The online rumours and claims started around two years ago: all was apparently not well with Stuart Garner’s newly re-incarnated Norton…. Sections of the motorcycle media and consumer organisations were approached by unhappy customers, detailing their grievances. A UK bike builder published details of his own problematic relationship with Norton on his website, and other complaints popped up in a variety of contexts, from the BBC to Classic Bike. But nothing was followed up, and the rumours kept on coming.
Prompted by an email from a disgruntled customer, we decided to investigate – since no one else seemed to be bothering. When Norton did get extensive coverage, it appeared to concentrate on spinning the company’s PR activities, such as their dubious ventures to the Isle of Man.
We collected evidence in the form of statements, signed correspondence, and interviews with a variety of individuals: Norton customers, suppliers, and dealers – including highly respected individuals with many years experience in their field. All of them were contacted again pre publication to ensure anything attributed to them was accurate. In cases where a source preferred to remain anonymous, they provided evidence of their identity and their relationship with Norton. All source details are listed at the end of the piece.
The picture they painted makes for disturbing viewing. Problems have not gone away, despite the 2011 EXEFG Government backed Santander loan aimed at boosting exports (and underwritten by the tax payer). We’re publishing registered company accounts for 2010 and 2011, plus details of Mr.Garner’s previous directorships and extracts from a company report on Norton, along with key allegations and evidence.
Norton Motorcycles have consistently failed to fill orders on time, despite holding deposits of up to 100%, a problem which has not gone away. In some cases customers have waited almost two years for a bike – or a refund, at which point they have had little option but to seek legal advice.
Customers who contacted us provided accounts which are remarkably consistent. A deposit is paid – up to 100% – on the basis that the bike is about to be built. The bike fails to materialise, and despite fresh delivery dates being promised, very little happens after that until the threat or commencement of legal action eventually results in the situation being remedied.
Richard Anderson is a solicitor who has successfully acted for eight such customers, with another two cases currently being examined. He said:
” Clients had paid money for a product which was not forthcoming. In such circumstances recovering funds becomes the objective, and in order to facilitate that, we were obliged to instigate serial winding up proceedings against the company on behalf of individual clients. At which point Norton satisfied the debt in question.”
Bike builder Steve Hillary was one such customer, and published his account of his experience online. In a nutshell, Hillary waited two years for a bike, having paid a £12,000 deposit. It took the threat of a winding up order for him to finally get his money back, despite a personal meeting with Norton’s CEO, during the course of which the charismatic Mr.Garner made promises about delivery which were never kept, another familiar refrain from customers, suppliers and dealers alike.
” Going to a solicitor was the last resort. I was just fed up being lied to.”
Steve Hillary ²
Clare from Cornwall (name disguised) ordered a twin seat Cafe Racer for her husband as a 25th anniversary present in February 2011 – at which point no such machine, parts or necessary tooling actually existed, and no twin seat CAD drawings had been prepared, according to a separate source⁶ (see below). Having initially put down a £1,500 deposit, in July 2011 Norton rang her saying a ‘cancellation slot’ could be secured via payment of the balance. Reassured by positive Norton coverage in MCN on 1/8/11, Clare took out a loan and paid up. Nothing happened. In March 2012, three weeks before a winding up order taken out on Clare’s behalf was due to be enforced against them, Norton finally paid out. The stress of the experience is still with her.
” We ordered and paid a £1500 deposit for a dual seat café racer for my husband for our 25th wedding anniversary in Feb. 2011 at the factory itself, supposedly due for delivery in June. June came and went with no news. We kept phoning and struggled to get through. Eventually we reached them and were told by the Sales Manager, Craig Lormer that there was a problem with the parts for the dual seat, hence the delay, and that the bike was now scheduled for delivery in late September. However, in July they phoned to say there was a cancellation slot so they could guarantee us delivery for a single seat café racer on a dual frame in 2 weeks if we paid in full to secure the slot. I thought this strange but the papers incl. MCN were full of praise for them…. so we paid up. 2 weeks came and went, no bike and not even an invoice to confirm we had paid. Calls went unanswered. I eventually received a call from Craig to say that the factory had temporarily ceased production due to problems with their suppliers !
