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25 years of Chain Reaction Cycles

Chain Reaction Cycles started 25 years ago

Now entering the twenty fifth year of trading, Chain Reaction Cycles are well known throughout the world shipping to over 140 countries every day. The world’s largest online bike store has grown through hard work, a strong family ethos and investment in stock, systems and most importantly people. Here’s the story of how we came to be where we are today.

It was in 1984 that George and Janice Watson made the decision to open a bike shop, which saw George leaving his job in the road service and embark on their journey into bicycle retailing and repair. Thoughts of worldwide success weren’t the main priority when, armed with just a £1500 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.

The first ever sale was a chain link sold for 11p and right from the start Ballynure Cycles was a family affair with George and Janice’s four children, in particular their eldest Chris always very involved – selling his first bike aged 14! Starting off with a small amount of stock and lots of hard work Ballynure Cycles quickly built a reputation as the best bike shop in the local area offering great service.

After some great years in Ballynure, and with a solid reputation behind them, 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. 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 Lola who now heads our marketing department, I came up with Chain Reaction Cycles.”

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 family led by Chris 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 enthusiasts 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. “We’d spend hours into the night pouring over the magazines from the UK, Europe and the USA, looking at the latest kit, and trying to decide whether purple anodizing was faster than blue”, says CRCs Michael Cowan. “It’s just amazing to be involved at any level in a developing sport like it was back then”.

Chain Reaction Cycles started to spread it wings and became one of Northern Irelands 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 organized some of the first ever DH races in Ireland and put together the first ever Northern Ireland DH series. How anyone found out about races in those days with no local magazines, no internet, no email, was amazing, but people came, people raced and the scene developed and blossomed just through word of mouth.

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'”, says Chris, “spreading our wings further than just Ireland. 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. Our company 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 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.”

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 realized 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.

So on a crazy night with borrowed vans and lots of energy and goodwill from the friends and family of CRC, we moved the whole operation to a new rented warehouse. We bought a phone system to handle more calls, bought racking, built packing benches, put in processes and procedures to do things better and faster. To get the most from the extra capacity, we increased advertising, bought more and more stock. Those phones just kept ringing.

By 1999 we could no longer remember what stock we had in our heads and it was time for a computer system. Michael’s father Derek was ICT security manager in the civil service developing systems for the health service and he took a keen interest in the business. In his spare time, Derek started to develop the first CRC system to look after stock control and customer orders, soon Derek started to work for CRC part time and within a few months he was there full time building the backbone of the CRC IT infrastructure which is still in use today (as is Derek himself!).

CRC were firmly established as one of the top mail order bike companies in the UK, and we were spending lots on advertising in lots of the MTB magazines so people could see what stock we were carrying. We bought big. Chris wasn’t scared to buy large volumes of stock – He says of this time – “We were always confident that if we bought at the right price and passed those savings on to our customers then we would continue to grow. Our operation was getting slicker with dedicated warehouse staff, a dedicated packing room, customer service and sales team on the phone, workshops for warranty and custom wheel building and an in-house stock control and sales computer system. There was one huge thing missing.”

It’s incredible as we sit here now to realise that 10 years ago, ChainReactionCycles.com didn’t exist. “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 joined forces with bothers Simon and Daniel Loughlin, some friends from the race scene who were starting out on a project to build an ecommerce platform. Simon raced MTB XC at an elite level for the Irish team so he had a great understanding of what we were trying to achieve. Through long nights and many meetings we worked out the direction we needed to go in. “We had a few core things that were important to us, but overall the main thing was simplicity. At that time websites seemed to be all about graphics and not about usability. 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 seem to list everything they could get and did not, or could not indicate to the customer what they actually had in stock. Michael explains “We decided from day one to take a black and white honest approach. We would link our website up to our live stock system and clearly show customers ‘In Stock’ or ‘Out of Stock’. We knew that some of our rivals might pick up some extra sales by selling things they didn’t have and maybe getting it in on time but we were convinced that our straightforward approach would pay off in the end.” In late 1999, www.ChainReactionCycles.com was launched and the Watson family, and staff entered the world of ecommerce.

