In South African mountain biking, Specialized is the most popular brand in bikes, helmets, shoes and gloves. Specialized is also among the most popular in tyres, socks and shorts. That’s some domination. Why is Specialized so successful in South Africa? Here’s why…
By Sean Badenhorst
Left: Mike Sinyard, founder and chairman of Specialized on a ride with Bobby Behan, head of Specialized South Africa.
First, a bit of history about Specialized in South Africa…
The first importer of Specialized to South Africa was gregarious Joburg roadie, Eugene Beck, from around 1995/96. In 1998 the agency then moved to a small Johannesburg-based business called Genesis Trading, headed up by passionate mountain bikers, Dave Harding and David Shemmeld.
This was a time when mountain bikes came with triple chainrings and 26-inch wheels and tubeless tyre technology hadn’t yet gone mainstream…
I recall first visiting the Genesis Trading folks in 2000, when I became editor of Ride magazine. They were in an office that was part cluttered, part homely, all bike passion. Everyone that worked there (no more than 10 staff) had bicycle-shaped hearts. There was good coffee, lots of bike banter and a little bit of business. Dave and his wife Yutah were very laid back and definitely fitted the non-conformist mountain biker mould at the time.
Mountain biking was very niche back then and road cycling and triathlon were enjoying incredible growth. Eventually demand, supply and payments became misaligned for Genesis Trading, who sought financial support from Joburg businessman, Wayne Plit. By 1998 Wayne, himself a keen cyclist, took over the brand under a company called Le Peloton with partners Robin Ulbrich and Rob Ambler Smith, who managed the brand until early 2012, when Specialized came into South Africa directly.
Enter the driven Irishman
Bobby Behan was raised on a farm in Ireland. He didn’t stay within the family business to pursue farming, but did something completely different and became a professional triathlete, counting among his highlights, winning the Irish national title, winning the North American Age Group Championship title and being ranked in the top 80 in the world.
He then moved onto become the Oakley brand manager in Ireland from 2001 to early 2005 when he decided to return to pro triathlon. A year later, 2006, the opportunity to manage Specialized’s international mountain bike race team presented itself and Bobby took it with both his large swimmer hands. That then led to Bobby being promoted to head up global sports marketing for Specialized in 2008.
He was living in Stellenbosch, South Africa by then, a town that captured his heart in more ways than one, because, while training there as a pro athlete, he met his now wife, Christine Behan (née Markgraaff) who was a former Protea Netball Player. They have two children, Robert-John 7 and Grace 4.
Bobby riding a Specialized Turbo Levo SL.
While managing Specialized’s global sports marketing from Stellenbosch, Bobby developed a strong relationship with Specialized founder and chairman, Mike Sinyard, to whom he reported directly. Sinyard, a highly-driven man, must have been grateful for the Irishman’s pro triathlete heritage.
Anyone that’s a professional triathlete has their shit together. You have to plan your training so that you do enough swimming, cycling and running in the right ratios, improve your weaknesses, but don’t let your strengths slip and get sufficient sleep and appropriate nourishment for energy and recovery. You have to constantly find areas to improve and ways to motivate yourself to always want to be faster. It’s a perpetual pursuit of progress and success. And it becomes part of your character and translates to other areas of your life. Add perfectionist to that to describe Bobby.
“Because I was living in South Africa and interacting with the brand regularly, Mike sought my advice on the way forward for Specialized in the country. I said I thought it had matured to a point where it was perhaps unable to grow further without the direct support from and management of Specialized global.
“Because by then, I knew the brand and the country so well, Mike asked me to help interview potential candidates for the role of managing Specialized in South Africa. We weren’t really able to find the right person, but during this process, I realised that it might be something I could do. Sports marketing is a young man’s game and I was reaching a life stage where I wanted to travel less and start a family,” recalls Bobby.
Staff at the Specialized Store Stellenbosch with Mike Sinyard, founder and chairman of Specialized.
“I told Mike I was interested and he seemed to like that idea. He said ‘one should never be too comfortable’ referring to the new challenge that lay ahead for me. I was ready for it and because I’d always been a fan of brands, I felt the best route to go was to the concept-store model.
“Having been with Specialized for seven years and spent a lot of time at the global headquarters, I had seen just how many products Specialized makes and sells. It’s remarkable! You can never expect to see all of this in a cycling retail store that carries a mixture of brands. We bring in 130 models of bicycle to South Africa. You can’t showcase even a quarter of that number if you share floor space with other brands. I knew that in order for the brand to have the best shot at success in South Africa, there needed to be a full Specialized brand experience, which meant being the only brand or the dominant brand in any retail store.
