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Kevin William Thompson, founder of KWT Imports has been either racing or selling bikes for 71 of his 86 years… so far.
He and his son Eamon who is now managing the business recently sat down with The Latz Report for a long yarn. Unfortunately, some wonderful anecdotes from the early days could not be included in this already extra-long company feature – perhaps it’s time for Kevin to write his memoirs!
Kevin began by recalling how it all started. “When I was 14, which was 1949, I read a story written by Sir Hubert Opperman about his trip to the Tour de France in 1928, and I was totally enthralled,” he said. “That’s how I got into cycling.
“Many years later, I sponsored the first professional road race of the season in Melbourne and I had the chance to talk to Oppy (who had long retired from racing but was a guest of honour) for nearly an hour, one on one.
“I took up racing when I was 15 and continued, on and off, for 45 years. My last race was in Paris in a veterans’ race at age 60.”
Retailing in Redfern
It wasn’t too long before Kevin’s cycling passion became his business.
“My father was a customs broker,” he recalled. “He had contact with Gino Bambagiotti who was a professional cycling champion.
“Gino came to Australia in 1939 when they had the last six-day race at the famous indoor Sydney Sports Arena in Surry Hills.
“Bambagiotti went on to open up a bike shop just down the hill from there. That was actually almost dead opposite where I opened my first shop. He also owned my premises which I rented from him. That was 1958. The shop’s still there in Redfern, but it’s an Indian restaurant now.
“Gino was a great help because my father used to handle his importing. In 1952 Gino took an Australian team to the Tour de France. When he came back, he had all this equipment that nobody had ever seen… double chainwheel cranksets and the famous TA water bottles.
“He sold it to me, and I sold it on. I was in the St. George Cycling club at the time. You couldn’t get much racing gear in Sydney at that time. There were only a couple of shops that handled it, mostly in Melbourne.
“I was in the Redfern shop for seven years. Within the first six months of being in the shop, I started importing. Everything I sold, I imported. I think I was the first person in Australia to do that. We imported Campagnolo and we sold huge numbers of tubular tires. Our most famous brand was Clément.
“Before I took over the shop, I’d worked at the Water Board for seven years and studied accounting. I was getting about £13.10 a week. The Cléments used to retail for £5.15. We looked after them!
“Various shipments used to arrive on our footpath in wooden packing cases. There were no shipping containers back then. We’d be working half the night breaking them open with crowbars.
“When I first visited China (to source stock) there were no cars on the road. I borrowed a bike to ride around and the cyclists were 10 deep. Back then I could buy pairs of pedals for 15 cents!”
Meanwhile another famous Australian bike industry wholesaler, Atom Imports had been founded by Jewish refugee Stanislaus Guerry in 1948. In the 1980’s Stanislaus’ daughter in law, Annette Guerry started making cycle clothing using her abbreviated first name – Netti.
For over 50 years Atom, later Netti-Atom was a leading wholesaler of high-end European bicycle components.
“I was Atom’s biggest customer,” Kevin recalled. “I talked a lot with Mr Guerry. He escaped the Nazis by jumping over a wall. His family was shot beyond him. He was a gentleman. I respected him.
“He said, ‘We need somebody to stabilise the business and come into it,’ so I took a 40% share in the business.
“I travelled all over Australia representing Atom Imports. I did that for three years. Then they had the idea of bringing their son (Eric Guerry, future long time Managing Director) into the business, so there was a bit of a disruption. I didn’t really want to break off with them, but they paid me out.
“I think I got about $100,000. In those days, it was a fair bit of money. Things were about 1/14th the price they are now.”
North to Queensland
Kevin moved to Brisbane and for a season, spanning a few years, ran a range of businesses from house building to real estate, but the lure of his first love was too strong.
It was now the very early 1970’s when the 10 speed racer boom was starting in America.
Kevin got back into importing and wholesaling high end cycling gear.
“I still had good contacts,” he recalled. “Henry Hill (founder of the legendary but now gone Hillman Cycles) in Melbourne was my main shop, eventually giving me orders of $50,000 at a time.
“That was a huge amount of money in those days. I used to build a professional hand-made racing bike with full Campagnolo and Reynolds or Columbus tubing for $250! At that time one of my customers who was a plumber earned in $50 a week.”
After re-starting his bike business from his Corinda home in the suburbs of Brisbane, Kevin moved to an old warehouse in Fortitude Valley, then a run-down industrial area, right next to the Brisbane CBD, now best known as the red light district.
