Interview Het Spoor: A conversation with PIPA, the world's most exclusive auction house for pigeons

PIPA and pigeon magazine Het Spoor der Kampioenen sat down for an interview just a while ago, to talk about the past, present and future of PIPA, the world's most exclusive auction house for pigeons.

From left to right: Nikolaas, Carlo and Thomas Gyselbrecht

The PIPA auction house has a clear vision, based around three main pillars. The pigeons sold in auction have to be highly exclusive, their collaborations with pigeon fanciers are always long term projects, and lastly all pigeons put up for auction go through a thorough selection process. These three principles would soon turn PIPA into the world's most exclusive auction house for pigeons. Pigeon magazine Het Spoor had a long conversation with the two brothers Nikolaas and Thomas Gyselbrecht.

PIPA has been around for about 18 years, and you have been auctioning pigeons since 2004. How did your jobs change over the years?

Nikolaas: We laid the basis for PIPA in 1999. We registered the domain name in December 2000, and we spent the first four years as an informative website with no revenues. I was still running things on my own, with Martin Degrave joining the project in 2001. Meanwhile, my father has always been there to support me when I needed help. We sold a selection of pigeons for the first time in 2003, at a fixed price. This was mainly out of necessity, because I graduated in 2003 and I was looking to try and turn PIPA into something that I could earn a living from. In order to keep the website online, we needed to generate revenue to cover the costs, which we initially did through adverts. In the summer of 2004 my brother Thomas offered a helping hand for the first time because I could no longer manage on my own; I spread myself too thin in those first few years. I was working day and night developing our website, and I have had some difficult moments. Thomas initially joined PIPA just to help me out, out of brotherly love. PIPA had been something he had only remotely been involved in but he would soon develop a taste for it. He quickly became one of the driving forces behind our quickly expanding company. Thomas focused mainly on selecting the pigeons that would be put up for auction. Company growth or big profits has never been our incentive; they were rather the result of our clear vision. We do not care as much about revenue as we do about offering top quality pigeons. And that vision has never changed over the years really. I think that is one of the main reasons behind our success. People tend to start a company to try and make a profit but we have never made a decision just to increase revenue. From day one, we turned down quite a few pigeons that could have raised a lot of money, simply because we considered them not good enough for our clients.

Thomas: A good example of us choosing not to focus on short-term profits, was our Leo Heremans auction in 2013. We were given the option to purchase his entire pigeon breed for 750,000 euro. The auction's total revenue amounted to 4.3 million euro, and so we could have made a lot of money that day. Instead, we convinced Leo to work with a commission, which means a higher profit for him, and the auction would still be very profitable for us as well. We like working together in a way that benefits all parties involved, so that everyone feels satisfied afterwards. PIPA does not sell pigeons aiming to set high profit margins. Instead, we want to develop a solid relationship with the fanciers that we work together with and organise auctions with, trying to develop a story as a team, together with the fancier. Every once in a while, a few times a year, we do purchase an entire pigeon breed. This happens if the fancier in question is unwilling to sell on commission, or if we genuinely believe that it would be more beneficial for both PIPA and the client concerned. However, financial gain will never be the main reason. We are about to host a very special auction in this or the upcoming auction season, and we have already come to an agreement with the fancier in question - he is quite a big name in our sport. But he wanted a fixed fee, as a matter of principle. Since the fancier is such a great champion, we decided to agree with him. We cannot tell you his name just yet but he is quite a star.

Nikolaas: We want to write a story together and grow together. We also help and support people who are not quite familiar with the commercial side of things. I do believe that we have enabled quite a number of fanciers to turn their hobby into a profession, and that really means a lot to us. But there really needs to be a click first. In fact, we cannot collaborate if there is no click. I think we can be proud of the fact that we have close to 99% of all of the top players in Belgium, The Netherlands and the other leading pigeon racing countries in our portfolio. I think it proves that our philosophy does catch on.

We reckon you have gone a long way in terms of pigeon fanciers and pigeons?

Nikolaas: We woulc focus mainly on Belgium and The Netherlands initially. We have worked together with most of the Dutch and Belgian fanciers that we were interested in collaborating with in the first place. Although we always keep an eye on promising newcomers obviously. And requests from fanciers from abroad started to come in along the way. Renowned fanciers from Poland, Germany, France, the USA, etc. have contacted us to sell their pigeons on PIPA. Many of them have dreamt of having their own PIPA auction one day, and we are humbled to hear that. One of our most recent supplier to establish a long-term collaboration with us is Mike Ganus. He is the number one worldwide in One Loft Racing, and we have an exclusivity agreement, which means we organise all of his online auctions and all pigeon sales in Europe.

