of the quality of the bikes.

“With our heritage, anyone would be proud to be part of the Norton brand. We’ve been around since 1898 and won the first ever TT in 1907. That’s what I call heritage.”

He is also very clear how to make money from Norton. “At present, we are running at a week-on-week profit and that is a remarkable achievement for such a young company. I’m working 100 hours a week and I’m not doing this to lose money or fail. Norton will be a commercial success. I’ve got a fantastic work force who show a level of commitment I’ve never seen anywhere else and best of all we’ve got “Pa” Norton (James Lansdowne Norton, the company’s founder) with us in spirit when things get tough – so we can’t fail.”

As we were concluding the interview, Stuart leaned back, smiled and spent 10 minutes in off-the-record gossip. All that I can say at this point, is that if 10% of what he has planned comes to fruition then this time next year the Norton brand will be on the world stage.