Diversification has allowed Klock Werks Kustom Cycles to continue a growth pattern that began, of all times, during 2008. Company founder Brian Klock saw the brand’s first Flare windshields for the Harley-Davidson Road Glide get picked up for distribution by Drag Specialties in 2006, and business was booming. But if anyone knows how business can turn on dime, it’s Klock. In 2012, his company almost got bought out, but he decided while nearly at the altar to decline the offer.
“They were going to let some of my people go and break up this team we have here, and I wasn’t going to let them do that,” said Klock, whose Mitchell, S.D.-based operations hired two additional employees over the past year to grow its staff to 15.
Alas, within months of that deal going sour, Klock’s local bank also told him it was done as a financier. “I went in there with my accountant, and I thought we were going to consolidate these loans and talk about this, and I just got fired. That hurt like crazy until six months later when I found they fired people I knew who were doctors and lawyers, with crazy big money,” he said.
Up until then, Klock had prided himself on being the “idea guy” at his company, with No. 2 employee and now part-owner/COO Dan Cheeseman excelling on the financial side of the business.
“I went back into the bank, and they said ‘Here are the caveats we’re going to put on you.’ I’m a great designer, and I know I can do a lot of things, but what I suck at is money. Cheeseman is great at it. I’m not great at it. So when I say if it weren’t for the 15 people here with this company that got us to where we are today, that it would be over, that’s the truth.”
Over the years, Klock’s business acumen has taken on a new life. In fact, when he was working the V-Twin Expo in Cincinnati earlier this year, Klock saw industry veteran Terry Vance nearly trip over himself when Klock kept firing some high-level industry economics-type questions his way.
“Terry told me two or three years ago that I needed to step into the next level, and I’ve been working at it, so yeah, that meant a lot coming from Terry,” Klock said.
The Klock family’s drive for speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats continues, as does a passion for custom bike builds. Brian and wife Laura continue to make lives better with support of the Helping with Horsepower program for students, and daughters Erika, 24, and Karlee, 21, also are making names for themselves in their own ventures; Karlee as a bike builder and Erika as a business owner. Laura will shoot for more land-speed records this year at Bonneville. Klock Werks’ 2015 catalog, with aftermarket parts for Harley-Davidson, Honda, Kawasaki, Victory and Indian motorcycles, is its largest yet. Among the highlights is the Flare Windshield for the new 2015 Harley-Davidson Road Glide.
As one industry executive recently told Klock: “You know what I love about your brand? You guys bat a lot bigger than you are. Your brand swings a lot harder than you think in this whole industry, and for a group of 15 people, you’re really affecting the way people do things.”
What is the biggest opportunity for the industry, and how can the industry take advantage of it?
The biggest opportunity in the industry needs to be initiated by OEMs. When you look at SEMA, GM and Ford and Cadillac and Subaru and Toyota, they all go there and have measurement sessions before they release a new vehicle. As soon as their new vehicles come out, there are all these ancillary products that go with it. Not that your engineers aren’t great or not that you don’t deserve to make money on the accessories for your product, but the more you can embrace the aftermarket, the stronger your entire industry becomes. Look at like when they came out with the new Camaro or the new Mustang or the revival of the Challenger, and how many parts came out for those. Everyone said there would never be another 357 Chevy. Now they have events like LS Fest. Where did that come from? Who would have thought everybody would be transplanting fuel injection motors with all these crazy wiring harnesses and ECUs. The more that we become user friendly with each other, the better we’re going to be. We need to lock shields for the industry, not lock shields against each other.
What has been the biggest challenge in your current position, and how have you dealt with it?