We were willing to maintain the order as long as they returned all our money bar the deposit and gave us a new delivery date. They refused on both counts – Craig advised we would have to cancel the order ab initio to get our money back, which I did. He sent me an email in Sept to say that the refund request was being processed and, presumably because he knew he was about to leave the company, he also supplied me with the invoice I had requested on numerous occasions. Then we heard nothing more from him….”
Clare’s Statement ³
Norton themselves admitted to the BBC* in late November 2011 that a backlog existed, and our evidence suggests that this was still the case as recently as May 2012. We also have a statement from another customer with an outstanding order (August 2012) which, eighteen months after a full deposit was paid, has still not materialised despite the promise of numerous delivery dates:
” Awaiting bike for 18mths after paying in full and being promised at least 6 definite delivery dates.”
Rob’s Statement ⁴
A simple internet search will turn up page after page of irate customer comment. They could all be making it up, but the fact that a disparate group of individuals, from territories scattered across the globe, are autonomously exposing their own difficulties with the same small company, strongly suggests otherwise.
Norton have experienced severe problems obtaining spares, exacerbated by deteriorating relationships with manufacturers and suppliers, at least one of whom had to take legal action to recover monies owed to them by Norton.
Fritz Egli, legendary MD of Egli Racing, became Norton’s Swiss importer. This was what he had to say about his relationship with Norton.
” Unfortunately our relationship with Norton has been problematic. There have been a number of ongoing issues, particularly a chronic shortage of spares. ”
Fritz Egli ⁵
Egli is currently involved in talks with Norton aimed at resolving “serious difficulties” he has experienced with the company. As a result, he was unable to comment further, but will be keeping BG informed of developments.
A senior ex-manager at Norton now employed elsewhere, who can not be named but whose identity is known to us, witnessed problems relating to suppliers at first hand.
” Many suppliers were significantly overdue payment. This caused the vast majority of product supply to move to a pro-forma plus debt basis, i.e a repayment plan must be agreed, maintained for a period and then, and only then, would parts be released on a cash before delivery basis. This was extremely difficult to manage due to the insufficient funds available within the business.”
Manager, Ex-Norton ⁶
This view was corroborated by Steve Gentil, director and co-founder of Xtreme Motorsports, who was contacted by Garner to fabricate frames for the 961 after Garner fell out with Xtreme’s predecessor, PAB Coventry. Gentil said:
” Our relationship with Norton in general and Stuart Garner in particular was problematic. Their business dealings with us left an awful lot to be desired. We no longer supply frames to Norton.”
Steve Gentil ⁷
Nigel Gibson is the MD of Fabriweld, 35 years in the business of manufacturing tubular steel products. In June 2012 the firm made 85,000 separate items, and Fabriweld have a solid business reputation. Fabriweld were contracted to produce panels for the 961. Nigel Gibson spoke to us about his perception of Norton, and his firm’s dealings with them.
“They were a nightmare to do business with. They had absolutely no understanding of the business they were in.”
Nigel Gibson ⁸
No wonder Fritz Egli had a parts problem. Likes so many others, Gibson had to resort to legal action to recover monies owed (to Fabriweld by Norton).
Nigel Gibson told us that when his bike was in for servicing, the top end was removed for no apparent reason. His suspicion was that it was urgently needed to furnish another bike.⁸ It wouldn’t be a huge surprise, since Egli’s statement and the manager’s statement corroborate each other regarding the constant problems with supply of spares. Egli was not the only Norton dealer to experience difficulties: we know of at least one other EU dealer who experienced serious supply problems.⁹
It has been suggested to us that the supply problem has not gone away, since the root cause of many of Norton’s difficulties – insufficient capitalisation – has never been satisfactorily addressed. Financial evidence we’ve published here suggests that the overall situation deteriorated sharply in 2011, despite the Santander loan.
