Posted on Tuesday 23 August 2011 byUlster Business
Ulster Business talks to Chain Reaction Cycles MD Chris Watson about the company's climb to the top
How has business been in the last year?
In general it's been pretty good for us. Luckily a good proportion of our business is carried out overseas so this has helped buffer us against the wider economic difficulties within the UK. We have continued to invest in people, systems and marketing and all of this has enabled us to continue to grow. The Cycle to Work scheme in the UK – where people can get bikes tax free through their employer – has also had a positive effect on of the growth of cycling.
What are your biggest geographical markets?
We have a fairly wide customer base with a good spread across all the European countries. We are also strong in Australia, Russia, South Africa, USA and of course we are 'big' in Japan! We have great multilingual CRC customer service staff here at our headquarters in Doagh, and offer our customers contact in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese. We have plans to increase this further and are always interested to hear from people who are a native speaker in a second language and have an interest in cycling or other outdoor sports.
You're now the "world's largest online bike store" – is there room for further growth in the sector or will you branch out?
It's important to stick to what you are good at but we're always interested in understanding other opportunities where there is a synergy in what we do with other sports or industries – even if things don't work out you will always learn something new. Too much blinkered focus in one area can make your business become stale; being aware of overall market trends keeps your perspective fresh and your motivation high.
What's the secret to successful online sales?
Work with good people who care about the job and the customer, be honest and work to improve the offering every day. Customers will forgive service blips if they understand that you don't take them for granted and are working to always make things better for them.
How long did it take to get your warehouse management system to the point where you can dispatch 24 orders a minute?
Just one day, the day we realised that if we didn't dispatch that many a minute from the current backlog that we would shortly have an awful lot of very unhappy customers trying to contact us. In reality 10 years of working to continually refine processes, remove bottlenecks and re-engineer IT systems to fulfill our customer promise of dispatching all orders received by 3pm on the same day. It can often be hard to plan capacity and workload around online sales promotions so everyone in the chain has to be flexible and react to deliver for the customer.
Would you be as successful in this business if you were not cycling enthusiasts?
I would say no, but being a biking enthusiast is only one part of it. You have to be passionate about all aspects of what you do to be successful. It's the mindset. Cycling is a competitive pastime for a lot of the people in CRC and that competitive element is evident in the workplace. Good just isn't good enough, for them it always has to be the personal best you can do.
Why are you opening a new store in Belfast?
We started out as a small retailer on the grand 'High Street' of Ballyclare and we are still a retailer, just on a different scale and through different mediums. We have always kept the showroom at our locations for our customers to browse and have always had the desire to improve this service to our customers that want to 'touch and feel' the product. Now seems to me to be the right time to be launching the retail store. Customers want more choice, more access to product and a multi-channel service – that's what we are offering and there is no better place to start than on your own doorstep.
What one thing could Government do to improve business conditions for your company?
I guess help improving transport links. On a global scale we are a tiny island with a tiny number of people, so trying to get product and people in and out can be expensive and challenging at times. But then that's part of the charm. People often chuckle at our tagline of 'World's largest...', and ask how can Northern Ireland have a 'world's largest' anything, but we are and we are immensely proud of that!