Family’s bike business enters new cycle

Belfast Briefing: Chain Reaction Cycles races to success online

Chain Reaction Cycles ships bikes, components, clothing and accessories to more than 115 countries. Photograph: Getty Images/Comstock Images

Chain Reaction Cycles ships bikes, components, clothing and accessories to more than 115 countries. Photograph: Getty Images/Comstock Images

 

It takes more than just a gear change to transform a family business that started out with just one small shop in the Antrim village of Ballynure into one of the world’s fastest-growing online bike stores.

But as Chain Reaction Cycles (CRC) can testify, if you can harness a family passion, exploit new technology and stay on track with your core values, there is always a winners’ line to cross.

Thirty years ago when George and Janice Watson opened their bike shop, there was no such thing as the internet: they were just keen cyclists who saw the chance to build a good family business by giving the customer what they were looking for – in this case, more than likely a bike.

But at every opportunity, pushed on by their “bike mad” son Chris and daughters Lola, Sabrina and Georgina, they took the chance to expand the business – relocating to bigger premises in nearby Ballyclare, investing in a warehouse and exploring “new” technology when, in 2000, they launched their website.

Today CRC still prides itself on the same core value – delivering for customers – only now it offers a whole lot more. As the “world’s largest online bike store”, it ships thousands of bikes, components, clothing and accessories to more than 115 countries every day.

It has also established a new business division which could help position it as one of Europe’s leading ecommerce pioneers in the not too distant future.

In the lead

CRC may have begun life as just a bike shop but its determined to lead this field in the future. The company’s headquarters and operations centre are all still located in Ballyclare and it is still family-owned – with the “bike mad” son now managing director – and has a workforce that has grown over the last three decades to nearly 700 people.

Its website currently lists more than 90,000 products and, on average, attracts “2.9 million unique visitors” from across the world every month.

Conor McCluskey, the company’s ecommerce development manager, says technology is at the heart of CRC and is critical to its future success. This is why it has decided to establish its own software development team in the North – Chain Reaction Technology – and why it also intends to develop a new centre of ecommerce excellence in Ballyclare, he says.

“CRC is very much a global business and 99 per cent of our revenue comes from our website.We recently launched a new website that utilises the same technology used by the biggest retailers in the world – the Oracle ATG Commerce platform.

“Because our business is global, it is complex and we have used this platform to build a website that is unique to us. Our software development team focused on what was important for our customers, creating a great browsing and shopping experience,” McCloskey said.

Word of CRC’s particular approach to ecommerce retailing and its success in building a global brand from Ballyclare and its new ecommerce “university” is spreading. The company regularly hosts fact-finding visits to its operations site from major British and European retail giants keen to find out what makes CRC’s approach a winner.

Sharing expertise

McCluskey says: “We’re doing something here that no other company in Northern Ireland or in the Republic is doing and we believe there may also be an opportunity to share our expertise and our experience with other businesses.

“We want to grow a team of ecommerce experts, invest in ecommerce technology and grow the ecommerce talent pool in Northern Ireland.”

Chain Reaction Technology is currently recruiting but it admits that it faces tough competition to attract high-tech graduates who are highly sought after by new financial services investors.

It is hoping to work in partnership with local universities to create specialist new ecommerce programmes that will help develop new opportunities not just for CRC but for other companies to expand and invest in Northern Ireland.

“We are very optimistic about business growth,” McCluskey said.

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