Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

How a move into e-commerce set the wheels of fortune rolling for online bicycle company

Friends pose outside the original Chain Reaction

"if you're not expanding, then you're sitting still," is an apt motto for a Co Antrim-based online bike company with a record of steadily growing profits crowned by a climb of several places in 2012's Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies, due out next month.

The success of the family-run firm suggests you can sell anything online if your business model is right and you treat your customers well.

Managing director Chris Watson told a newspaper in 2006: "I remember, in the early days, my father and I would sit in the shop until the wee small hours in the run-up to Christmas, wrapping bicycle parts to take to the local post office the following morning so that people wouldn't be disappointed,"

That was when Chain Reaction Cycles was still confined to a small shop, before growing into the world's biggest bike retailer and Royal Mail's biggest customer in Northern Ireland. Ironically for a successful e-tailer, they've now opened their first shop in decades at Belfast's Boucher Road.

In 1984, George and Janice Watson set up Ballynure Cycles in the village of the same name. Family photos proudly displayed on the website show the couple embarking on a bike ride with their children, all of whom now work in the firm. From sweeping the shop floors, Chris sold his first bicycle when he was 14.

He spent two years at university but left to concentrate on the family business. He helped set up the company's website in 1999, setting it well on its way towards becoming a totem of retailing online.

Pre-tax profits have grown steadily from £8m at the end of December 2009 to £13.3m for the year after. It now employs 365 people, mostly at its Doagh warehouse, including 90 customer service staff who speak around nine languages (around a quarter of sales are to customers outside the EU).

The company's website also points to its product range and warehouse management system as contributing to its efficiency and success. The average value of a Chain Reaction order is £84.

The family shuns photo and media opportunities - who can guess at their reaction when featured in the Sunday Times Rich List last year with a fortune estimated at £75m - instead dedicating themselves to the day-to-day business.

The last directors' report was optimistic about the company's future.

"The cycling industry is currently in good shape, benefiting from a positive image and technological advances despite very difficult economic circumstances elsewhere." Not a company that intends to sit still.