The biggest challenge for me is money. It’s hard to raise capital, especially out here in ag world. If you said, “I’ve got 100 cattle and X amount of acres,” the banker would say, “OK, we’ll give you this amount of money.” You go try to borrow money to make parts for motorcycles, and they’re going to laugh their ass off at you because that’s not something they know about, and it’s not something they’re interested in. So if I wasn’t able to forge strong relationships, I would not have been able to do it — that means guys like Fred Fox (chairman and director of LeMans Corp., the parent company of Parts Unlimited/Drag Specialties), good advice from people like Terry Vance (the ultra-successful drag racer of Vance & Hines fame). And I only got to those relationships because someone would say: We’re going to make this exhaust pipe, and we’d like you to fit it and bring that bike to Cincinnati. I’d do it on my own time and own expense. I would go the extra mile because I had gone the extra mile for so many of these guys for 10-15 years that when we jumped into making parts, and Laura convinced me to go for it, I had no idea how many people believed us just because of who we were. And that really opened up a lot of doors.
I’m very much a visionary. People would say: I understand you build custom bikes, but where do you hope to go with it? And I would say I hope to be the next Donnie Smith or the next Arlen Ness. Why? Because those are the two guys who would stop and autograph something for a kid no matter how busy they were, no matter what plane they were trying to get on, no matter where their friends all wanted to get riding to — they would take the time to say, “I’d love to take a picture with you or sign an autograph for you.” To me that was what a great example is. So, “Do you see yourself as a great example, or should you see yourself as a great example?” is a question I would pose to a lot of kids.
What is the best advice you can give others in the industry?
Find a wife like mine! It wasn’t until 2006, and Laura says, “Why aren’t you making parts? You have all of these great ideas!” I said “I can’t afford to,” and she said “You can’t afford not to.” We went after fenders, which was the biggest tooling expense and was the hardest to make. She said, “If that’s what makes you pump your fist, then you have to go after it.” Wow, thank God we stuck with it and thank God she stuck with me. Otherwise I never would have made it, I guarantee you that.
I’m interested in learning more about how you got your parts venture off the ground, the lack of interest from the local banks notwithstanding? How would you describe that initial foray into the business side of things?
It was horrible. I had raised all the capital that I thought I needed, and I get to the bank and they tell me that I need $100,000 more. I was trying to make the parts and sell them to Fred Fox, so I leaned on Fred. Fred made one phone call. He didn’t give me the money; he just gave me the PO and said, “If you can make it, I can sell it.” Well, that’s almost like loving you to a fault because now you have to make this stuff that you can’t get the money for. But it allowed the bank to finally believe in me with Fred’s call that “Hey, there will be a purchase order on that kid’s desk, and I’m going to handle this.”
What were some of the steps forward for Klock Werks over the past year?
We have made some big hires — Sara Liberte with photography and video, and Kevin Dunworth from Loaded Gun Customs. To bring on a guy like Kevin, that certainly sends a message to the industry that you’re hiring knowledgeable people, and that you’re serious about passion. I want the people that really, really love motorcycles and really, really love this industry and being part of this whole carnival. That’s key to me, and that’s what’s kept us here. If you would have told me, “Hey, you know what Brian? You’re going to be the air management guy!” I would have said “OK, you know what? I’m out.” I would have said I’m not interested. And yet our passion for racing certainly drove us, and once we glammed onto it, it was like, man, we can make this bike safer for everybody who owns one. Wouldn’t that be cool? And that really drove us. It just kept fueling and fueling.
One of our first race shirts, it was 2007, the year after we designed the windshield, it said “Klock Werks: Where Passion and Fuel Mix.” I still think that’s one of my favorite mottos. It says it doesn’t really matter what brand of bike — if it’s a motorcycle, and you can burn fuel with it; whatever it is, we’re interested.
So part of what we’ve done in the past year is the diversity, coming out with the Gold Wing windshield was huge. Those guys normally rode for what for lack of a better term was a 4-foot-tall greenhouse kind of windshield. Now they can have better handling, when most people say you can’t make a Gold Wing handle better, yet to make a Gold Wing handle better and give them the protection they need and protect the passenger from some of the reversion that they’re feeling, it’s like “Wow! I didn’t know we had it in us.” That’s exciting stuff.
And the Flare Windshield for the 2015 Road Glide came to market awfully quick, right?
