This feature has been produced in partnership with Breitling
It’s not every day you get to acquire a legendary motorcycle company with a legacy that dates back 120 years. For Stuart Garner, a British businessman who used to watch his favourite Norton motorcycles lapping Donington Park as a 14-year-old, this unlikely opportunity is exactly what transpired when the company was on the brink of collapse. Fast forward to today and Garner is the new CEO of Norton Motorcycles, a brand which has seemingly returned from the dead with a fresh set of tyres and eyes on retro motorcycling.
This is the story of how an unexpected fan on the sideline saved one of the world’s most iconic motorcycle names.
Joys Of Buying A Motorcycle Company With No Game Plan
What possesses a man to purchase a flailing motorcycle company that was founded in 1898? It’s a question answered with sentimental nuances by Garner.
“There’s elements of madness, adventure, business and personal,” he says. “For me, it was all there.”
After years of mismanagement, dated practices and shifting economic landscapes which brought upon the company’s decline, the opportunity to purchase Norton ultimately arrived in 2008. For Garner this would be no amateur’s pipe dream. In a past life he helmed countless British business ventures ranging from mobile phones to fireworks to push chairs to building hotels. Nothing spoke to him the way the Norton name did though.
“I wanted a business. I’d always had smallish UK businesses, but I wanted to have something I could grow and scale to be a really big international business.”
The personal motivator came in the form of his formative teenage years in Donnington Park where he’d watch Nortons winning races during the late 1980s.
“When somebody said, ‘Would you be interested in buying Norton?’, it was like, ‘Holy shit — this is the company that I was paying to watch years ago.’”
Alongside another candidate who made a fortune from manufacturing t-shirts, Garner was actually second in queue when the Norton sale came up. It was a special call because it’s not the sort of proposition that gets thrown around to well-heeled strangers. He attributes the call to the fact that he’s owned and managed businesses before and people may have noticed — kind of like an underground CV in elite business circles.
“If you’ve got your own business your glass is always half full, not half empty. If you’re a half-empty person, you simply don’t get it; you don’t get the phone call.”
Knowing this meant that Garner was able to sure up the deal with little reservation — and proper game plan for that matter. The story reads like a Hollywood synopsis.
If you had time to sit and think about it, or if you phoned for professional help or advice, accounts and listers, everyone would have said don't do it.
Garner receives a phone call on a Monday from the then-owner to say he’d lost all of his money in the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008. He needed to sell the business and all of his personal assets literally within days to shore up the rest of his finances and avoid getting wiped out.
The sale was due to be finalised on Friday with the t-shirt mogul, but the owner told Garner that if he’d give him the handshake to say he’d have a go at making motorcycles, he’d sell it to him for the same deal as the t-shirt guy. The only problem?
“He phoned me on Monday when I was in the UK…and he was in the States. And we had to close the deal by Friday. And it was a cold call.”
Most seasoned business people would be seeing red flags waving profusely, but not Garner. He only saw potential amongst the plumes of spent exhaust and smell of burning rubber.
“I flew to him on Monday night then Thursday came; I did the due diligence, signed and purchased it.”
“If you had time to sit and think about it, or if you phoned for professional help or advice, accounts and listers, everyone would have said don’t do it.”
Garner calls this one of his “moments”, a sporadic sixth sense which tells him to go all in whenever he is presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to taste potential glory. Garner flew home that night after closing the deal. As he was on his flight he was filling out a notepad of ideas for his latest business acquisition. He laughed to himself.
The notepad read: ‘How am I going to build a bike? How much does that cost? Who’s going to design it?’
Garner’s business acumen and talents were eventually validated when the new era of Norton unveiled its first motorcycle, the Commando SE in May of 2010.
An Unlikely Partnership Made Perfect
Just as Garner’s acquisition of Norton came out of the blue, so too did their partnership with luxury watchmaker Breitling. It all started with a random phone call from the watchmaker’s CEO, Georges Kern. Breitling was itself on the brink of self rediscovery and it was a chord which struck close to Garner’s ways. Both names had the heritage, passion and desire to excel but it was Breitling’s push to experiment in different areas of active lifestyles that captured Garner’s attention.
Whether it was motorbikes, surfing or bicycles, Kern was pushing Breitling into sporting territories beyond aviation and Norton was a name in its collaborative crosshairs.
“Sport is about people living their lives and having a unique lifestyle through independent activity. When Kern talked me through that, it was very similar in concept of the motorcycling spirit,” explains Garner.
The foundations were laid with Breitling sending their people over to Norton to flesh out their brand whilst Norton did the same with their people. A few lunch meetings later between the pair and an unlikely partnership was born.
“A watch and a motorbike — they’re kind of quite a way apart. But when you talk about the history and where we see the future, it was very similar.”
“So we said, ‘if that’s where you’ve been, and that’s where you’re going, we must have a very similar demographic behind us because you’re doing all the same things as us through the experience of learning who your people are.’”
The more Garner and Kern delved into it, the more parallels they discovered. A motorcycle rider almost always wore a decent watch, and it would be a mechanical watch or a chronograph watch or something in the vicinity of a timepiece with motoring pedigree. Garner always had the hunch that Norton riders were watch people and when Breitling came knocking, it was a simple case of ‘Why wouldn’t we?’ for Garner.
A Watch Made For Two Wheels
Creating a timepiece worthy of bearing the iconic Norton name is no simple affair. Before their own DNA could be imparted onto Breitling’s latest Wheels and Waves Limited Edition watch, Garner bought all of the books, went to all of the museums and even phoned all of his friends who had a Norton in their possession. The goal was to uncover the true identity of the bike from early days of 1907 when they won their first TT right up until the modern era.
“I drew this kind of invisible timeline and put myself on it at the end. I was ‘current’ looking over my shoulder to see 1898.”
And the answer was there. Telling a rich story through history rather than the techno-wizardry that’s often seen on modern luxury watches. Breitling opted for the history route in order to show people the Norton’s history and to connect with them, but on one condition.
“It had to be an element of vintage, not ‘old’ because we’re not a retro brand. It’s an element of vintage which attaches the two brands’ histories and then makes that the current.”
This ‘current’ that Garner speaks of ties together two names in creating an exclusive timepiece which is inclusive in its appeal. Buying a Norton is a special moment and it takes time to save, but it’s definitely not out of reach for many of their riders. This same philosophy is what underpins the latest Breitling-Norton timepiece. Limited in production but accessible in its price point, the watch is simply a nod to the modern rider.
“We have a little saying in the U.K,” says Garner. “You need to appeal to the bin man and the barrister because you don’t know who’s walking through the door, and it could be the barrister doing last week’s fee, and it could be the bin man with three years of savings.”
“And if you’re into your motorbikes, it doesn’t matter what you do. You’re into your motorbikes. And I think the same applies for Breitling with watches. If you love your watches, Breitling would like to talk to you.”
There’s no ego. There’s no attitude. It’s difficult to find in today’s world but it appears Norton and Breitling have discovered that sweet spot.