Southern Thunder H-D starts anew under Parsons’ ownership
“Motorcycles have that edge to them; they add excitement to your life, and that’s the type of thing people want to share. When you sell a motorcycle, the customer becomes part of a community, and then they start interacting within that community.”
That’s how Bob Parsons, founder and CEO of Harley-Davidson of Scottsdale and Go AZ Motorcycles, described the most rewarding aspect of owning a motorcycle dealership. Best known for founding GoDaddy.com, Parsons and his organization YAM Worldwide finalized acquisition of Southern Thunder Harley-Davidson (STHD) last November and immediately set out to change the philosophy, appearance and overall operations of the Southaven, Miss.-based dealership, while also reaching out to surrounding communities in a huge way.
The dealership’s Grand Re-Opening Party on June 7, which was free to anyone with a motorcycle endorsement, was part of that “reaching out” process. Parsons and crew delivered a full day dedicated to the community, motorcyclists and the Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi. Non-motorcycle-endorsed attendees were admitted to the all-day celebration for a $20 donation, which, along with all monies raised from T-shirt sales, went to the youth organization. There were raffles and live music all afternoon, with headlining performances by Black Oak Arkansas and Molly Hatchet, a handful of vendors, and plenty of libations to keep attendees hydrated in the smothering Southern humidity.
Parsons’ introduction to customers and attendees was made in the dealership’s showroom after a severe storm interrupted his scheduled appearance on the main stage. The U.S. Marines veteran took advantage of the intimate and impromptu setting by kicking things off with Madison Rising’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” followed by a patriotic salute to all military personnel and veterans. The highlight of the event was the announcement of an additional $100,000 donation to the Boys & Girls Club of North Mississippi on behalf of the Bob and Renee Parsons Foundation, followed by Parsons revealing plans to underwrite renovations on three of their locations that annually serve more than 2,000 children.
“The most important thing to us is the community and helping to make it a better place,” said Parsons. “The prior owner was open to selling, but ultimately wanted to make sure the employees and community were going to be served the way she intended. The thing that really interested us is that Southaven is growing and is a pretty good place to be, and we always wanted to see what it’s like to reach out and be involved in another community.”
There’s no doubt that Parsons’ philosophy revolves around giving the customer the best experience possible, whether buying a new bike, adding performance upgrades or simply buying a T-shirt. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life,” said Parsons. “Number one is you dazzle the customer and give them something they don’t expect. The rest takes care of itself.”
General manager Jason Severson started working for Parsons in April 2012 at H-D of Scottsdale before transferring to STHD in February of this year. According to Severson, Parsons has always made a point to empower his employees and equip them with the necessary tools to provide superior customer service.
“We have every avenue — from Grant Cardone to Powersports Marketing, Dealership University, H-D U, Sam’s Powersports Garage. All of those are affluent trainers and have been at the disposal of our employees,” explained Severson. “Before an employee hits the floor, they understand the core of what we’re trying to do here. I think that a lot of dealerships don’t do enough training in customer service. That’s really the core of the business, and if you do that right they’ll keep coming back.”
Service dept. upgrade
The most notable physical upgrade to STHD is the complete overhaul of the service department, which was also one of the first moves Parsons made when he purchased H-D of Scottsdale in 2008. The STHD transformation includes new computers and overhead doors, revamped lighting, stress-reducing fatigue matting, new toolboxes and two lifts per service technician, as well as new service counters that bring employees up to eye level with the customer for, as Severson put it, “a more personal experience.”
According to Severson, the service department was the most underperforming piece of the dealership, yet it is already seeing considerable increases in efficiency and profitability since the renovation. “We’re hoping to see growth across the board,” said Severson. “Once you increase production in the sales department, the rest follows, and you get increases in all departments.”
“One of the biggest changes they’ve made in our service department is just paying attention to our employees’ needs as far as support, tooling and education to further their skills,” said Steve Blake, STHD service manager. “That’s definitely one of the biggest changes and biggest surprises for the guys in the service department who aren’t used to having that kind of support. And to have it coming from the top is absolutely incredible.”
Blake also said that while they offer technicians the education and training to further their skills and be efficient, the bottom line is that it’s also for the customer. Parsons goes against industry standards of staffing technicians based on demand, and instead keeps his service department overstaffed at all times in order to provide same-day service for customers. Also going against the grain is Parsons’ decision to pay technicians during their downtime.
“The industry standard is that when techs don’t have work, they don’t get paid,” Parsons said. “With us, we pay downtime. When someone is earning downtime, they’re studying their Harley guides and getting better at what they do.”
Parsons admits that his passion for motorcycling can only take his dealerships so far, which is why his ability to find and empower the right people to surround himself with is all part of the success story that propelled the turnaround of H-D of Scottsdale (formerly Hacienda Harley-Davidson) and earned Go AZ Motorcycles the title of Powersports Business’ No. 1 Dealership in North America in 2013.
“It’s the customer service, the presentation, the sales training and the facilities. It’s a total package. That’s what we’re aiming to accomplish at Southern Thunder.”
STHD has already implemented a number of changes to align with Parsons’ philosophy of giving the customer the ultimate buying experience. From the full staff introduction and “Gong Ceremony” that stops the dealership in its tracks to congratulate a new Harley owner after purchase, to the plush couches and free popcorn and coffee in the lounge, it’s all about the customer at STHD. Further cosmetic upgrades have been made to better present the product, and a state-of-the-art audio/video system has also been incorporated into the beautiful LEED-certified building that features reclaimed materials from across the U.S.
“You must have an affection to the product,” said Parsons. “With the affection for the product comes affection for the customer.”
John Galvin is managing editor of Thunder Press, a Powersports Business sister publication that covers the American V-twin market.