“The rent was eight dollars a week!” Kevin recalled with a laugh. “By the time I finished there, I had 10 people working for me.”
Times were changing, having previously introduced Australia to Clément and later Vittoria – traditional Italian road and track tyres, Kevin struck up a now 40 plus year relationship with an agent in Taiwan and started importing BMX tyres including Maxxis and other brands.
He was also driving huge kilometres across Australia in a van packed with stock to show and sell. Kevin was still organising up to 15 bike races per season and giving many young racers their start in the bike industry, including Mark Victor, now owner of leading Brisbane store Planet Cycles.
After many ups and downs, it was time for generational change and Kevin’s son Eamon joined KWT in 2006.
“Things were very tight in the business back then,” Eamon recalled. “So, I came down to see what was going on.
“At the time I was doing a double degree at University of the Sunshine Coast: international business and international politics and I did a minor in Indonesian. I had only two subjects left.
“The only two staff members who were left resigned within a week of me being there, so I deferred university.
“It was just me and dad. I looked at him and said, ‘I have no idea what to do!’ He said, ‘Go out there, ask questions, make some mistakes and you will figure it out eventually’. At the time I resented him for that, but it ended up in the end very good advice.
“I’ve been a country boy, I grew up in the bush, so I’ve done a lot of farm work, fruit-picking, labouring. I knew hard work and I love a big challenge. I really like seeing things through. I get inspired when people doubt me because I like to prove them wrong.”
Eamon, who loved surfing and lived on the Sunshine Coast, literally moved into the warehouse in 2005 and learnt the business from the ground up’.
“I was driving an hour and a half to the city and then an hour and a half home, three hours a day. Eventually, I got jack of that, so I made a makeshift loft upstairs and slept there,” he recalled.
Further North to Greener Pastures
Within a few years, KWT made the first step in a gradual migration northward, moving to the outermost northern Brisbane suburb of Caboolture around 2008.
“I wanted to keep active and healthy. My passion was surfing at the time,” Eamon explained. (There are no surf beaches in Brisbane.)
“We were concerned about keeping overheads low and minimising freight as our business was confined to QLD because of distributions agreements. Caboolture had cheap rent and was the farthest northern part of the Brisbane metro area where we could keep the low freight rate.
“I didn’t have a handle on the business like I do now. I still had a lot to learn, so it was smart for us to downsize. We had a 300-square meter shed. I employed a friend Blake. Then I went on the road pretty much full time and working the backend of the business early mornings and late evenings. Blake was taking the phones and packing.
That said, I couldn’t have done it without Mary, my mum. In 2006, I was trying to do all the accounts and I asked if she would help. I was logging in through LogMeIn.com – those old programs! She had just gone back to university to do a PhD in Journalism and was working on her biography of her father, Oscar Garden, who was a pioneer aviator. Ironically, at one time he had a bike shop in Christchurch in 1924!
I said, ‘Mum, you’d be able to do this. I know you would. You know how you love a Sudoku puzzle and get things right.’ She said, ‘No way, I’m far too busy and I have no accounting skills. I don’t know anything about MYOB’
But Mum loves challenges like me. She said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You probably wouldn’t be able to do this. It’s too complicated!’ I obviously got my traits from her because she said, ‘Move aside. I’ll show you how to do it!’ She’s a puzzle genius.
“She is still in charge of the accounts. Kevin’s daughter Natalya even threw on the sales rep hat for a year calling on stores in Melbourne and country Vic as they were getting up and running again.
After six years, KWT was busting at the seams of their Caboolture warehouse. It was time to move further north to the Sunshine Coast.
They progressively ended all interstate sales agency agreements, apart from WA, and took over direct distribution Australia wide.
Meanwhile Kevin, who worked until he was 80, was slowed down by two strokes, the second of which nearly killed him, so he moved in with Eamon. Fortunately, today, nearly seven years on, he’s almost completely recovered.
More recently, KWT has moved 30 minutes further north to Yandina – inland from Coolum Beach.
“Our neighbours are Star Track and TNT,” Eamon revealed. “The freight’s not an issue now! We have a bigger warehouse. We’ve put on a marketing department, sales team, and warehouse crew, about nine in the warehouse and six on the road.
“We have Gemma and Eduardo who maintain digital communication and Joel Fitzgerald and me doing ordering, strategy, implementation and sales. Andy Walker has been with us for about 10 years and is the warehouse manager and we have generally five picker and packers.
