Pierre Bester of Brian Bands Sport in Port Elizabeth will retire from the independent store that he built into one of the leading sport stores in the country over nearly 48 years on August 10. Earlier this month he thanked and said good bye to old friends, supporters, customers and people who influenced his life (mostly all in one) in a letter that takes a wistful and humorous trip down memory lane.
He wrote: “At 8.30am on 1 December 1969, a young 17-year old Grey boy with a generous amount of wavy brown hair walked into 14c Rink Street in Port Elizabeth to begin his first working day as a student at Brian Bands Sports.
“At that time, there were legendary products such as the Dunlop Maxply tennis racket, the Slazenger Whippet squash racket, the BG Continental rugby boot with its ever so recognizable blue sole, and don’t forget the Bata tennis shoe – or was it called a plimsol? – that was used for everything from tennis to track and from cricket to Comrades … never mind hockey sticks that resembled a shepherd’s crook more than a piece of sports equipment.
“There were also legendary independent retailers, such as Logans, Lemkus, Taylors, Kings, L.F. Palmer, Jacksons – and I suppose I should put Brian Bands in this category. In Port Elizabeth, I remember retailers like Lishers, Philpotts, and Hasties, Dexters and Popeye Strydom, to name but a few.”
Bester’s letter continues: “Who can forget the suppliers and agents like Chester Ambler-Smith, Neville Marsh, Tony Harris, Herby Prout, Rusty Pledger, Pat Wiltshire, Ian Staedler, Bryan Lidgey and dare I forget Lampies. Wow, those were fun days! How well I remember the trade shows and Sports Trade Conferences and all the camaraderie attached to these. Regrettably, most of this no longer exists and our industry is certainly a lot poorer as a result.
“How times have changed! Tennis balls are now yellow and rugby balls are no longer brown leather. Rackets are made of graphite with many strange sounding words such as titanium, boron, baseltex, microgel, graphene and liquid metal as additives. In shoes we speak of air, gel, speva, boost foam, flyte foam and even fresh foam. It sounds more like the shaving department in the local supermarket. Cricket bats are double the thickness and hockey sticks are made of graphite and we use terms such as high bow, low bow and head shapes like maxi, shorti and hook. All very confusing – and I have not even started on heart rate monitors with terms like built in GPS, optical sensors, activity tracker, to name but a few.
“New players have entered the sports retail space and we hear of warehouses, mass stores and other words of grandeur and bigness. Regrettably, many traditional retail sports stores have been casualties of this change but a few who were able to be different and innovative and have been prepared to scrap and even fight, have against all odds been able to survive and in some instances, thrive.”
Brian Bands Sports managed to survive for 60 years – Bester was the third owner – because they kept their focus on functional and technical products, he told Sports Trader in an interview. “We do not stock one non-functional product,” he says. “We do not stock one leisure shoe or garment.” He fondly quotes Pat Wiltshire, who advised him to “stick to the knitting”.
A year after Bester bought the business in 1997, Sportsmans Warehouse opened in Port Elizabeth. He adapted by moving the store to the middle of town and getting rid of all stock that were not strictly technical sport products.
Over the years, as their customer base and needs changed, they again adapted. “Kids at former Model C and private schools nowadays buy soccer and rugby products across the board.” He therefore added soccer and netball kits to his stock, and appointed people to actively engage with schools and clubs.
Bester explains the purpose of his letter as follows: “At 5.30pm on the 10th of August 2017 a not-so-young 65-year old man with less than an abundance of hair, will walk out of 296 Cape Road Port Elizabeth to end his final working day at Brian Bands Sports.”
Thanking every person who contributed to his growth as a person and retailer, he pays a special tribute to his former partners Bruce Baker and Neville Mallett and his “good friend and fellow retailer Peter Taylor, who all taught me about the sports industry, product knowledge, the art of selling and most importantly, the ethics of business.”
For example, that “a good retailer is not time and space bound”. Therefore, there are still many opportunities for independent retailers “who are prepared to graft”. He also subscribes to the philosophy that a good retailer is the guy who switches on the light and switches it off at night so that “he knows what’s going on in his business”.
Therefore, the six days a week he had been working actually added up to a working life of eight years longer than someone who only works five days a week … making him an unofficial 50-plus year veteran of the industry.
He also assures customers that Brian Bands Sports is being left in the capable hands of his son Michael, who has been part of their business for 10 years, and John Cooney who has been with them for 15 years. “They have undergone an intense mentoring programme over the past 5 years and are more than capable to continue the 60-year history of Brian Bands Sports,” he adds. “These two young gentlemen are going into partnership, and I am sure that they will take Brian Bands Sports to even greater heights. I know, when our history is retold, they will be among the legends of our industry.”
Their product knowledge is exceptional, he told Sports Trader, and he has schooled them well in the Golden Rules – for example, that “turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and cash flow is reality.”
One of their greatest assets is their staff, he says. Bester describes them as “an unbelievably loyal, enthusiastic and efficient staff team, four of whom have been with the company for more than 25 years.” He makes special mention of William Langley, June Chipps, Glenton Smith and Rosey Maxela, Siyabonga Mzoboshe, Sinetemba Hela and Brendon Gaud.
He is now looking forward to playing bowls, enjoying hobbies like birdwatching, and traveling. “I majored in history at varsity and I am keen to visit some battlefields, and to write the history of Brian Bands Sports next year.”