WED 18TH OCT 2017

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Bringing the family business community together

Chain Reaction Cycles

Business Address: Chain Reaction Cycles, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Country: Northern Ireland,

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About Chain Reaction Cycles

In 1984 George and Janice Watson made the decision to open a bike shop and armed with just a £1,500 bank loan, they set up Ballynure Cycles in the small village of Ballynure in Northern Ireland.

"Janice and I had always been keen cyclists and used to spend holidays touring on our bikes," says George, and with him also having a great level of mechanical experience after spending his youth working on cars and motorbikes they were ideally positioned to create a great little family bike business.

After some great years in Ballynure, the next obvious step to progress the business was a move to the larger neighbouring town of Ballyclare with a much bigger catchment area. There was no bike shop in the town, and so, in 1989, a suitable premises was found and the first big move took place.

Chain Reaction Cycles comes to life

The move from Ballynure to Ballyclare meant the name of the business had to change and, planning for the future, calling the shop Ballyclare Cycles didn’t seem to be a great idea as another move might happen! 

"We didn't want to go through the problems of renaming the shop again," says George, "so after a family conference and input from our daughter, Lola, who now heads our marketing department, I came up with Chain Reaction Cycles."

George and Janice’s bike-mad son Chris had turned 16 now and was taking more involvement steering the business in a more specialist direction. Despite there being no real mountain bike scene in the local area at the time, the shop took the brave move of stocking specialist brands such as GT, Marin, Proflex and Cannondale. The risk paid off well, not just in terms of selling the stock, but attracting a hardcore group of off road riders who lived and breathed the sport. This scene quickly grew up around the shop and it became a local hangout, and our first Chain Reaction Cycles store was the scene of many a debate.

Chain Reaction Cycles started to spread its wings and became one of Northern Ireland's most specialist retailers with people travelling far and wide to pick up exotic components that most bike shops weren’t prepared to stock. The shop crew started to get into racing and in those early days races were few and far between. CRC organised some of the first ever downhill races in Ireland and put together the first ever Northern Ireland Downhill Series. How anyone found out about races in those days with no local magazines, no internet and no email was amazing, but people came, people raced and the scene developed and blossomed just through word of mouth.

Our core values are established

During these early days of mail order, we quickly developed some of our core values, the same values which remain with us today:

  • To sell at the best possible price
  • To only sell quality products
  • To be honest about stock and tell customers when we had things in stock, and more importantly when we didn’t
  • To always be there when our customers need us
  • To endeavor to always dispatch goods the same day they were ordered

With a great range of stock and growing ambition we started to think about what should happen next. Reading the bike magazines, they were full of shops advertising all the latest kit - the same kit that we had. "We realised that the future was about getting out there into what I guess is now called the 'global market', spreading our wings further than Ireland," says Chris. "Adverts were booked, though the price for a page was incredible to us then. We got our best stock listed and we waited by the phone."

The ads hit the street and the phone started ringing, and because we'd invested in the product, they were able to sell through - it seemed that people liked how we did things! Scaling the business to cope with growth is always a difficult point, but we always worked it out. Developing the new procedures and processes we needed was always something that came naturally. We kept learning and changing processes on a daily and weekly basis to keep up with the growth.

"One week I remember was a turning point," says Ecommerce Director Michael. "We were staggering down Ballyclare Main Street towards the Post Office at closing time with our arms full of parcels. We knew there had to be a better way, so the next week we got Royal Mail to come and pick the parcels up from us. Everything was happening and the future was becoming clearer. Those were exciting times."

Mail order focus begins

In 1998 the little shop in Ballyclare was about to burst with stock. Displays had to give way to boxes of fresh kit stacked to the ceiling and it became obvious that another move was necessary. Tough decisions were called for. "It was a tough one at the time," says Chris. "We realised the future was either to move to Belfast and into a bigger retail unit, and try to balance high street retail with our growing mail order business, or we could go completely the other way and bite the bullet and move to a warehouse focusing almost totally on mail order."

We took the second choice and hoped that local customers who were already happy to travel to buy the latest exotic kit from us didn’t need a flashy high street showroom. We knew the warehouse would also give us the chance to greatly expand our stock offerings both in quantity, and also offer a much wider range of specialist goods.

ChainReactionCycles.com hits the web

"Some of our rivals had started to get websites but most were difficult to use and did not seem up to the job," says Michael. "We believed that a website should be about the content and products. Users should be able to easily find what they are looking for and they should never be lost in the site."

The second important thing to us was stock honesty. Even today, on some sites, the stock isn't ‘live’ and relies on the shop ordering from a distributor. This was even more so back at the turn of 2000, where some stores seemed to list everything they could get and did not, or could not indicate to the customer what they actually had in stock.

The website was a success. No longer were we restricted by the number of products we could cram into the magazine adverts. CRC could now really show off our massive range of stock and great prices and the orders really started to roll in.

Bigger premises, a better offering

By 2004 CRC was again at bursting point. We had stock in every corner of every warehouse and it was clear we had outgrown our premises. The next step was a really big one. We bought some land and spent a year designing and building a brand new purpose built premises complete with 50,000 square feet of warehouses, a customer service centre, staff canteen, state of the art workshops and a showroom so we could again offer our local customers the service they deserved. In 2005 we performed our biggest move to date. In one weekend we managed to move four warehouses full of stock into our brand new warehouse and we were fully operational by Monday. CRC have always taken on things that seemed impossible, and then nailed it.

Grass-root support to global events calendar

Right from those early days of race organisation back when the shop was starting out, we’ve always tried to put something back into the sport and we worked hard over the next few years supporting the local scene and then moving on to title sponsorship of the UK National Points Series for three consecutive years. 

In 2007 we made moves to put together a full World Cup downhill race team. Racing the 2008 season we managed to secure contracts with downhill legend Chris Kovarik, an established French racer, Julien Camellini, up and coming English rider, Matt Simmonds and reigning Junior World Champion, Ruaridh Cunningham. Michael says: "These athletes were going racing on the world stage wearing our colours. The feeling all the staff get watching the team on a run on at a World Cup takes some beating!" We continue to sponsor a world class downhill team, CRC/Nukeproof, as well as a host of other athletes and global events across BMX, triathlon and cross-country mountain bike disciplines.

Flagship store opens in Belfast

2011 marked another exciting move for the company, when we opened a 10,000sq ft standalone retail store in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We felt that it was the right time to apply our wealth of customer service and technical knowledge on the high street, and the state-of-the-art store offers a revolutionary new shopping experience with a comprehensive selection of road, mountain, BMX, commuting and triathlon bikes as well as a range of components, clothing, footwear, equipment and tools.

Despite all the growth and all the changes the business is still owned by the Watson family and many of the original CRC crew is all still there. George and Janice’s three daughters, Lola, Sabrina and Georgina all have active roles in the business. George is the figurehead, making sure things are run to the standards he set out in 1984. Janice runs the Accounts department, Chris is the Managing Director and the CRC team has now grown to over 700 dedicated members.

All of us at CRC hope the years to come will be as adrenaline-fuelled as the journey so far has been, so thanks to you for being part of it!