Thomas: When we introduced our quality tests we saw a further increase in the level of quality of our pigeons. In fact, it happens often that a fancier says prior to the auction: "Just pick the pigeons that get a score of 9 out of 10; I will take the others back home." In other words, PIPA can pick the best and most appealing birds. It shows that fanciers have great confidence in our approach, and that is particularly important to us. It also results in potential buyers getting better pigeons as well, which in turn leads to satisfied customers.

And let's not forget that there is a lot of work involved in organising an auction on PIPA. We start preparations for an auction almost a year in advance! It is an intensive process, and it includes making specific pairings in consultation with the seller, breeding the pigeons, letting these birds develop and selecting the best ones, etc.

A DNA test is also mandatory for everyone who wants to auction on PIPA; we best both on parenthood and sex. This is also of great importance to us. For every 30 pigeons offered for sale, we usually come across one or two errors, which are usually the result of an administrative mistake of the fancier. Our DNA profiling eliminates such errors, and it provides certainty over the pigeon's sex and origins.

You breed your own pigeons at PIPA? How does that work?

Nikolaas: Correct. We focus mainly on pigeon trade, and our in-house breeding loft is more of a hobby project. Be that as it may, we are part of a fourth generation of pigeon fanciers, and there is no going around that. All three of us have our own breeding project.

One of them is the breeding loft of father Carlo Gyselbrecht, which is built around 'Lauraat Barcelona', the winner of an international first prize in Barcelona 1995. All pigeons are bred solely by Carlo, and his pigeons are put to the test in satellite lofts.

And then we have the PIPA Elite Center or PEC, founded in 2008. This breed was based around 'New Freddy', and today the team is centered around the lines of his great-grandson 'Porsche 911', one of the best pigeons ever to have flown in Belgium. We focus mainly on races of 400 to 800km, as well as on one loft races. And we use the same approach, racing the youngsters in a number of satellite lofts.

The third project focuses around the line of 'Best Kittel', with a pigeon breed that is all about speed. This is mainly Thomas's project.

And we also invest in top class pigeons together with other fanciers. For instance, we obtained several racing birds for Barcelona together with Batenburg-van de Merwe, and we purchased racing hen 'Nadine' together with Kaier and Bart Geerinckx. And we also invested in Samuel Mbiza's Golden Prince, to reinforce our own PEC. It happens regularly that a fancier suggests to co-invest in a renowned bird, and we agree if we really believe in that pigeon. In addition, it sometimes allows us to keep a world class pigeon in Belgian hands, instead of it being transferred to a loft in Asia or the Mid-East.

If you stand still you fall behind. How do you continue to innovate and make progress?

Nikolaas: our biggest challenge would be to turn down a variety of opportunities. Every single week we get a variety of proposals or opportunities: creating a webshop for pigeon products, running a one loft race, and even an involvement in pigeon loft construction. However, we prefer to focus on getting better at what we do: running the world's most exclusive auction house, and to maintain that status.

And that is why we continue to invest in the future, for instance in IT. Over the past several years we have spent about as much as 3 million euro in IT development! This is quite a big number indeed, and it goes to show that short-term profit is in no way a prority to us. We would rather reinvest our profits back into our company,  to get better and stronger. We employ three fullltime programmers, because we want to support our sellers and buyers as best as we can. The number of employees has remained the same for the past few years and yet profits have increased significantly, in part thanks to our IT investments. One of our most recent additions in our auction platform has been our filter, a tool that allows for specific searches within a pigeon auction. And we are planning to introduce several more innovations for our website in the next few years.

The Gaby Vandenabeele total auction was hosted a while ago, and it was a major success. How did you experience the event?

Thomas: First of all, we felt really honoured to be hosting this auction. Gaby is a very loyal person; he contacted us immediately after he decided to sell his entire pigeon family. The idea of not selling his pigeons through PIPA had not even crossed his mind. We have to admit that such level of commitment and trust towards PIPA motivated us even more to turn this auction into a major success.

How do you think pigeon racing and PIPA will continue to evolve?

Nikolaas: As a company, PIPA is fortunate to be located in Belgium, since you can find some of the world's best racing pigeons in this country and in the neighbouring countries. The decreasing number of players does not really affect us that much, although we do feel worried! We hope the national federations in Belgium and across the border can turn things around, and PIPA is willing to provide advice in order to make this happen. We think the pigeon racing federations play a crucial role in this, because their policy determines the face of our sport towards the fanciers. One bad decision can have a big impact on the players, on our clients and eventually on PIPA as well.

I do believe that we all have to aim for the same goal; both the federations and the fanciers have to be looking in the same direction. And maintaining a steady number of players is one of our major challenges now.