By Karin Gelschus
Wildcat Harley-Davidson in London, Ky., set itself apart from hundreds of other Harley-Davidson dealers by being the first and only new U.S. Harley start-up dealership in the United States this year.
Dealer Principal Scott Maddux says his store was the last dealership allowed to be a new target point in 2007 before Harley-Davidson implemented a freeze.
“Really since 2007 this is the first target that Harley has done,” he said. “There have been some new stores, but they’ve been relocations and things like that.”
How long that new store freeze will be in effect is unknown as Harley-Davidson did not comment on this issue despite repeated attempts by Powersports Business.
During the new dealership’s development, obtaining financing turned out to be a huge stumbling block, Maddux says. But because of its other location in Maryville, Tenn., and other factors, the new store had a successful opening and floor traffic and sales have been high.
“We’ve only been open a month,” Maddux noted of the 35,000-square-foot dealership, “but we’ve exceeded our expectations in every category of our business.”
Plenty of challenges
Opening a dealership comes with many challenges even without the additional issues that accompany a troubled economy. Maddux says they had their share of hurdles to overcome in the past two years, including getting financing for the overall project.
“Obtaining financing in today’s market is incredibly challenging,” Maddux said. “That was the most surprising thing that I experienced. We were fortunate to have built excellent cash reserves over the years. We were able to self-finance a good portion of the project until we were able to obtain our permanent financing. Had we not been in a position like that, it could have been the death of us because there was no way to obtain financing.”
A main reason attaining financing for the project had been so difficult was because the housing and commercial markets were in the midst of crumbling when the dealership was being planned and built.
“The banking industry just absolutely froze,” he said. “Every time you turned on the television, you’d watch something on the stimulus package getting businesses going. I have to tell you, I saw no signs of the stimulus packages affecting small- or medium-sized businesses. On the small business level, it was unbelievable of how difficult it was.
“We were in the midst of having our best year at Smokey Mountain Harley-Davidson (their Tennessee store),” he continued, “and even with that, I was finding it incredibly difficult to put together adequate financing when there was absolutely no reason for it.”
Preventing opening issues
With the help of Smokey Mountain Harley-Davidson, Wildcat was able to prevent a lot of issues that often accompany other new dealerships and their own previous issues. Maddux says they used the established dealership as a training ground. “We really hit the ground with more structured operation, much more than when we started (the Tennessee store) in 2004.
“Having those kind of standards to use for the baseline for this store has been an advantage,” he added. “When we opened Smokey Mountain in 2004, we knew nothing about anything. I had no experience in the motorcycle industry as far as a retailer. Being a rider, that’s where it ended.”
There’s no shortage of experience at the new Wildcat store, especially with the help from Smokey Mountain Harley-Davidson.
Some of the most experienced staff members from the other dealership help out at Wildcat to help minimize issues until the store gets more established.
“Their experience was very helpful in ensuring to deliver that customer service we’re known for, and that’s the most important thing to us,” Maddux said. “We strive to be the very best Harley-Davidson dealership in the world. You can’t do that without delivering exceptional customer service. We are real fortunate to have the depth in our organization, very skilled individuals to help us.
“Like this weekend with our grand opening, we’ll send up probably 10 experienced staff members from our other stores because we expect to have a very high traffic flow. We have a good, solid team of experience around us.”
Along with bringing in extra staff to prevent and solve problems that arise, Wildcat Harley-Davidson hosted a soft opening June 1 before its grand opening July 11.
“When I opened Maryville in September 2004, we had hoped to open soft to be able to discover what wasn’t working right,” Maddux explained, adding because the opening was delayed from May, they did a grand opening without a soft opening. “We were selling motorcycles right and left with very little process involved, and it ran us ragged. It was like fighting a 15-round prizefight. By having our grand opening, it would have given us the chance to gain a little more experience prior to having that crowd of potentially 1,500 people. We didn’t really get that (with Smokey Mountain).”
The soft opening of Wildcat went considerably well, says Maddux.
“When we cut the chains to open the doors, there were hundreds of people in the parking lot,” he said. “I felt like I shook hands for two hours with people coming in the store.
“I’m not worried about the success of the business up there because of the way we operate and do our business. We’re very customer centric in the sense we’re very focused on the relationships with our customers. That has a tendency to build loyalty with our customer base. I want to do that with Wildcat as we have done with Smokey Mountain.”
Smokey Mountain’s reputation created a lot of positive anticipation for the Wildcat store.
“(Customers) knew the connection between the Smokey Mountain store and Wildcat. We’ve been working on this project for close to two years, so a lot of people have had a lot of time to think about buying a new motorcycle or upgrading their motorcycle. There was a lot of demand in that market.”
Wildcat Harley-Davidson has the largest showroom (about 17,500 square feet) in Kentucky and plans to stock 85-100 motorcycles at any given time. Complimenting the new showroom are some of the most modern displays in the industry.
Maddux says throughout the constructing process, they worked closely with a design firm in California and Harley-Davidson to create the retail fixtures.
“When you see it, you’ll instantly notice the fixtures being different, the general merchandise, the parts and accessories,” he said. “I’ve been to Harley-Davidson dealerships across the country. I can tell you I don’t think I’ve seen one that’s any more efficiently designed than what we have here.”
One particular area that’s different is the general merchandise clothing section. In many Harley stores, Maddux says it can be difficult to distinguish between men’s, women’s and children’s because they all have the same displays.
“With the new fixtures we’re working with and designing now, they are specific fixtures,” he noted, “so they’re different in various departments rather than adaptations to the same fixture we currently have. It’s really just elevating the aesthetics and elevating the shop experience for customers.”
The customer experience is what the dealership built its whole design around.
“We haven’t built any fu-fu monuments to ourselves,” Maddux said. “It’s all designed around delivering excellent customer experience. From the moment the customer walks in the store, they’re going to realize they’re in one of the country’s premier dealerships.”
While the facility’s aesthetics are an important part of the dealership’s success, Maddux says it’s really the staff that makes or breaks the store’s success.
“It always boils down to the people,” he said. “One of the great things about Harley-Davidson is its employees are enthusiasts. We really strive to have our employees enthusiastic, not just about the Harley brand but the Smokey Mountain or Wildcat brand as well. When you get that, you have a different caliber of staff.”
Wildcat’s staff, which consists of about
40 employees, is all enthusiasts. Maddux says that’s a requirement.
“We have a staff that does care, and our customers know that,” he continued. “We don’t have a place in our organization for someone who’s not passionate about motorcycling or someone who’s not dedicated toward making this team, the team they’re a part of, the very best.”