While Kevin Cummins admits he may not be as hands-on for the second 50 years of the family sports shop business which has become a Cork institution, he believes that Cummins Sports has a bright future.
Last month, the company celebrated a half-century since the opening of a store at 36 Princes St – though, as Kevin notes, there was another name over the door back then, too.
“Ger O’Leary, who was playing for Blackrock and Cork at the time, came to us with the idea,” he says.
“It closed on a Friday as a fish shop and opened on the Monday as a sports shop! We hadn’t a clue at all about how to run a sports shop. Ger had a bit of commercial training alright as he had been a rep.
“He ran it for two years and he was also a shareholder. The original name was Cummins O’Leary and for years afterwards people would still use that name.
“Ray [Cummins, Cork dual star and Kevin’s brother] was never on the counter but his name was very important to us, obviously.
“Ger ran the shop for the first year or so and my brother Brendan and I would give him a hand, then and my father William was making the sliothars. It was a very amateurish set-up, as you can imagine.”
From such humble beginnings were the roots of an empire, though. Now, there are eight Cummins Sports outlets dotted around the county.
“After a few years, we could see that there was something in it,” he says.
“We opened a shop on North Main St in the 1980s and later moved to where we are now, which used to be Bennett’s, one of the first department stores in Cork.
“It gave us a real firm foothold as, at that stage, North Main St was one of the busiest in Cork.
“After that, in 2000, we opened two shops in the same week – which was a crazy thing to do – in Douglas Court and Blackpool.”
In such a tough industry, the importance of face-to-face meetings was underlined as the Nike agency for Ireland was secured.
“One of our first suppliers was Mick O’Connell, who had the adidas franchise,” Kevin says.
“At the time, the only boots available were Blackthorn, with the hammer-in studs. Sport was undeveloped industry, totally, and Mick was the first fella to bring in stuff from abroad.
“Then, we were the first to bring Nike into the country. Pat Moore was a rep for Mick O’Connell who had gone out on his own and he was involved with a business from America who went belly-up.
“We had a few bob invested with them, so Pat and myself went out to New York to see what the story was and then Brendan said, ‘While you’re out there, why don’t you go to the west coast, there’s a crowd out there, Niki or Naki or Noki, he didn’t even know the name!
“We flew to Beavertown, Oregon. Nike hadn’t long moved out of the garage of the owner, Phil Knight, and we met him and a guy called Kevin Brown.
“Kevin Brown said to us that a number of people from Ireland had been in touch but we were the only ones who had gone out to them, so we got the agency. That was phenomenal for us and we got the award for the highest sales per capita, worldwide.”
Innovation was also on show as Cummins Sports made a move that helped to generate what is now a massive domestic GAA gear market.
“It was we started the replica GAA jersey market, or we claim we did,” Kevin says.
“Nobody had jerseys back then – I remember I used to wear a t-shirt training and any fella that had a jersey would have stolen it!
“One year in the 1980s, Cork got to an All-Ireland final and we got in Cork tracksuits and there was huge demand.
“Cork jerseys became popular after that and then we said we’d do club jerseys and sell them to the clubs at cost price. They became a huge hit and then O’Neills started opening their own shops in clubs.
“I was teaching in Críost Rí and I used to have a competition where the lads would have to learn a long poem and the prize used to be a jersey.”
Kevin estimates the Cummins workforce to be around 120 employees and the local nature of the staff is something of which he’s proud.
“You’re surrounded by young people all the time,” he says, “and they tell us the trends we should be following.
“It’s great to see them come in at 16 and stay with us as they go through college and qualify. It’s a lovely part of the business.”
While Kevin still plays a key role, by and large the management of the company is taken care of by Brendan’s children Áine, Kevin and Mary Claire. However, once the personal touch remains, he’s optimistic about the business’s prospects.
“Once the big boys got involved, the smaller operations began to lose out,” he says.
“We’re the last remaining family-owned sports business in Ireland. This business is not going to get easier, but Brendan’s children are hard workers, which makes an awful difference.
“When you’re working for yourself, it’s 24-7 – Sundays mean nothing. If something arises, you just have to tend it, you can’t wait until Monday
“Of course it’s difficult. You compete by employing nice people and treating your customers well, just going the extra mile for them. If you come into our shop looking for shoes and we don’t have your size, we’ll have them for you this evening, we’ll get them in from Bandon or Midleton or wherever.”
- See tomorrow's Echo for the story of the Cummins All-Star sliothar