Norton are in serious financial trouble.
The information reproduced below (documents, public domain) doesn’t look encouraging. But as long as Mr.Garner is prepared to fund the company (albeit on a subsistence basis), and is able to stave off legal challenges (like winding up orders) the current situation could continue for a while. The latest County Court Judgement against Norton took place as recently as July 2012 for some £14,500, with attendant implications. Credit ratings agencies reports on Norton do not make for encouraging reading for any potential investor and Garner’s own company history (reproduced below) is suggestive of an intriguing relationship with business financing.
Almost everyone we spoke to about financial matters while researching this piece offered the same explanation for Norton’s predicament, one born out by published accounts. The operation was under capitalised from the start. Unless that scenario is swiftly remedied, it becomes self perpetuating, as Norton’s suppliers and customers soon discovered. According to our management source, there was ‘ a serious lack of investment, infrastructure and resources ‘ ⁶, a situation compounded by the high number of employees relative to sales.
A constant struggle for solvency has appeared to characterise many of Norton’s dealings during the Garner era. It is normally beyond the scope of a wealthy individual to bankroll an automotive factory – even if the factory is a small assembly unit where little or no fabrication takes place. Norton’s high quality, low volume ethos, targeting middle aged men with disposable income had to allow for a sufficient margin on each unit. We suspect that the margin was insufficient, and this, combined with the lack of capitalisation, was at the heart of the problem.
Norton have quality control issues.
Engines are currently assembled on site from parts sourced from a variety of manufactures. The quality of those parts depends on Norton being able to retain the services of high quality suppliers, which in turn depends on the firm’s ability to pay them on time. As we have seen, that is a questionable construct.
We were sent a document by a highly respected bike builder who had stripped a 961. Like many people involved in the story who still have some connection with Norton, he was reluctant to be identified. We forwarded his report to Steve Hillary, the only other person we knew of who had gutted a 961. Steve concurred with the report findings, which included:
- Swing arm bearings not wide enough apart, base too narrow and lacking in rigidity. Swing arm bearings unsuitable.
- Headstock bearing bores for outer bearing races distorted from welding process . 0.2mm – 0.3mm out of round and not in line. Should be machined and aligned after headstock is welded. ¹⁰
A further eighteen items were cited including issues with the valvetrain and gearbox.
Although Norton have a dyno in situ at their Donnington Park HQ, a Norton dealer we spoke to claimed that it was not regularly used for engine testing. Our management source claimed that road testing was a haphazard affair and that there was no proper inspection regime.
” From a quality point of view, no inbound parts from the supply chain (engine or chassis) were subjected to inspection processes. ”
Manager, Ex-Norton ⁶
Norton experienced a rapid turn over of staff at all levels. Senior managers and associates left the company because they felt professionally compromised by Norton’s activities under Stuart Garner’s control.
We know of at least one senior manager who left for precisely that reason.
” …eventually, like so many others, I felt that I could no longer compromise my professionalism and continue to be associated with this company.”
Manager, Ex-Norton ⁶
We know from his signed and detailed statement that Norton have experienced an exceptionally high turn over of senior staff, including designer Pierre Terblanche. The association with rotary designer Brian Crighton – potentially of great significance to the new venture – was also prematurely curtailed. Staffing difficulties continue to plague Norton. As recently as July 2012 Norton were found to have unfairly dismissed Danni Hendley, an 18 year old female apprentice, who was awarded £7,000. She was never informed as to the reason for her dismissal and was left feeling needlessly ‘ashamed’. ¹¹
More than one source told us that Terblanche left because he recognised Norton’s business model was unsustainable, and the development of entirely new machines – for which he had responsibility – had no basis in reality. Terblanche himself was quoted in print ¹² describing his experience as “disastrous”.
