Diversification works at Arlen Ness Enterprises

For the last 30 years, Arlen Ness has been a leader in the custom motorcycle scene with his innovative motorcycle designs. Shortly after he started his business in the early 70s, Arlen Ness Enterprises began marketing parts and accessories direct to the public so the motorcycle rider, who could not afford a high-priced custom, could at least dress up his or her stock motorcycle with Arlen Ness shiny parts. Business thrived while Ness continued to build one-of-a-kind customs for select clientele.
Fast forward to 2003. Business at Arlen Ness Enterprises is stepping up to the next level, revving at higher rpms so-to-speak. A new 70,000 sq. ft. headquarters in Dublin Calif., located in the east San Francisco Bay Area, a partnership with Victory Motorcycles, and a documentary on The Discovery Channel have fueled a new excitement at the company that can be felt the moment you walk through the front door of the new showroom.
Powersports Business sat down with Arlen Ness and son, Cory, for an inside look at Arlen Ness Enterprises. Presented here is the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
At 64, Arlen has no plans for retirement anytime soon and continues to oversee the general direction of the company focusing his efforts on marketing and public relations. Cory oversees the day-to-day operations of the business as well as creating the concept design for the all the product the company sells.
PSB: Why did you decide to move your headquarters from San Leandro, Calif., to Dublin, Calif., last summer?
Arlen Ness: Actually, I bought the property five years ago. We needed more room back then. It turned out to be quite a bigger job then we expected. It took quite a long time to build it.
Cory Ness: The new building has given us a lot of room to do more things. We even have room to hire more people. We’ve increased from 50 or 55 to over a 100 employees since we moved in here. We have larger working facilities. We’ve been able to expand almost every department, from our warehouse space to our assembly department to our boxing areas — even our office space allows for more sales people. It’s also put us into one building instead of two buildings.
PSB: You have a museum there, don’t you?
AN: We have about 4,000 feet or so for a museum with all my stuff from years ago, magazine articles and trophies. I have probably 35 custom bikes in there that I own and have built over the years. It makes a real nice showing. People come from all over to see it.
PSB: So, your shop is a destination for tourists.
AN: Yes, people on vacation from L.A. will rent a car and drive up here to see the place. I’ve got a lot of good ink and the deal on The Discovery Channel has just brought people from everywhere you could imagine. On a weekend, we probably have 300 people come through here.
PSB: How did The Discovery Channel show
AN:They came to us and wanted to do something. We had a lot of interesting things going on and they just kept coming and taping and taping. It’s great advertising. It’s worked great for us. We were really pleased.
PSB: Has this show has raised awareness of Arlen Ness outside of motorcycling circles?
AN: Oh, absolutely. We have families coming in who saw it and really don’t have an interest in owning a motorcycle but they like to look at our stuff. It’s amazing the people coming through here nowadays.
PSB: How did you forge a relationship with Victory and how has it paid off for you?
AN: When they first came out with the Victory I was very interested because it was American made and it was a V-twin. I went to their booth at Daytona and talked to a few people with the company and got to know them. They gave me a bike to customize and we got closer and closer and pretty soon we got a contract with them to help with some of the design work, mostly cosmetic stuff. It’s working into a real nice project. Victory has been pleased with the stuff that we’ve done for them, and it’s selling motorcycles for them.
CN: It’s been a good learning experience. How most aftermarket companies make product and deal with product is at a whole different level than how the large OEMs deal with product. We’ve learned a lot from it on that end as far as supplying an OEM like Polaris, and secondly on the design end of things.
It’s been fun to throw our ideas at a large manufacturer and have them use us because for our years of experience in the industry. We work closely with the Victory design staff; they have some talented people working there. The Vegas is a good example of a bike that looks good and you can take it anywhere you want. And with this new Ness Signature Series, Victory has kind of zoomed up the Vegas, kind of taking that bike to the next level.
PSB: How much were you involved in the design of the Arlen Ness Signature Series?
