The birth of a cycling legend

Chris Willemse Sr (left) and his son, Chris Willemse Jr, both have a passion for cycling and the cycling business. (Picture: Supplied)
Chris Willemse Sr (left) and his son, Chris Willemse Jr, both have a passion for cycling and the cycling business. (Picture: Supplied)

When the former Springbok cyclist Chris Willemse was in primary school, a counsellor advised his parents to send him to Oude Molen Technical High School. Since Willemse was all thumbs, the only good thing to come from this move was the 40km roundtrip he had to cycle each day between his family home in Goodwood and the school in Pinelands. 

This cycling, in addition to a serious attraction to trophies, resulted in Willemse becoming one of South Africa’s most renowned road cyclists. To this day he is the only cyclist to have won the SA School, SA Junior and SA Senior road titles. His name has, over the years, also become synonymous with the retail bike trade, thanks to his Chris Willemse Cycles shop.

But Willemse also boasts a couple of other, less favourable, “records”. He was suspended five times for fighting with his competitors and was suspended for life after hitting a referee. This suspension was later reduced to only six months. He was once the youngest vice president of the National Cycling Federation, and the only person on the national body to be suspended. 

Today, Willemse is a calm and happy family man. He attributes his hot-headedness during his younger years to the fact that he had to fight for everything he wanted.

What did you do before you started Chris Willemse Cycles?

I won the SA Senior road cycling title at 19 (in 1975) and was fortunate enough to get a ride in France. Back then, South Africans had to use pseudonyms to take part in European competitions. I used the alias Jan Willems and was caught out when I came fifth in one of these competitions. I was sent back to SA ?where I started working for Peugeot Cycles in Johannesburg.

Why did you start your own shop?

I used to have an extremely short temper. So one day, during a sales meeting at Peugeot Cycles, the division manager, a Frenchman, started wagging his finger at me. I floored him without giving it a second thought. The staff had to separate us and I was fired on the spot. That weekend, my girlfriend, Daleen, who later became my wife, and I drove down from Pretoria to Cape Town with one of Peugeot’s company cars, a yellow Citroën. I decided there and then to open up my own company.  

Where did you get the capital to start your company?

After looking for a suitable, or rather affordable, spot to open up my cycling business, I found one measuring a mere 50sqm in Paarl. I started the company with R1 800 to my name. It’s no wonder my electricity and telephone line were cut during my second month of operation.

There was no money for advertising, so I went from house to house to source bicycles to fix. I was extremely fit, as I had to cycle the 50km between Goodwood and Paarl (and back) each day.

It struck me that I had to win the Boxing Day 25-miler in Paarl to attract more clients, which I did. The victory led to a lot of publicity and turned me into a hero in Paarl, since it was the first time in years that someone from the Paarl cycling club won the competition. It created a great following for the shop. I sold this shop and opened a new one in Bellville in 1977.

What do you consider to be your first big breaks?

That Frenchman of Peugeot Cycles and I patched things up after my dismissal. Over the years we became good friends. They launched a competition whereby the cycling company selling the most Peugeot cycles won a trip to Mauritius. The Peugeot Prestige Cycles range was extremely exclusive, and only available to Prestige dealers at the time. So I had this brainwave: I went to the Pick n Pay Hypermarket in Brackenfell and asked if they were interested in these cycles. They ordered 250 cycles. 

It was so ironic. I did not have money to carry 250 bikes in stock, but this problem was overcome since the Hypermarket paid for the bikes upfront. Peugeot Cycles were fuming because their Prestige-range cycles were now sold to chain stores, but they had to acknowledge that the competition rules did not specify that this was not allowed. The sale was a great boost to my cash flow. 

I had another great break around 1979. I had had enough of wholesalers and decided to go to a bicycle show in Taiwan. En route I met one of the managers of Shoprite Checkers, Danie Roux, who suggested that I travel with his group. He also wanted me to meet his boss. I tagged along with them in the evenings, while going to the bicycle show during the day.