“Specialized is a very entrepreneurial brand and this is encouraged throughout the business. We started with four staff members from Le Peloton (Rupert Rheeder, Adriaan Maaske, Stuart Weaver and Sean Newcombe), all of whom still work for the brand, although Sean is now based in the Netherlands. We built a really classy brand themed head office in Stellenbosch, with a very well-equipped suspension service centre – essential when you have a proprietary suspension design like the Brain. An environment that’s inspiring and supportive and keeps the staff focussed. And then I set about employing staff and building the culture.
“You must have people that ride bicycles, be it a social rider or a serious racer, working for you if you want to build a successful business in the cycling market. It’s essential. You want to make the most of their abilities and their passion for riding bikes. We support their riding, training or racing objectives. If you are doing a ride in the morning, you can come in two hours later than the normal start time. You can leave at 16h00 on a Friday to train or travel for an event and also take advantage of our Zwift smart-trainer set-up at the head office. We also offer head office staff complementary membership to the gym downstairs with access to a personal trainer. Obviously this can’t impact on work performance, but we have a fairly low staff turnover and what appears to be many content employees, so it seems to be working.”
From a retail reach perspective, Bobby set about reducing the number of Specialized retailers under Le Peloton from around 80 to around 30.
“In February 2012, under Specialized global, we trimmed it down to 29 retailers and we hit our maximum of 33 [‘ter-tee tree’ said in Irish accent] in 2015. We currently have 28 retailers. It was a big departure from the way bicycle retail was done in South Africa and I’m sure there were some sceptics out there when we introduced it. But it’s proven to be the best way to showcase the brand, build the Specialized culture and achieve what we feel is reasonable success in the South African market.
Bobby riding his beloved Jonkershoek trails.
“We own the Specialized Stellenbosch and Specialized Tygerberg Stores. The rest are owned by bike shop owners. We opened the Stellenbosch Store so that we could use it as a way to test certain lines, try workshop schedules, carry out staff training, understand the challenges our retailers face on a day to day basis and grow our people through retail. As for the other Specialized stores, we invest in each of them. We allocate 60% of our marketing budget to our independent bike stores.
“We offer the store two thirds of what it will cost to refit the store into the Specialized styling. They then pay us back half of that. The stores are all able to be involved in the design. We aren’t super prescriptive like motor brands with their dealers. There are some parameters, but each store is able to create its own unique character with the Specialized brand support. We are very fortunate to have retail partners that are as passionate and driven as we are.”
I recall meeting Bobby for the first time in his new unfinished office in Stellenbosch in February 2012. I was there to introduce him to TREAD magazine and start building a relationship with the new decision maker for Specialized in South Africa. I immediately found him likeable and disarming. I don’t see him very often, but every time I do, it strikes me that he hasn’t changed. He speaks highly of others but is exceptionally humble when speaking about himself. He was surprised and felt honoured that I wanted to write this article about Specialized’s success in South Africa, which is strongly evident when you consider the brand’s performance in the following surveys:
“People think Specialized is a premium brand. And they are right. It is a premium brand. But it’s not necessarily an expensive brand. You can buy a Specialized bicycle for R9000. I think some people may confuse Specialized with S-Works, which is the pinnacle of the brand in all categories. Yes, S-Works is expensive, but it is the best of Specialized’s products,” explains Bobby.
“’Put it on the moon,’ Mike Sinyard always says. But it’s not just a saying, it’s a consistent philosophy of the Specialized brand. Mike is so down to earth and so invested in the brand he started. He puts the profits back into the brand to ensure it’s never not a leader in any of the market segments it occupies. Mike invests in people, product development and innovation and those are the building blocks of the brand’s success.
“Everything Specialized does is with the objective to ‘put it on the moon’. I suppose that’s what has helped the brand’s success in South Africa. But it’s not possible without great product, committed retailers and passionate staff,” smiles Bobby.
‘I love riding bicycles’ – Bobby Behan.
To say Bobby is a keen bicycle rider is an understatement. His passion for riding bikes evolved from triathlon/road riding to mountain bike trails riding. He has ensured that local trails in Stellenbosch are supported with funding from Specialized.
“You must support facilities that offer bike riding opportunities. For us, that’s giving consistent support to the local trails. I ride Jonkershoek trails almost every day – those trails are world class. I love riding bicycles.”
‘I love riding bicycles’ – it’s not just a Bobby Behan saying, it’s a philosophy that’s passed on from Bobby to his staff and retail partners. And it’s one of the main reasons Specialized is so successful in South Africa.
For more on Specialized South Africa’s product offering, head over here
Follow Bobby on Instagram: @bobby_behan