By his own admission Desmond Soekoeis not a traditional business man. Rather heavily tattooed and not fond of a suit and tie, he runs Soekoe Bicycle Company, a fledgling bicycle manufacturer based in Germiston.
Desmond spent 23 years at the company, working his way up from overalls to corner office.
“I worked 23 years at Deebar, but then my dad and I started seeing business differently. We are too alike. I have great respect for him. He has a great business mind, he’s my mentor; driven and motivated.
“Also, the mining industry can easily feel like the army. There’s this strict hierarchy.
“In the end, I kind of felt that Deebar was no longer my passion in life.”
When Desmond left Deebar, he retained interests in a few materials-handling ventures, and also continued to do what he has always done: tinkering in the backyard of his Bedfordview home.
“I’ve always built cars and motorbikes. I’ve loved everything on wheels since I was 13 years old.”
When Desmond wanted his wife to join him riding motorbikes, he thought he’d ease her into the two-wheeler lifestyle by building her a motorised bicycle.
This was followed by another, second bike. However, this was no ordinary bike.
“I wanted to build a motorised bike that looked like it came from the 1900s. It had to look like a vintage bike,” explains Desmond.
A trip to a Piston Ring event in Modderfontein – a classic carmeet – churned up “a massive response”, he says. “I was overwhelmed. You built something with your hands and you never know how people will respond.”
The first vintage bike became a second, and third, and more.
At this point, Soekoe was buying bikes from China, and modifying them into motorised units, but he wasn’t happy with the quality of the imported bikes.
A meeting with a local manufacturer of heavy-duty bikes, such as postal bikes and ice cream carts, ultimately secured an agreement in which the company would produce cycle frames for Desmond according to his own designs.
Deebar agreed to manufacture parts such as the fuel tank, handle bars and forks.
Today, some parts on Desmond’s bikes are still imported from China, but the South African parts content has increased to 60%.
Since his Piston Ring days, Soekoe has also moved from producing custom bikes to manufacturing three standard frames in black, green, white and blue, which can then be customised with accessories, such as leather saddle bags and handle grips.
Sales average between five and ten bikes a month.
“We are still small. We are officially one-year old this year,” says Soekoe.
Pricing starts at R6 000 for a simple motorised bicycle, and R22 000 for the first true Soekoe vintage bicycle with a 49 cc engine. (Top speed is 45 km/h.)
“I looked around at Parkhurst and other places, but the rent here, and the facility, which can house assembly operations, were perfectly suited to what I wanted to achieve. Now I have a showroom and a place to meet and greet clients,” says Soekoe.
Soekoe is busy adding specialised coffees, his own craft beer and vintage shirts to the Germiston store.
Old school helmets and saddle bags are also in the pipeline.
Soekoe also aims to franchise the brand, and all its spin-off products, across the world.
The bikes on sale overseas, however, will not be motorised bikes, but electric bikes.
“Europe is definitely looking for something with batteries,” says Soekoe.
The Soekoe electric bicycle will launch in May.
The bicycle will still be vintage-style, with the ‘motorised’ part hiding the lithium-ion battery.
“We are building three versions, with the entry-level to sell at R25 000,” notes Soekoe.
“It will look like the first motor bicycles from the early 1900s.
“Our future is definitely e-bikes.”
The batteries for the bike are sourced locally, with the controller built by Deebar.