South Africa

BRUCE WHITFIELD: Death of a (great) small business

For the past ten years, Noel ran a bike shop around the corner from me.

A nice guy who delivered great service with a quick turnaround, he also served fantastic coffee. It was just what a local bike shop should be.

The other day, I had some minor bike trouble, about 10km from my home, but I managed to nurse it to Noel’s shop, taking a few shortcuts through the ‘burbs.

Only, when I got there, I found the windows papered over, and Noel standing outside. “You should know why I am closing,” he said as I inquired about his wellbeing and the decision he had taken. “You know what’s happening in the economy.”

Things certainly had been quieter and as a small independent business, he was struggling to get the parts needed to fix customers bikes. Understandably, many of them ended up going to bigger outlets with more buying power.

These sorts of global supply chain disruptions are real, affecting everything from new imported cars, to medicines that were freely available before Covid-19, and including something as seemingly insignificant as bike spares.

The global economy may be in recovery mode — led by China and the US — but in vaccine-lite SA, even a 4% bounce off last years 7% contraction is going to do nothing to help people like Noel survive.

His bike shop was in a small open strip mall. There was a nice independent restaurant at one end, a Lego shop next door, a new local specialist butcher (which recently replaced a tired hair salon), a brilliant wine shop, a so-so Asian fusion restaurant, a pharmacy and a franchised coffee shop.

It was, all-in-all, a nice little centre, with small businesses, run mostly by locals creating jobs in the area. “I could carry on for another 18 months,” said Noel, inviting me in to tighten a nut that anyone half-aware of the mechanical aspects of a bike could have done themselves. “But I would probably be in debt by then and it would be a mess. My lease was coming to an end anyway, so I called it.”

Inside his store, the floor was covered with piles of shop fittings and unsold stock. The restaurant-grade coffee machine that had delivered thousands of cups to caffeine-hungry cyclists and other passers-by stood silent in the corner.

“That thing costs R80,000,” he said, gesturing to the machine. “Before Covid-19, I could have sold it easily. Now there are plenty available with all the restaurants that have gone bust. So, I’ll have to keep it until I decide what to do next.”

Noel has opened and closed businesses all his life. They work for a while in a particular location, and then something happens and he shuts down and moves on to the next idea.

He is remarkably philosophical in the way only a true entrepreneur can be, in a time of adversity. It’s not personal, it’s just business; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t allow it to eat you up because that undermines your ability to recover and try again.

“I need time to think about what’s next,” he says. He’s planning to take two months off to surf.

“The problem is that I need to stop myself from diving into the next thing. I get too excited. This time I need to think what’s next. The important thing is that my staff are fine,” he said. “There is a new guy taking over the lease and there will be a bike shop here again in a couple of months. They’re employing my staff, which is a big relief.”

I ask: “what about you?” But Noel is typical of a certain type of small business owner who is plugged into the needs of his customers. He doesn’t whinge about the circumstances of the closure; he analyses the facts. He knows his market and knows they will flock to the new operator. The customers, he says, are the bigger concern. “This business has been good to me for ten years. Now I need to do something new.”

It’s this sort of resilience that will see him identify a new opportunity soon enough, and capitalise on it with the same verve with which he has run the bike shop.

The new guys will take his place — and I hope they’ll keep the same easy hospitality which meant you could pop in with a quick question and get a bolt tightened, just as easily as you could dump the whole bike with a shredded inner tube, Uber home and wait for the call.

If not, there’s a guy down the road, I am told, who does repairs from his garage. He is bound to pick up some new business thanks to the fact that there will be no bike repairs available in the neighbourhood for the next six to eight weeks.

Noel will be fine. He will pour his boundless energy into the next big idea and it’ll work.

He’s the sort of entrepreneur we need more of in SA — people who create businesses that serve communities, that create jobs, that actually add real value. 

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