A UK consumer organisation is pursuing Norton with regard to its treatment of members.
The Consumer Action Group (CAG) is investigating the company. They have contacted Norton, but at the time of writing had not published their findings. Their investigation continues.
In in the interests of balance, we put a list of questions raised by our research to Norton company secretary Kay Johnson, who responded by referring us to the CAG. It was clear from our subsequent correspondence with the CAG that many pertinent questions – including our own – remain, hence the ongoing nature of their inquiry.
The CAG forums were the arena in which many unsatisfied Norton customers documented their problems.
NORTON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MOTORCYCLE PRESS
That sections of the UK motorcycle media have made some very poor calls regarding their coverage of Norton is no longer a matter of dispute. MCN admitted to BikerGlory¹³ that evidence had been placed before them early in 2011 by irate Norton customers. Which came as no surprise: a dissatisfied customer had already published (online) details of his approach to MCN, who confirmed that his was by no means an exceptional case.
The story was spiked in favour of the usual coverage, disseminating the more florid examples of Garner’s spin: the return to GPs in 2012, the new rotary, expansion into new territories. Even the apparently chaotic forays to the Isle of Man were prominently hyped up, much to the chagrin of unhappy customers, while the elephant in the room was studiously ignored. We have already seen how this policy negatively impacted upon Clare – see Allegation 1 – who took MCN’s reporting at face value and handed over a 100% deposit to Norton on the basis of it. Why did MCN deliberately ignore an inconvenient series of truths?
” We had been aware of various difficulties Norton were struggling with, not least since unhappy customers contacted us directly. We never doubted the integrity of their allegations. It was a question of deciding on a course of action which would be the least destructive for all those involved.
After much soul searching, we decided that given the Santander loan, we would let the matter rest, for two reasons. Firstly, we hoped that the loan would ease Norton through their difficulties, and initially that seemed to be the case, since complaints to us dropped off in the second half of 2011, i.e. post loan. Secondly, we knew that a major expose would finish the company, and obviously we wanted to avoid that. If someone were to come forward with hard evidence that the same issues were still in play post Santander and into 2012, we would re-consider our position on the story.”
John Westlake, MCN Managing Editor.¹³
In other words, MCN took their eye off the ball post Santander despite the BBC November 2011 story and allegations continuing to appear online.
The sole exemptee from the collective blind spot in the Bauer stable was Classic Bike freelancer Mick Duckworth. In the July 2011 issue ¹², he told the story of another disgruntled customer, John Fahy, and was the only journalist to secure a quote from the outgoing Terblanche (see above).
” I felt strongly that there was a story to tell regarding Norton’s shabby treatment of customers and was glad that Classic Bike wanted to follow this, but subsequently felt that CB was not taking a strong enough line. The last time I spoke to Stuart Garner he said he was not willing to give me information, because I seemed sceptical. But, he said, if I were to ‘get on-side’ with Norton, his door would always be open.”
Mick Duckworth ¹⁴
Thus we have two possible explanations for the unbalanced Norton coverage. To some extent one can appreciate the dilemma MCN found itself in, knowing home truths that it dare not print for fear of collapsing the company. But would Norton really have gone under in the event of the reality being exposed? The crucial export market would have remained relatively unscathed: cleansing the stables is not quite the same thing as burning them to the ground, and exposure might even have encouraged Norton to finally get its house in order.
On the other hand, we have no evidence of an improper relationship between Norton and the media, inevitable rumours and getting “on-side” notwithstanding. (Ironically, the bike press’s relationship with the industry was the subject of a recent BikerGlory inquiry. ) All we can definitely say is that Norton escaped censure while reaping the reward of extensive positive coverage.
Egli, Gentil and Gibson all cited difficulties with Garner as being central to the demise of their relationship with the company. Gibson – whose experience of manufacturing makes his opinion on such matters worth listening to – suggested that Norton could succeed with the right person running the company. Motorcycle production requires an experienced individual – with detailed knowledge of manufacturing, engineering and supply – in a very senior executive position. At Norton, Garner himself was responsible for key decision making in these areas, and Gibson questioned his suitability for the role.