There are house reps on the road: Tim Whitburn Queensland sales; Cameron McCormack Victoria and Tasmania and Matthew Waters is our newly appointed NSW rep. “We also have three sales agents: Blake Mueller for south-east Queensland, Pete Davies for South Australia and Cycle Motion and represent Maxxis for KWT in Western Australia.
“Mary’s still in accounts and she’s got a lady who helps her, also called Mary.”
Meanwhile, at age 86, Kevin has stepped back from day to day work, living on the Gold Coast and visiting Eamon and the warehouse fortnightly.
Secrets to Success
“Eamon has carried on what I’ve tried to establish,” Kevin reported proudly. “I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always believed in honesty and good communication. Somebody said to me, ‘You talk too much!’ But I don’t talk as much as I used to!” (laughs)
Eamon summarised, “We are a company that strives to provide convenience, good service, and value. Also, we had a game plan and stuck to it.
“About a decade ago larger brands (Giant, Trek, Specialized) rolled out their extensive ranges or P & A. We were in trouble unless we remained relevant. We set about a plan to offer a wide range of accessories and by travelling extensively, asking lots of questions, and making a few mistakes along the way, here we are today, a bit of a one-stop shop with some neat brands alongside the general accessories.
“We offer a broad selection ‘one-stop-shop’ and a really intuitive website. We know bike shops are short on time and a lot of them are stressed. They’ve got a lot on their plate.
“We’re ramping up our marketing and product range. We’re going into cranks. We’ve just started doing RST forks. MicroSHIFT has been phenomenal. It’s really assisting dealers who are having trouble finding Shimano compatible products.
“We’ve also found that having multiple offerings of brands can work across different price levels. For example, in the rubber, our CST and Maxxis combination works really well.
“We’ve now got five house brands: KWT, Ryfe, Stowaway, Quality Bike Parts and Park Lock and we’re bringing back a fantastic catalogue!”
Eamon is confident that KWT can handle the challenges that covid induced short supply has raised. “Lead times haven’t slowed down, they’re increasing and especially from Taiwan,” he reported. “Being nimble is the key and having information. For example, Wellgo pedals have a two year lead time, so we have had to source elsewhere and ensure they are SGS tested (the world’s leading body for testing, inspection, and certification). We have multiple agents assisting us overseas and consolidating shipments to maintain stock continuity.
“Interestingly we are even in discussion with getting pedals made locally. Since trade tensions have surfaced there are large government incentives for local manufacturers so it may be more feasible than expected.”
It was only appropriate for Kevin to have the last word. “Overall, the quality of everything’s improved enormously. The only thing for sure is change. Change never stops,” he said with a laugh.
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Remembering Ashley McGowan
As we were finalising this KWT Company Feature for publication, Eamon Thompson’s close friend, popular local bicycle workshop owner Ashley McGowan was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.
As reported in the Sunshine Coast News, McGowan was riding along Collins Road, Ninderry about 7pm Tuesday when his motorbike left the road and struck a large log and shipping container.
Nearby residents desperately tried to save the 39-year-old’s life, however he died at the scene.
Mr McGowan, a former Brisbane-based bicycle business owner who relocated to the Coast, was being remembered for his larger-than-life personality.
His devastated partner Michelle Freeman said the Yandina father would be missed by his family.
Ms Freeman said he had travelled along Collins Road regularly and was an experienced motorcycle rider.
Eamon Thompson said cyclists would travel from afar for Mr McGowan’s bicycle expertise as he often ‘fixed the impossible’ repairs for his customers at his HighGeaRacing bicycle workshop in Coolum.
“He was a guru, he had such a knowledge, and his dedication was furious,” Mr Thompson said. “Ash never had to advertise, he was just so well-known, and was just such a special guy.”
Mr Thompson recalled when his mate of 10 years was involved in a crash along the Bruce Highway in 2020 and suffered several injuries to his head, hand and leg. “He ended up having several operations to get his leg fixed and he could only stand on it for 20 minutes at a time before it started to swell,” he said.
“Even with that he would be down at his repair shop repairing bikes and showing his employees what to do.”
Opening his business in 2008, Mr McGowan moved the HGR workshop to the Sunshine Coast in 2016 with his family but still provided services in Brisbane.
“Even though he moved he would still travel to Brisbane twice a week because he had a cult following,” Mr Thompson said.
“He would often leave at 6am most mornings and come back at 3pm and deliver repaired bikes to each of his clients’ homes.
“Ash was able to build the business up so quickly.”
Ash McGowan was also the father of an 11 year old son. Readers can support his partner and son’s financial future via this Go Fund Me page.