When the 2015 Road Glide came out, we had our new part done, manufactured and shown in Daytona 30 days after getting the bike. There are only 15 people here. We’re very small, but we’re very close. We’ve had a lot of horrible things happen to us, and we’ve had a lot of incredible things happen to us. At the end of the day, you may have conflict, and you may fight, but you have to break bread together. So it’s like your brother or sister, you may not like them, and it may not be the perfect situation, but they’re still your brother or sister. That’s how we treat everyone here, and that’s how they treat this brand. We brought that 2015 Road Glide in, and before we did anything, everyone rode it, and no one was to give their opinions to everyone else. We stood in a circle and shared our thoughts on this motorcycle, from the guys who are 5-foot-6 to the guys who are 6-foot-6.
I understand that your group of 15 on the team there doesn’t have a choice but to get along well.
We meet every morning and stand in a circle and talk about whatever we’re going to do that day. Then we pray and go on about our day. While that may seem odd to most, it certainly has made us a tighter group than a lot of businesses. One day, maybe it’s Tuesday, so we’re going to a DISC assessment, which is basically a personality assessment. Wednesday you have to look back on the last week and tell me where you saw a blessing in the past week. It’s that simple. Thursday is Complimentary Thursday. Whoever is ready goes first, and they decide if we go across the room, or if it’s popcorn, or to the right or to the left. So you have to compliment the person next to you, or across from you, or whichever way we’re going. And you may not want to do that, because maybe you two had a conflict, but at the end of the day, how are you going to work through that and do you have something good that you can say about this person in the past seven days? That’s where I want you to look — the positive. Not the negative, because that’s part of the problem with the world.
We’re hoping for better weather at the AMA Bonneville Motorcycle Speed Trials later this year. What plans do you have in store?
Yes, we’ll be going back with Triumph. We did an independent suspension trike kit on the Rocket III trike with Motor Trike and our goal is 150 (mph). Eventually we want to be a trike that goes 150. And the girls are running a 675R Daytona, which we V-stroked to 650 and put a turbo on. We’re going to try to be the first mother-daughter-daughter over 200 in the 650 class.
And now that you’re such a business-savvy owner, I have to ask you how business has been over the past year.
The sales have been awesome. The last six months of 2014 were phenomenal. Drag Specialties continues to be a great partner for us. They’ve pushed harder, and we’ve pushed harder. It’s like anything, it boils down to the relationship because at the end of the day, people buy from people, whether it’s from vendor to distributor or retailer to end user. Your dealers are going to buy it from you, and your distributor is going to buy it from you, and when the end user sees you at Sturgis or Daytona, they want to talk to you and learn about your family; they want to know who you are. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had so many people here who are long-term employees. Certainly you can say I’m one of the leaders, but at the end of the day you can’t win the Super Bowl without a good team. As a quarterback I can call a play, but as a team, if we’re not finishing it, then it’s worthless. These guys do a great job. It’s not about Brian Klock; it’s about Klock Werks, the team.
How much has product lineup grown recently? I know you had your largest catalog ever for 2015.
When Drag Specialties picked us up in 2006, we had 36 parts. And now we’re north of 500 different sku numbers. A group of us get together for creative meetings, and we try to tackle it. If Vance and Hines and SuperTrapp are making cool pipes for this, that and the next thing, why would I want to do that? It makes no sense. If there’s a niche that needs to be filled and we see an area where we feel like it could be better, we’ll go after that. When we got into the fender business, there were a couple of guys who said, “There’s no room for you; get out; we don’t need you.” Now we’re the No. 1 selling fender in the whole Drag Specialties lineup. That’s just because I’m bullheaded, I guess. I want something that’s steel and works; I’m not much of a fiberglass overlay kind of guy like all those bagger fenders that are out there now. They crack, and they’re hard to finish and don’t fit right. If I can stamp out a steel fender in Michigan, get it coated in St. Paul, Minn., and bring it home here and ship it out to the world, that’s crazy. That’s pretty badass.