Whatever the truth about Stuart Garner’s management style, almost everyone we spoke to has referred admiringly to his ability to turn on the charm, beguiling even hardened interlocutors, such as Nigel Griffiths, the Consumer Action Group and experienced journalists. But no amount of charm can make up for the trail of distress engendered by mismanagement, as Clare’s account and Danni Hendley’s experience demonstrate.
No one doubts that Garner has a genuine passion for Norton. He enjoys the image afforded by his position, playing the role of chef d’equipe and being seen in the pit-lane with the usual suspects – and no one can blame him for that. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the financial reality of the day to day running of a motorcycle manufacturer. The evidence we have seen (particularly regarding spares) is suggestive of a frantic, hand to mouth culture, so often a symptom of under capitalised operations.
Customers, our management source told us, were regarded as fortunate to be getting a Norton, and should be able cope with inconveniences during the process of acquisition ⁶. It is hard to imagine an attitude further removed from either John Bloor’s (Triumph) at one end of the new Brit scale, or Simon Saunders’ (Ariel) at the other. Bloor is a businessman with sound financial savvy and the intelligence to delegate to specialist employees. Saunders understands mechanical engineering and its relationship to the market place (as the redoubtable Atom amply demonstrated). Neither seem remotely out of their depth. For all his undoubted ability to win over sceptics, Garner’s adventures suggest that staying afloat may be a serious challenge. Treating customers, suppliers and dealers with respect might be a start – there are a lot of discontented people and businesses out there whom Norton have managed to alienate: our sources represent the tip of a nasty iceberg.
One thing is clear: simply saying nothing and hoping problems will go away is no longer a responsible judgement. The truth, as they say, will out.
DOCUMENTS (Public Domain)
It is important to remember that these documents give a background picture only. The company report linked below contains references to events which took place as recently as July 2012.
b) filed accounts, 2010 /11
c) Stewart Garner Directorships
1. Richard Anderson, solicitor, contemporaneous notes from telephone interview 9/8/12.
2. Steve Hillary, Norton customer, MD of Redmax Speed Shop: a) contemporaneous notes from telephone interview 9/8/12. b) experience of Norton published in Redmax blog http://bit.ly/QYR1v0
c) email correspondence with BikerGlory
3. Clare from Cornwall, customer, name disguised, identity known to BikerGlory, written statement including documentation demonstrating her link to Norton.
4. Rob, customer, name disguised, written statement emailed to BikerGlory, identity and purchase independently corroborated.
5. Fritz Egli of Egli Racing, Switzerland, Norton Dealer. Contemporaneous notes from telephone interview 9/8/12 and others; email correspondence.
6. Norton ex-manager’s written statement to BikerGlory and contemporaneous notes from several telephone interviews, July and August 2012. Identity known but withheld from publication at his request.
7. Steve Gentil, MD Xtreme Motorsports, contemporaneous notes from telephone interviews July 2012.
8. Nigel Gibson, MD Fabriweld, contemporaneous notes from telephone interviews July 2012.
9. BikerGlory correspondent’s personal interview with EU Norton Dealer June 2012, identity withheld at latter’s request.
10. Document submitted to BikerGlory by established bike builder with ongoing Norton business connection, hence identity withheld; document forwarded to Steve Hillary for comment; written confirmation from Hillary to BikerGlory re document’s veracity.
11. Derby Telegraph, 24/7/12
12. Classic Bike, July 2011
13. John Westlake (MCN) statement to BikerGlory July 2012
14. Mick Duckworth, email statement to BikerGlory, 7/8/12
* BBC news online 28/11/11, Mike O’Sullivan interview with Stuart Garner.
Sources 1-9, 13 and 14 were shown comments attributed to them in this piece. All confirmed that the comments were an accurate reflection of their original statements.
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