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Inside the Politburo of the Cycling Revolution

01 November 2003

Spoke Magazine

The more successful Guy Wynn-Williams, Steve van Dorsser and Fraser McLachlan became at their jobs it became increasingly obvious to each that they were never going to get the freedom they wanted to really enjoy their lives. They have a passion for cycling, travelling, climbing, skiing and tramping, but full-time professional employment more and more got in the way of getting out to enjoy it all. While they were dissatisfied with working for someone else, they were also unimpressed with the clothing available for mountain biking. In combination this lead them to start Ground Effect.

From the front room of Steve's Christchurch house they started distributing a range of non-shiny, non-advertising clad cycle and casual clothing, made from practical outdoor fabrics with sensible cuts for New Zealanders. From the start they went direct to the cyclists, enjoying the contact with like-minded individuals and being able to rapidly respond to feedback. Steve had recently left his job at Telecom and was the only employee. Ultimately they shifted to the 'GE-spot', an old upstairs warehouse in Central Christchurch. They are still there, sweltering in the summer under a tin roof that turns the place into an oven, and shivering in the winter cold that not even the burner fully loaded with Fast Eddy coal makes an impression on. However, nine years on there is too much stock, too many product lines, colours and sizes. Even if they removed the espresso machine, with which they've honed their coffee preparation skills, they still couldn't fit all the stock and the seven employees in the 'GE-spot'. So now they have another building across town where the stock is stored and distributed from.

Strong and in some cases unconventional ideas about their business are characteristic of their business. It's far from being a number 8 fencing wire operation, but if there is a simple solution, like building their own database because no commercially available one existed, that's what they'll do. Rather than stocking huge quantities of every size, colour and style they operate a flexible stock replacement system that constantly replaces sold items. Now I suppose it is managed through a stock database, but initially it was simply a piece of card in the pile of clothing; when the item above it was sold the card indicated it was time to get more, while the stock below covered them until the replacement stock arrived.

As Ground Effect has become more successful, rather than working more they've cut back the hours that they work. You'll never find them there on a Friday, no matter how busy they are. Their holidays are decent long ones that enabled Guy to mountain bike through Peru, Steve to tour Italy on his bike, and Fraser to drag a trailer through Ireland with his infant son Max inside.

Steve, Guy and Fraser aren't likely to tout triple-bottom-line accounting practises, but it's obvious that due to having a social and environmental conscience they pay as much attention to success with these, as they do to finances. They support mountain biking, cycling and New Zealand in general. Almost all their products are made here, Guy is a trail access advocate for Mountain Biking New Zealand, Steve lobbies for urban cycling, the company donates money for mountain bike trail construction, their prizes support hundreds of events and the newsletters peppered with Guy's characteristic prose get delivered free to thousands. They gave up on company cars after the first one, a 1960s Holden Special station wagon got too expensive to keep fixing, but the bike shed is full of steeds of every design for anyone that needs to go to a meeting. How about a recumbent trip to deliver a new design to one of the companies that they outsource clothing manufacture to?

They are fun, often irreverent, but always professional and practical. Each of them has specific skills and areas of responsibility, but they all have an intimate knowledge of how every part of the operation interacts. They are truly are a lesson in how intensely clever and motivated individuals working together can achieve goals beyond the theoretical sum of their skills.

Not many companies in New Zealand make a living from mountain biking. These three do; they employ others, they export, they have lives outside work, and that alone is a cause to celebrate their worth. Best of all though they do it with their own formidable skills, a whole bunch of inventiveness and in a way that helps make mountain biking in New Zealand a hugely better experience.

Charlie Palmer