The Man Who Bought the Brand - CW Interview

Stuart Garner made his fortune in fireworks. Will he have a similar “explosion” with Norton?

Photography by Paul Bryant

The Man Who Bought the Brand - CW Interview

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The new Mr. Norton is Stuart Garner, a former gamekeeper and warehouseman who “didn’t gel with school” and whose early career “went tits up when I discovered beer, girls and Yamaha 250 LCs.” Now 40, Garner owns fireworks, baby stroller and engineering firms, and a South African game reserve where he breeds rare antelope. He’s a fascinating man with infectious enthusiasm and affection for his staff, his bikes, Norton’s history and even the milling machines that make the parts; he says “it’s awesome” being in Norton’s HQ and hearing the CNC machines at work.

Gary Inman: How did the deal to buy Norton come about?

Stuart Garner: Through Spondon . We were building a prototype rotary racer for the National Motorcycle Museum, but we didn't have the rights to put the name on the tank, so we contacted Norton America, who were in their final throes. Ollie Curme owned the brand, not Kenny Dreer, so we spoke to Ollie's representative and got the license to use the name for a race team. That was in late 2007, early 2008. Later in 2008, I got a phone call asking if I would like to purchase the brand.

GI: How long did the deal take?

SG: From the phone call to the deal was four days.

GI: What did you buy?

SG: We got all the intellectual property, the rights to the names, four shipping crates of bikes and parts, and four prototype bikes. Kenny did a fantastic job of styling the bike, but the company found it very difficult to take it to production. Within a year, we had redrawn it, redesigned it and tooled it. We redid everything so we understood every part.

GI: Was it a tough decision to buy Norton?

SG: When I wrote the risk/reward profile, everything screamed, in black and white, don't do the business. Nothing made sense, but sometimes the accountants don't get it right. How do you quantify the brand value and goodwill Norton inherently has? There's no accountant's formula for that. But because we're Norton and people want to see us succeed and partner us, you get a whole load of goodwill. That little bit of Norton magic dust works its way into your supply chain, your customer base, your dealerships. The goodwill of the brand was jumping off the page and shouting, "Bring me back to Britain and start making motorcycles."

GI: What about the future?

SG: I see the Comman-do running for 10, 20, 30 years as long as we keep it fresh and give it technology updates. We'll end up with a few different Commando iterations over the next few years. The next new Norton will be a multi-cylinder model with a modern look. It'll be out in 2012, but I can't tell you anything about it.

GI: Is it going to have a fairing? Is it going to be a Superbike?

SG: I can't say, but I see the business as a three-legged stool. One leg is racing, one is building upmarket bikes and the other is licensing and merchandising around the name. I'm not saying we're the next Ferrari, but I want a similar business model. Ferrari races in F-1, and that helps them sell upmarket cars, and, in turn, that beautiful bright red brand helps sell merchandising and licenses.

GI: When can America expect bikes?

SG: We need to have bikes there this year. Today, the bike is in the middle of the Federal Type Approval. Should that pass, we'll have a 49-state bike, then we need the tests for California, but it has already performed well in pre-tests in the U.K.

GI: How many bikes will you build per year?

SG: Always less than there is a demand for. We don't want dealer-ships full of them. Currently, two of our guys can build a bike per day, so that's 10 per week.

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