Business Model Grows Despite Tough Times





Milwaukee, Wis. (PRESS RELEASE – July 4, 2009) – Success stories in the auto industry are hard to come by these days, especially if you’re an American manufacturer. However, Milwaukee Harley-Davidson (MHD), a progressive dealer in the hometown of Harley-Davidson, is proving that to win in today’s economy it pays to be a bit of a rebel.

As the dealer known for throwing some of the biggest parties throughout the year, MHD has not only weathered the economic storm, it pummeled it-to the tune of a 30 percent sales increase in the first quarter of the year. The company’s secret: reestablish the Harley lifestyle.

MHD’s seemingly simple business strategy comes courtesy of owner Chaz Hastings, who is serving it up in a way no other dealer in the country has done before-transforming his dealership into a lifestyle destination that offers the camaraderie and freedom Harley riders seek while extending the experience beyond the parking lot.

Over the past few years Hastings has purchased three historic bars that when strung together make for a scenic-not to mention entertaining-ride from the dealership to Holy Hill, one of the most popular routes in the Midwest.

“We’re changing the way riders interact with our dealership,” said Hastings. “The Harley lifestyle is about the ride and what you encounter along the way. That’s what we’re doing-creating an experience that starts at our dealership and builds from there.”

Each of Hastings’ three bars offers an element of intrigue while embodying the true Harley spirit. Madam Belles Silver Dollar Saloon, the century-old former brothel in Richfield, Wis., boasts “old time décor” and has returned to its original biker bar status that made it a popular stop in the 70’s. Tally Ho, an 1870’s Irish tavern in Erin, Wis., has its own story. Legend has it that Emily, a former farm hand, was buried in the basement-making it one of the most intriguing and eerie watering holes around. And Bottom’s Up, a saloon with plank floors and good music, is a short trip from Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, making it a welcoming first stop on the ride.

According to Hastings, the addition of the bars allows the company to create events that make the ‘the ride’ an essential element to the MHD experience. And since MHD’s events bring in just as many non-riders as they do riders, MHD is letting its events do the selling.

“The market is what it is, but it doesn’t mean people don’t want to get out and ride. In fact, there’s never been a better time to ride,” said Hastings. “We just want to be the dealership that lets riders live out the authentic Harley lifestyle they signed up for.”

The authentic experience MHD is after has been slowly building. When Harley-Davidson became a primary sponsor of the UFC last year, Hastings had already taken the concept of connecting the aggressive sport with the Harley brand one step further. He reached out to Gladiator Cage Fighting, a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoter, and asked them to bring their fights to his dealership. The company has now held six events with maxed out attendance at each one. MHD is having success with other non-traditional events, as well, such as Wisconsin’s annual Chili Cook-off finals, which brings thousands of people from throughout the state there to compete, and the Competitive Eating Championships. Both events have brought in new customers to the dealership, and more unusual events are in the works for this summer.

By reinventing itself, MHD is inventing ways to stay profitable in a down economy. The company reports it is doing more in sales this year than it did five years ago-when the economy was in much better shape.

“We’re progressive, but in a way that’s authentic Harley,” said Hastings. “We’re the place you go to let loose, to get away from the monotony of life. And you won’t find any pancake breakfasts here. The events we pull off are wild, but not in a way that’s out of hand. Our mission is to deliver an authentic Harley experience every time you visit us.”

While events are nothing new to the Harley dealer recipe, MHD is doing what the company feels many dealers have walked away from over the years-stay true to the edgy, rebellious ways that made the Harley brand what it is today. During the 105th anniversary, the dealership’s aggressiveness made them “party central,” landing performances by Kid Rock and Scarlet Haze. The festivities weren’t limited to music, either. MHD staged the world’s largest beer bong event and is awaiting Guinness World Record authentication. It’s events like this that have given MHD national recognition while giving its customers reason to come back.

For MHD, remaining competitive represents more than just fun and games. When the market changed back in 2005, Hastings acted swiftly. Although not an easy decision, he cut his staff from 48 to 22, brought in a new enthusiastic and passionate sales team and changed his sales process.

Instead of relying on old techniques that weren’t producing the kind of sales he wanted, Hastings scrapped the old training manual and committed to doing something bold to get his staff excited about selling bikes. That something turned out to be renting a NASCAR track in Las Vegas and flying his team out to test ride every one of his bikes and the competitors’.

“Our closing rate improved 40 percent almost overnight,” he said. “That’s a testament to the team’s dedication and determination.”

That determination is something MHD is pouring into its customer service, as well. Hastings moved the sales offices from the back of the store to the front, turning his sales people into greeters. He also piloted new customer information software for Harley-Davidson that the sales team now uses to engage customers, providing daily information and insight into everything from where a customer is in the sales process and when they need required maintenance to when their birthday is and where they’re taking their bike this summer.

According to Hastings, MHD has one of the highest rates of customer retention in the industry. He chalks that up to a combination of great customer service and personal touches, including true-to-Harley-form customer appreciation activities. Hastings, or someone on the management team, personally meets every new bike owner and throws them a party. They and their guest are treated to dinner and drinks with Hastings and his sales associates at Madam Belles. “Getting a new motorcycle is a reason to celebrate and who better to do that for them than their dealer,” said Hastings.

Reinventing the dealer concept also means breaking the traditional customer mold. And for that, MHD has personally reached out to African-American riding groups, who now represent MHD’s fastest growing segment, according to Hastings. The company currently has three employees and hundreds of customers who are African-American, many of whom are personal friends of the dealership.

Milwaukee Harley-Davidson’s 36,000-square-foot facility features more than 200 bikes as well as general merchandise, parts & accessories, service department and sales and finance. The company is one of the most active dealers in the country, bringing in more than 10,000 people to its dealership through events and general sales every year. For more information, visit milwaukeeharley.com.

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Anita Campbell


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

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