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. “It went crazy”, says CRCs Frank Warwick, “I remember we had to put a 2nd floor into our warehouse, then a third and then expanded into the warehouse next door. Two warehouses became 4 and we found ourselves renting half the industrial estate.”

Throughout all this we were constantly refining and improving how we did things. CRC had become one of the largest employers in the local area and with that fantastic team they constantly challenged themselves to increase volume, increase quality and increase customer satisfaction.

By 2004 CRC was again at bursting point. “We had stock in every corner of every warehouse and it was clear we had out grown 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 contact 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 4 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.

And there was no easing off on the throttle with sales – 2004 was a significant year in terms of the website, with the launch of MKII giving new features such as multi-currencies and multi-languages. The new site was even faster and easier to use and was finding us more and more new customers both in the home market and from all over the world. The new premises allowed CRC to buy bigger, take on new brands and new product ranges so we had more and more to sell to all our new customers. Throughout our history we have received numerous trade and industry awards recognizing our efforts and in 2005 we got wider business acclaim winning the prestigious Golden Eye award for Ecommerce firmly putting us on the Northern Ireland business map.
Right from those early days of race organization back when the shop was starting out, CRC have 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 3 consecutive years. In 2007 we made moves to put together a full World Cup DH race team. Racing the 2008 season we had managed to secure contracts with DH legend Chris Kovarik, an established French racer, Julien Camellini, up and coming English rider, Matt Simmonds and reigning Junior World Champion, Ruaridh Cunningham. As Michael says “These athletes were going racing on the world stage wearing our colors. The feeling all the staff get watching the team “on a run” on Freecaster.com at a World Cup takes some beating!”

Our growth continued and by 2008 we were the largest employer in the local area with even more staff than the newly built ASDA! We are Royal Mails largest customer in Northern Ireland and Parcel Forces largest export account. But it was in August 2008, when we had just finished our warehouse extension increasing our size to 100,000 Sq ft, that disaster struck.

It had been a particularly wet summer even for Northern Ireland, practically raining nonstop through July and August. On one Saturday evening a few of the staff happened to be on the premises when they noticed the waters in an adjacent stream rising to worrying levels. Within an hour water, had started to seep into the building and within a few hours there was a few feet of water surging though the building destroying stock. But as usual the CRC troops rallied.

“It was amazing”, said Frank Warwick, “Text messages started to be sent and all of a sudden staff started to arrive. No one asked them to come but still they came and worked into the darkness trying to save stock and do what they could to minimize the damage. The next day was the same.” The waters had subsided but there was a serious amount of devastation and all stock stored below 2 feet in height was water damaged or destroyed. An incredible stroke of luck was that the computers in the call centre had been rewired, and left on desks out of range of out of the water. The staff rolled their sleeves up and set to work. By Monday, all the damaged stock was removed from the building. By Tuesday the building had been totally cleaned and decontaminated and we were dispatching orders as if nothing had happened.

Turning a negative into a positive we held a ‘Flood Sale’ in November 2008. After spending months cleaning, sorting and repackaging we were able to offer a huge range of stock with cosmetic water damage at killer prices. Our customers loved it.

Through 2009 things have kept getting better and better. We soon maxed out the number of orders we can process in a day and now have moved our warehouse to two eight hour shifts, so we are processing 16 hours a day. We continue our building expansion with an additional warehouse nearing completion and we are now looking forward to 2010 and our 25th Anniversary year.

Despite all the growth and all the changes the business is still owned by the Watson family and the original CRC crew is all still there. George and Janice’s 3 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 25 years ago. Janice runs the Accounts department, Chris is the Managing Director and the CRC family has now grown to 300+ dedicated members.

All of us at CRC hope the next 25 years is as fun as the last, and thanks to you for being part of it!



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