Danie’s boss asked me to accompany him to one of their agents and select two BMX cycles for his children. At the shop, he asked me which bicycles I was going to import. I admitted that I was only going to import bicycle parts, since you had to import a minimum of 200 cycles at a time and I could only afford 20 or so at the time. He offered to help me, but I declined, not wanting to owe money to someone I barely knew.
Two months later, back in South Africa, I got a phone call requesting that I go see this man. At the meeting he told me that he had ordered the cycles that I had shown to him and that the cycles had recently landed in the country, ready for collection. He told me I could pay him back, interest free, each weekend after I sold the bicycles. This was the biggest break in my career. That man was Whitey Basson. To this day he is one of my greatest heroes. 

Tell us about selling the company and then buying it back.

It went very well during the 1980s with the BMX craze. We opened up more shops and even had BMX tracks – one where the old Goodwood showgrounds used to be, where GrandWest Casino is today, and one close to the Aroma Inn near Brackenfell. Intercore, an affiliate of Tolgate Holdings, made me an offer to purchase the company around 1989. 

The Argus newspaper interviewed me as their entrepreneur of the week during that time. In the interview I told the journalist that I was planning to expand my business to Johannesburg. I also requested for the article to be held back until the Argus Cycle Tour, since I knew that would result in the greatest publicity for me.

Tolgate got anxious when they heard about my expansion plans, as they already had bike shops and a manufacturing plant of cycles in Johannesburg. They made me a great offer in the end, whereby they paid me for half of the shares and made me the managing director of their whole cycling division, which included my previous shops. It was great. Where I used to feel like I had reached the limit as the owner of a cycling company, I now felt like a small fish in a big pond with limitless possibilities to grow.

After nine or 10 months, however, I was asked if I did not want to buy the complete cycle division back. I did not want to, but I was asked to reconsider almost every week. After a while I got so fed up that I offered to buy the Cape Town shops back for a sixth of the amount it was sold to them. To my surprise, the company agreed.

That was actually a blessing in disguise, as Tolgate went bust only a month after I bought the shops back.

Was it smooth sailing from there?

Actually not. I had more money than I could ever have hoped for, but instead of sticking to what I knew best, I opened up two restaurants and started a political career. The cycling shops were neglected while I was building these new enterprises. Around 1991, I ended up losing R3m when one of the restaurants went bust. I was left with only one of the cycle shops.  

How did you get out of that fix?

On one of my journeys to Taiwan I noticed the bicycles that were used in the TV series Baywatch. This gave me an idea. Government organisations had a great shortage of resources at the time. So I approached the South African Police Service (Saps) in the Western Cape, who experienced a shortage of cars, and offered them free bikes for every police station in the Western Cape.

I also agreed to supply free bike services, all they had to do was allow me to put a sign on the bike’s body and tell me the number of bikes they needed. After three months, Saps told me they wanted 900 bikes.

Next I went to various organisations, large and small, and asked if they wanted to sponsor bikes for their local police station. In the end, I raised enough funding to sponsor 1 100 bikes and these bikes were handed over to the police at a big event held at the Velodrome in Bellville. It created great publicity for me and helped put me back in the game.

I started doing the same with neighbourhood watches and city councils. My sponsorship model resulted in me giving away more than 2 000 bikes in total. Car companies caught on to the idea and started doing the same thing. A few years later, Saps no longer allowed this type of sponsorship.

How have things changed since then?

Where cycling used to be a man’s sport, it has become much more family-orientated, especially with the new mountain biking trend. My children joining the business has also moved it to a whole new level.

My daughters, Annerika and Melanie, have added value to the company through event organisation, while my son, Chris Jr, has taken us into the digital age through internet marketing and selling. I was very sceptical when he suggested eight years ago that we start our own website, but it turned out to be one of our greatest decisions yet.

The Competition Commission recently found various companies in the industry guilty of price fixing. Were you involved in this?

No, I wasn’t involved in price fixing, but I was one of the witnesses in the case. The ruling has placed Chris Willemse Cycles in an even better position than before. 

What can you tell me about the rumours that you recently sold the company again?

No, we had a great offer to purchase, but in the end decided that there were some things that money just cannot buy. My daughters, my son and son-in-law are all working at the company and all of us are enjoying our work. We are not interested in selling. We have two shops at the moment, one in Bellville and one in Sea Point, in addition to the online shop that is doing excellently. We currently employ 34 people. 

This article originally appeared in the 9 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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