Twenty is more like dog years than human ones in business terms. But Ground Effect still plays like a boisterous teenager - different and in some aspects more challenging, but no less fun and rewarding than when we started out two decades ago.
It’s hard to remember life before ubiquitous internet. In 1994 the www was reserved for stoic academics. We conceived ourselves as a ‘mail order company’. With two catalogues a year, we've printed 40 editions so far - plus 67 UnderGround newsletters before they were supplanted by on-line publishing. Communication was by FreePost and 0800 numbers; payment by cheque or zip zap. It was another four years before we launched the first iteration of our web site in 1998 and immersed ourselves in e-commerce.
Likewise, it was a world before baggy cycle shorts. Our first range included a fetching pair in plaid. Only two, perhaps three other brands internationally were also testing the water with mountain bike specific baggies at that time. Fast forward to today and no self-respecting bike brand is without a quiver of baggy options.
Originally we set ourselves apart by being less serious than the existing road-orientated brands. We used technical fabrics that were already commonplace in the outdoor industry, provided great gear at reasonable prices and delivered it door to door, fast. None of this is too radical nowadays, but the industry and customers were wary of upstarts like us. Overnight success it was not. Word got out and we gradually built a loyal following that still keeps us humming in today’s vastly more competitive environment.
Manufacturing locally works for us. Over half a million yards of fabric have been transformed into garments at our Christchurch factory. We’ve invested in systems that keep the factory highly efficient, while most other brands have drifted offshore. Our higher labour rates are offset by the advantages of smaller production runs. The flexible model responds to surges and ebbs in demand so we hold less overall stock, but are still able to shoo most orders out the door the same day we receive them. And beyond the formal quality control systems, there’s no substitute for wandering into the factory to chat about design or construction improvement ideas.
More than just designing and making product, we saw Ground Effect as a vehicle to save the world, and let us ride our bikes and travel as much as possible.
Saving the world proved to be overly ambitious. In the early years we spent time campaigning for mountain bike access on tracks like the Heaphy in Kahurangi National Park, and advocating for infrastructure to encourage ‘cycling as transport’. The Heaphy ’battle’ lasted 15 years. Seasonal access was eventually granted in 2010. Traditional objections were countered in various forums and apprehensions about mountain biking have dissipated with time. We now are blessed with the Prime Minister-endorsed National Cycle Trails and oodles of singletrack designed, constructed and maintained by hundreds of local trail builders. It’s disappointing that we can’t reflect on the progress of ‘cycling as transport’ in the same glowing terms.
The Ground Effect Slush Fund hands out small wads of cash to help build trails. But it all adds up - at last count over $200,000 to volunteer projects on both sides of the Tasman. Building track is fun. A few years ago we established a series of work parties to help develop the Craigieburn Trail Network - just an hour or two out of Christchurch. Around forty customers reliably put up their hand(s) each time. We take care of food, lodging… and beer. Everyone has a blast and tracks flow so much better when you’ve got to know them first-hand with a mattock.
We throw a lot of product ideas around. Two thousand prototypes have been thrashed in the name of innovation. About one in ten makes it to market. 'Meddling' in product design is everyone's favourite diversion. Riding and evaluating them dovetails perfectly with our favourite recreation.
Consuming coffee is a cliché, but enjoyable nonetheless. With fat fingers on the calculator, we estimate to have ground, espressed and imbibed a tonne of beans in the last twenty years. Smoko at Ground Effect is an institution and lasts much, much longer than the regulation ten minutes. The old factory-style time clock on the wall is frozen at 10:30 - our favourite time of the day. Conversations traverse tales of the latest ride, restaurant, good read or watch. Tabloid news is dissected, embellished, and if necessary, made up. We are often accused of relying on performance enhancing drugs or even alcohol to conjure up names for our products. If only. Many great products can trace their origins back to a session of flat whites and home-brewed date scones.
Going to work continues to be something we all look forward to. The toil is invigorating and laced with wackiness. There’s plenty of time off to recharge the soul with bicycle adventures both here, and overseas. And we get to hang each day with a bunch of like-minded souls who laugh a lot, are good at what they do, and care about important stuff.
Steve, Fraser and Guy