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Flying Tiger Motorcycles, St. Louis

Planning is Overrated

Some businesses follow a well-defined, meticulously detailed plan, taking measured steps that lead to expected goals. Flying Tiger Motorcycles in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood, isn’t one of them. But success has followed anyway and that’s impressive for an independent motorcycle shop born on a whim in 2010 and sustained on a spontaneous, organic path dictated only by the mission of owners Eric and Teresa Bess.

There’s a key to this mission in the words painted rather small underneath the shop’s name on the front door. It reads: Service, Repair, Sales. See, the heart of Flying Tiger – why the Besses started it in the first place – is to repair and service whatever rolls in. No judgment, no attitude, just acceptance and a commitment to make two-wheeled vehicles run well to serve their owners. As for planning, Eric is quick to admit: “If I’d given it any thought at all, I would never have done it!”

Eric, a native of Missouri, started working in corporate events for Kawasaki in 2002 then relocated to the company’s California tech services and loan pool division, ultimately moving into quality assurance and test riding. But by 2009 downsizing had begun and the writing was on the wall. It was time for something else.

So just a few hours after he left the Kawasaki facility for the last time, Eric called Teresa and said, “Let’s move back to Missouri and open our own shop.”

“The idea was to buy vintage bikes, restore them and sell them – it was never gonna work!” he said. But they went on a buying spree, then by luck found a tiny garage in Maplewood that just happened to be located on Route 66, a space they’ve since outgrown – twice! At the time, they had no vendors, no OEMs and little experience in retail or running a business. What they did have was determination, Eric’s mechanical knowledge, Teresa’s managerial skills and a love for the subject matter.

Rebel Yell Bourbon’s parent company, Luxco, is in St. Louis and they invited Eric to be one of six custom builders in this year’s Rebels Uncaged promotion. (www.rebelsuncaged.com/s/rebels-uncaged).

“It’s a passion,” said Eric, before correcting himself. “It’s an obsession, it’s the biggest part of my life, 24/7,” he added, glancing cautiously at his wife after that last bit. “All my friends are involved in motorcycling.”

But more than just obsessing over motorcycles, Eric’s can-do attitude is ingrained in him thanks to lessons from his father, a man who firmly believed that repairing is better than new, and if something’s broken, you fix it. Eric also credits mentoring from his tech services boss at Kawasaki. “I got hands-on experience and solid schooling there,” he said.

The Besses settled on the name Flying Tiger not because of its association with the volunteer American fighter pilots of the 1940s; it’s far more haphazard than that. The name is based on their favorite Thai dish, Crying Tiger. Explained Teresa, “I said, ‘What about a tiger with a tear?’ and he said, ‘What about a tiger with wings?’ And that was it.”

So after a few months of restoring and re-selling, requests started coming in for repair and service from owners of all kinds of bikes. You could say that Flying Tiger developed a niche market that essentially included everything no other shop would touch!

Flying Tiger works on vintage bikes of many brands along with modern models from all of the OEMs; V-twins, singles, scooters, BMW, Ducati, H-D, anything but Chinese scooters. It’s a totally hands-on approach based on what must be done to get a bike back on the road. “We love vintage bikes,” said Eric. “We learn from each other at the shop every day and find satisfaction in what we do.” And he’s emphatic in this important distinction: “We are mechanics, not technicians.”

Putting customer service first, Eric and Teresa see other shops as shortsighted for refusing to help a rider with meager resources or riding the “wrong” kind of motorcycle. They see future customers instead. Everyone is respected no matter what they ride.

“We’ve worked on the most janky scooters held together with spit and bailing wire just to help someone out because it was their only mode of transportation,” said Teresa. But their customer list also includes the guy who wants $15,000 in carbon fiber parts on his bike.

To supplement winter’s slowdown, Teresa worked with a supplier to develop scented MotoMan candles. Oil & Leather and Two Stroke Smoke went viral when they were introduced and before long production came in-house for better control.

Being located serendipitously on Route 66 has been effective, too. Riders from all over the country, even from around the world, stop in – some intentionally and some in need. “We help people, and they come back,” said Teresa.

Another benefit to the shop’s location is the proximity of Schlafly Brewing across the street. Bike Night happens each first Monday, April through November, and 300-400 bikes roll in, from vintage scoots to full-on customs, racers and baggers. Flying Tiger and Schlafly are collaborating on a Labor Day event and a November 1 swap meet is planned.

Community involvement came along naturally. Several years ago, following the lead of their friend Mike Bertollini, they started a clothing drive for the homeless. At Thanksgiving they work with regional partners making care packages that are distributed to needy folks.

And that gets back to the words painted on the front door. Sure, sales matter, but this independent shop is built on repair and service – to bike riders, yes, but to the broader community as well. And whether it was planned that way or not, it’s been an effective path to prosperity.

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