By GRAHAM HICKS
Okay Wilf Brooks, you’re now “retired”.
You turned in your key to the vast United Cycle Sport (oops, now United Sport & Cycle) building.
The sale is complete. A fourth generation of Brooks descendants, your nephew and niece Jason Bots and Lisa Ross, are now 100% owners of the store that’s operated in Edmonton since 1928.
United Cycle is an anomaly: The independent sports store with one outlet on 103 Street south of Whyte has not only survived, but flourished.
At 110,000 square feet, the recently re-branded United Sport & Cycle is one of Canada’s biggest sports stores.
Practically every other independent store in town of any vintage is long gone, unable to compete price-wise against big-box chains.
Wilf, how did you do it?
You, your sister Iola and your brother Rod took over United Cycle from your Dad Reg Brooks in 1980. It has grown through Alberta’s booms and busts, to the point that United Cycle’s unofficial slogan is “30 specialty sport stores under one roof.” (Rod left to run the Alberta Cycle motor-sports company when United acquired it in the mid-’80s. It became a separate company. )
The irascible Wilf, now 72, has never been known to keep his opinions to himself.
He’s happy to tell you exactly how a family-owned business can flourish for 90 years, hopefully 90 more.
Specialization; team sales; inter-generational customer loyalty; community involvement.
In the ’70s, Wilf toured the big-box chain stores popping up around Toronto. He then turned left when everybody else was turning right.
“I realized, as long as you had confidence, that specialization was the way to go. We decided to specialize in premium baseball, hockey and bicycle products. Canadian Tire wasn’t our competition. It sold entry-to-lower/middle-end sports equipment.”
Team sales: United Cycle courted sports teams – especially baseball and hockey. It helped that Clare Drake (the famous U of A hockey coach) and Perry Pearn (equally famous at NAIT) trusted Brooks and United Cycle to equip their teams. “Clare always asked me what his team needed. He knew that we knew what we were doing. Today, we’d be a ‘solutions’ company.”
Likewise the city’s athletic clubs – Maple Leaf, Canadian, South Side, Knights of Columbus, all with dozens of teams — trusted United Cycle. When the Knights of Columbus put out one tender for its uniforms, sticks and goalie equipment, guess who won.
Customer loyalty: Team sales led to individual sales. Wilf realized United Cycle customers could be customers for life.
“A friend came in the store with a grandchild on each arm,” says Wilf. “He bellowed at me, ‘buy them their hockey equipment.’ ”
“I knew the importance of sports in the raising of kids. But then I realized how much grandparents were involved in buying leisure equipment for grandchildren. We had to cater to three generations at once.”
Hence United Cycle’s Hot Stove free-coffee sitting area, play areas for young children, and easily accessible, well-signed bathrooms.
Community: Wilf Brooks and his United Cycle team were all about “social licence” before the word was invented.
In the early ’80s, provincial funding dried up. United Cycle, the Catholic School Board and the city’s recreation people decided an outdoor biking program could not be allowed to die. “I pressured our suppliers to give us bikes for the program at below-wholesale prices,” says Wilf. “Then we used the savings to write grants that would enable the program to buy the bikes!”
Wilf was passionate about safety and safety helmets. United Cycle partnered with the Edmonton Safety Council to run a helmet-awareness program that visited 45 schools a year, and also lobbied the government for compulsory bicycle helmet legislation. “We got the law. Along the way we sold a lot of helmets … but Canadian Tire sold a lot more!”
United Cycle was a founding member and crucial supporter of Sports Central – the not-for-profit agency that outfits under-privileged children so they can play all sports.
Wilf happily leaves United Cycle – recently re-branded as United Sport & Cycle – in his niece and nephew’s hands. They grew up in the store. Jason has been the company CEO for 10 years.
But Wilf will never leave sport. His latest passion is restoring or building new outdoor community rinks through the newly formed “Alberta Rink of Dreams Society.”
“There’s a huge shortage of playing ice … and the weather today is conducive to outside rinks. Al Hamilton’s outdoor McCauley inner-city rink has proved a big success.”
The Rink of Dreams Society exists to help out communities wanting to rebuild/build outdoor community rinks. The immediate goal is 10 rinks in the next five years.
Graminia, north of Devon, is renovating its outdoor rink. Outdoor rink renovation studies are underway in Edmonton, four First Nations and Athabasca County. (For more info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s classic Wilf Brooks, diving into a project with his indefatigable enthusiasm, utilizing a life-time of relationships and refusing to take no for an answer.
For when Wilf comes calling, you can’t turn him down.
How can you? Through United Cycle and on his own, he’s done far, far too much for others!