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The Full Cycle

01 October 2009

Avenues Magazine

Imagine a work place where overtime was frowned upon, birthdays were holidays and there was still a budget for community feel good stuff and you get a pretty clear picture of Ground Effect's office

The Christchurch cycle clothing company resides behind a rickety blue painted door on Bedford Row. There, a cycle-mad team of eight beaver away to meet orders placed by equally cycle-mad customers from around the world.

This might be the rag trade but it's immediately clear when you step through the front door and ascend the vinyl stair case that this is no sweat shop.

The staff, all active members of the biking fraternity, kick around in their kit, make (good) espressos and share chit chat, all under the not bothered eye of the company's owners.

Fifteen-year-old Ground Effect is the brainchild of cycling fanatics Guy Wynn-Williams, Fraser McLachlan and Steve van Dorsser, three friends who had a collective dream to work somewhere cool, maybe do a good deed along the way and hopefully make a buck or two while doing it.

"We were pretty keen to 'save the world' and cycling fits that bill,'' Guys says. "Whichever way you look at cycling - as recreation or transport - it does a lot more good than bad, and that was a good fit for us.''

Most businesses are formed to sell a product but for this trio the company culture was set down in stone even before they knew what it was their business would do.

Four or five potential business concepts were bandied about, including some in the telecoms sector and an idea to resell used CDs, but when the friends came together each week to talk strategy over a Guinness, the conversation kept coming back to the mountain bike clothing proposal.

"What we realised is that we were collectively very passionate about the cycling idea and in the end we chose not to fight that,'' Guy says.

"Back in the early 90s, mountain biking was a burgeoning sport but it was struggling for an identity, there was a lack of technology to support it. So that was an obvious opportunity.''

Ground Effect has chiselled out a reputation for selling no nonsense kit which is hard-wearing, locally made and doesn't require a bank loan to buy. And cyclists around the world are thankful.

However you won't find Ground Effect's gear on shop shelves. The idea was always to deal with customers directly, cutting out retailers, wholesalers and agents and they now take orders online, by phone and snail mail.

Selling locally made gear is convenient and makes good business sense for Ground Effect - part of the appeal of having their designs manufactured in Christchurch and Timaru, is that they can have short runs turned around in no time so there's no shortage or warehouse full of unsold stock.

Time is one thing most business owners don't have to spare but Ground Effect's founders are living the dream, working four days a week and taking three months holiday a year to pedal or put their feet up.

"We wanted to continue having great adventures, a lot of them overseas and some of them here in New Zealand,'' Guy says.

"You just need to say you're going to do it and do it. You say you only have that amount of time to work and the rest of the business has to adjust. But this means you do have to forgo opportunities but it doesn't change the fact that we have really strong relationships with our customers.''

Creating a fun, social but still profitable work environment is easier said than done but Ground Effect's staff are staying put and smiling.

On top of their four weeks annual leave, they get their birthday off as well as every "Fifth Friday'', all up and extra couple of weeks a year to do with as they wish.

Sometimes the line between work and play gets blurred. Ground Effect sponsors many cycling events and often a team member is sent to participate, just to take up an opportunity to interface directly with clients. "There's a lot of lifestyle in this job,'' he says.

This generosity is reflected throughout the business. Guy, Steve and Fraser may give the impression of being accidentally successful but in truth they are three smarty (cycle) pants who know how to take a good idea and pedal with it.

They have, between them, the marketing, design and back-office experience needed to take a business to maturity. "One of the key pieces of advice we picked up somewhere along the way is that we need to try and have a complete skill set in the business and I think that's the case for us,'' Guy says.

Successful they might be, but philanthropic they certainly are. At a time when many businesses are slashing and burning, Ground Effect has a nice little 'slush fund' which it doles out to worthy, community-based cycling initiatives.

"If you had to justify it in an accounting sense then I suggest it would never happen,'' Guy says. "But that has always been a part of what we are.''

But above all what they are is mates. Going into business together is a great way to kill a friendship but 15 years on and this threesome is going strong.

"Ground Effect has been quite successful but we are quite genuinely more proud of the fact that 15 years down the track we are still very good mates,'' Guy says.