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Owner of 93-year-old dealership invests in employee family

Pamela Dengler started answering the phone for Sill’s Motor Sales at just eight years old. And this wasn’t the only task she could tackle at the dealership. She would often put parts away and assemble headlights, taillights and turn signals on Honda motorcycles to help the service department. Today, she is the fourth generation of ownership of the 93−year-old outdoor power equipment and motorcycle dealership.

Herman Sill originally opened the dealership after gaining a reputation for his mechanical skills in 1930. Sill’s Motor Sales operated out of downtown Cleveland, Ohio, until Sill relocated in 1950. “He was very intelligent,” Dengler says. To decide where to build his new shop, he located the center of the county on a map and determined he would buy a lot within a mile radius of that point.

“Now, the center of the county is the interchange of interstate 77 and 480, both of which did not exist in the ’50s,” Dengler says. “Route 176 cuts through Cleveland and opened about 11 years ago, so over the years our location has gotten better and better and it was due to his foresight.”

Herman Sill originally opened the dealership after gaining a reputation for his mechanical skills in 1930. Sill’s Motor Sales operated out of downtown Cleveland, Ohio, until Sill relocated in 1950. Photo courtesy of Sill’s Motor Sales

Dengler’s dad, Daniel Glow began working for Sill in 1954 when the dealership carried its first brand, Indian Motorcycle. After Sill passed away in 1969, his son, Ray Sill and Glow became business partners until around 1980. When Ray Sill retired, Glow partnered with Jake Brookover, a technician at the dealership. Dengler began working at the dealership after graduating in 1978.

“I thought this would be temporary, but I was curious about selling the product and selling motorcycles,” she says. “My dad started teaching me the ins and outs of how to sell.” She remembers the first bike she sold, a 1980 Honda CB750 Custom and the customer’s name. After making her first sale, she became excited about working in the business, with the customers and taking on the challenges of both.

When she began full-time at the dealership, she explains that women were not prevalent in the industry. She enjoyed this challenge as well. Her father had taught her that she had to work harder as a woman to gain the same respect and credibility as men.

“I have that personality. Give me that challenge,” she says. “My dad made it extra hard because he didn’t want anybody to think I was getting an easy ride. I look back and really appreciate that because it made me work really hard. So, I started to get good at sales and one thing led to another. In 1991, I bought into the dealership. In ‘97, the other partner wanted to retire, so I bought his shares and became the president of the company.”

Sill’s Motor Sales

Today, Sill’s consists of two buildings that sit on 25,000 square feet of property and the dealership carries Honda Motorcycles, Honda Power Equipment, STIHL and BMW Motorcycles. The main building is 5,800 square feet and houses the showroom and parts department. The second building is 2,900 square feet and houses the service department for both power equipment and motorcycles.

The dealership is open Wednesday through Saturday and on Monday. Dengler finalized this work week about 10 years ago after determining that the dealership is busiest on Mondays because other dealerships are closed.

“Especially for OPE,” she says. “Monday mornings they’re lined up at the door getting what they need for operations for the week. Tuesdays are slow because people are going to work. Wednesday picks up as things need maintenance throughout week.”

During April through October, Dengler and the dealership’s technicians work from 9 a.m.- 2 p.m. on Tuesdays. She buys them breakfast and they work uninterrupted, closed to the public. She dedicates these days to connecting with reps and completing paperwork.

“In the spring and summer, getting out at two, you still have a lot of day left,” she says. “I think my techs will agree that we can be more efficient with the five days to the public and half day in here, versus six full days.”

Employee retention

Dengler’s choice of hours of operations reflects the value she places on employee satisfaction. She strives to invest in the personal lives of her employees, who she describes as family.

“My guys, they are not just working with each other, they get together after work and without me. It’s personal relationships and friendships – I think that’s very important. The money is important, but it’s enjoying coming to work and not just punching in. That’s not who we are.”

Many of her employees were previous customers, so she feels that she knows them as more than just an employee and supports them in their personal lives. “It’s all about supporting where they are at any given time in their life. You just listen to what your employees are doing in their lives at the moment and sometimes do something meaningful for them. It pays back tenfold.”

While she has a solid crew, she could use more qualified technicians. “We are seasonal here and a challenge is finding the right people but also understanding your seasonality and making sure you keep people employed. I’ve never laid anyone off. You must walk that fine balance. Expanding the service department in a correct manner is always important.”

She could use another employee in the sales department, too. She explains that she never stops looking for qualified employees, so she is never critically understaffed. When she finds a person who fits, if necessary, she makes a position for them so they can grow within the dealership.

Many of her technicians have come from a local vocational school, a joint facility for nine school districts in the surrounding area. She has supported the school throughout the years as a proactive step to promote her dealership and potentially gain technicians.

“I’ve gotten the school tools and parts from Honda, I have gone to speak about careers and their students have come in to spend half a day with Zak Porter (Sill’s top level certified BMW technician). We get involved. Yes, it means some time, but it’s time well spent.”

Small business owner

Along with finding gratification in supporting the local vocational school, Dengler also enjoys serving repeat customers. “It’s really gratifying to sell repeat product. I sold people equipment back in the ’80s and now they’re buying equipment for their kids and grandkids. They always come back here because they like to see familiar people that they know will treat them well. That’s the gratification part,” she says.

With gratification comes sacrifice. As a small business owner, she has worked many hours and gained some gray hair, but she explains embracing the challenge is fun.

“Anybody who’s in this for a period of time will say ‘I could go do something else and make more money with less effort.’ You could go elsewhere to clock in and collect a paycheck, but that’s not what makes me tick.”

Service department

“Service is a very big area of concern and profit,” Dengler says. While servicing outdoor power equipment and motorcycles is evolving due to the integration of electric, she is mainly concerned about the effect electric will have on OPE.

“In power equipment there’s an added pressure that we don’t have on the motorcycle side yet,” she says. “I think there’s going to be some bumps in that area. In our market area, the battery is not the cure-all. In some market areas, maybe it is. In my market area it is not.”

“I think there’s going to be some shrinkage of power equipment techs because dealerships are going to age out. You’re going to lose technicians by loss of facility. On the motorcycle side, because we are recreational, I don’t see anything on the short-term horizon from the manufacturers that’s suddenly going to flip a switch to electric overnight. Technicians and internal combustions engines in our world are a safer bet. I have power and motorcycle and many technicians start in power equipment and migrate over. To see that industry struggle is a concern to me.”

Dengler summarizes that electric will be a portion of the industry and her business, but in the next 10 to 15 years, she does not see it becoming the majority of business.

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