On a cold and wet weekend in February, in Tacoma, Washington, the roads are dry, so there are a fair number of motorcyclists out riding. Tacoma riders are a hardy bunch, willing to get out on the road on a chilly morning with overcast skies, and, since 1977, Tacoma Motorsports has been around to keep them moving. “Even on a nasty day, people will come into the shop to look around and keep up a connection with motorcycling,” said owner Bruce Burwell.
The dealership is a family operation, with present owner Bruce currently teaching the business to son Nathan, with an eye on stepping back from the day to day operation in a few years. Bruce has lived in Tacoma, south of Seattle, much of his life and has witnessed a lot of change. The city was, for years, highly industrial but a lot of Seattle’s dot-com businesses have recently relocated there, due to the cheaper floorspace. As a result, Tacoma is experiencing a building boom and an influx of prosperous younger people.
Burwell remembers going to college, wondering what he was going to do with his life — and motocrossing on weekends. He ended up in banking but kept motocrossing while he was climbing the corporate ladder. “I was wearing a three-piece suit during the week and racing on weekends.”
Eventually, he decided he was tired of the banking world and decided to buy a bankrupt motorcycle dealership. “I did it for the wrong reasons — free bikes!” The dealership had tried to sell ski equipment during the winter, which was not compatible with motorcycle sales. “The first thing I did was liquidate the ski equipment.”
Burwell credits the skills and information he learned in the banking world as the reason why he was able to quickly turn the dealership around and keep it going through fat times and thin. He learned analytical skills, the right way to set objectives, both for himself and his staff, and principles of organization. He also learned to be conservative with purchasing. “I don’t get in a huge inventory. I balance sales with purchases.”
The first brand Tacoma sold was Honda. The dealership acquired Yamaha in 1998, Suzuki in 1999 and Husqvarna in 2017. Along the way, the shop survived downturns in the industry, and taking in lines of product that didn’t work with the core motorcycle business. “For example, I tried selling lawn equipment. I soon learned that lawnmower people have completely different needs and outlook than motorcycle people. They don’t make appointments — they need the mower fixed now. The motorcycle business grew a lot more than the lawn equipment, so the lawn equipment went.”
At present, Tacoma Motorsports sells Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Husqvarna motorcycles, Yamaha personal watercraft and Stacyc electric push bikes for children. There is also a satellite store, Ranier Honda Yamaha, in Spanaway, a rural area south of Tacoma. “Tacoma Motorsports is close to downtown, in what is now the third largest city in Washington State. It’s not the mix we used to have. Traffic makes it difficult for people in outlying areas to come in. We are selling a lot more Groms and scooters than we used to. The Ranier store is not that far away, but the customer mix is completely different — off-road bikes, side-by-sides and ATVs.”
Although many of the customers of the Tacoma flagship store are street riders, a majority of the employees are off-road riders and competitors. Employee involvement in the off-road community brings in a lot of customers. Carol Williams, the parts manager, was one of the first three women to ride in the ISDE and has a large following of people who ride with her.
The service manager flat tracks and brings in customers as well. Tacoma Motorsports also supports local clubs.
Another source of customers has been rider training. “One of the main training areas is right across the freeway from us,” Burwell said. “We get a lot of people coming in after a training session. We want to make sure the first ride on the street is a good one. My salespeople are trained to steer new riders away from bikes that will be hard for them to control. We also understand that rider training is not on a real road. We will deliver a bike to the customer’s neighborhood so that they can get used to riding in a calmer setting.”
Another change in the business has been how advertising is done. Like most dealers, Burwell doesn’t do as much mass media as he used to, and when he does, he joins with a group of local dealers for a joint buy. Most of Tacoma Motorsports’ announcements and publicity are posted on Facebook and Instagram. “We get a lot of social media leads from our website. It’s more targeted.”
The dealership used to have a presence at regional motocross tracks, but with the change in the customer base towards urban riders, this has been discontinued. However, links to the local track and off-road clubs continue to be posted on the website. “I try to promote local racing,” Burwell said.
One area where Tacoma excels is in outreach to women. “We are seeing a lot of women come in. Although we don’t do exclusive women’s events, we have several women employees who race and ride off-road. Women see our employees at the track and come into the store. All of my employees are trained to treat women customers appropriately and respectfully, but we find that it really takes a woman to speak a woman’s language.”
Another source of steady customers are the vintage enthusiasts. “We support vintage events. A lot of my good customers have vintage collections,” explained Burwell. “The Isle of Vashon TT (a well-known vintage event) is local to us and is a really fun event to participate in.”
Burwell doesn’t expect the challenges of running a retail business to stop, but does expect to come out on his feet. “I do well with challenges. In the middle of it, it doesn’t feel that great, but I always come out fine.”