AN:We did quite a bit of the styling for the Vegas, and for the Signature Series bike we took a Vegas and have added a lot of our custom accessories, wheels and things like that. So we had quite a bit to do with it, actually. We don’t build them, of course, but for the design we were pretty well involved.
PSB: It’s a challenge designing a bike that will be built on an assembly line versus a one-off custom like you’re used to. What did you learn from having to work in that different mode?
AN: It’s quite different because when we’re building bikes we modify almost everything. On a production bike you just have to do a few things. It’s actually quite a bit easier to do something like that. We’re making wheels for them through our company and the stuff you have to do for a manufacturer like that — everything is so strict. We’re learning a lot. It’s helping us in our parts and design and in our own product line. It’s good all the way around.
CN: It’s really a good fit for both of us. They could use a name like Ness to to show that they are custom guys and they are going to push the envelope. On our end, it’s nice to work with a large company that recognizes our talents and makes use of them on a mass scale.
PSB: Were you surprised when you initially got involved with Victory that the company was willing to change things? And when you were discussing designs, did you have to be reeled in, or did you have a lot of creative liberties?
CN: We approached them when they got going and we thought their bikes were very conservative. We thought we could add a lot of dimension to them. We pushed and pushed to get them to make a change to the gas tank and change the diameter of the wheels and play with the fenders. It took quite awhile, but when Mark Blackwell came aboard he was able to push it through their system because it’s not like turning a key when you’re working with a large manufacturer like that. It entails so many people and so many departments. You have to get through all the political stuff. When they got the go and actually said they were going to move forward with our ideas, it happened really quick and we were really happy to see that.
I think some people were surprised to see us working with Polaris because they had a fairly conservative style motorcycle, but we were looking at the long term goal and the Vegas was the first sign of what was to come. The Vegas came out great, but everything else coming out in the future is as good, if not better and more exciting.
PSB: Arlen, are you still building customs?
AN:I’ve always got at least a half dozen in the works for myself at all times. That’s where we get a lot of ideas to make the parts.
PSB: Where do you come up with your ideas?
AN: I’ve just been doing it so long I’m always trying something different. It’s always been easy for me. You’d think you’d get stale and run out of ideas, but it seems to be real easy for me to do. That’s why I have so many going.
PSB: Do you sell any of your customs or build a bike on commission?
AN:Once in awhile I’ll build a bike for something special. The shop builds several bikes for special people. For me to build one personally for somebody… I’ll do that once in awhile for a good friend or if it’s a special deal. But most of the time all the bikes I do are for myself and I keep most of them. I probably have close to 75 to 80 bikes now.
PSB: You’re 64 years old. Will you retire anytime soon? What does the future hold for you?
AN: Cory has a good handle on things. I could walk away without a problem, but I’m having so much fun and it’s exciting. It’s a family business. We all work together; we travel together. We all have the same goals. Gosh, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.
PSB: What’s hot and new with accessories from Arlen Ness?
CN:We have our Big Sucker air filter kits that we’ve had a real difficult time keeping in stock. It’s really taken off. In fact we’re working on several other designs using our patent to make some other options, too. We’ve made some other items like the Big Sucker kits that are not real flashy. They’re cleaner and have a real good purpose. Some of those things have been nice to sell. You don’t have to worry about the plating and other things. They’re easy to get in and out the door.
We’ve been real successful with our Y2K Frame kits. We had a rubber-mounted model for a couple years now and this year we added a solid-mount Softail style model and that’s doing real well.
We have a nice showroom so we’ve been actually selling a lot of motorcycles. That’s kind of a new thing now.
PSB: That’s right; you’ve been a dealer of Victory motorcycles and other American-made motorcycles for almost two years now. Plus, you recently signed on to be a dealer of American Ironhorse motorcycles.
CN: We have our retail store here and a retail store in Daytona that is a partnership with Bruce Rossmeyer, the owner of Daytona Harley-Davidson. We support it by stocking a lot of Ness product and sell Big Dog and Victorys and so on.

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