I’m a Dealer! Now What?

Making the decisions that'll make your business.

I wasn’t really in the motorcycle industry until I started my dealership. Oh, I had grown up riding and racing pretty much anything with a running motor — I even sold bikes at another dealership for a while — but none of that experience led me to believe that I was suited to own a dealership … or did it?

I had just finished my morning radio show when I got a call from an old friend of mine. He’d begun selling Go-Peds (and some other odd rideables) from his real estate appraisal office. My friend woke up one morning and decided he wanted to get into motorcycles. Unfortunately, he had never owned a motorcycle much less sold them, so I guess he figured that I’d make a good partner. (It just so happens that I was jonesing for an excuse to buy a bike at the time — so I guess I was in a buying mood). The rest is history. I’d invested all the money I had, (without consulting my wife, as I recall), to secure the rent of a 600-square foot house that we had re-zoned for our dealership. When my buddy eventually wanted out, I had no choice — It was fly or die. Lucky for me, us big guys bounce.

Those early years were something else. I was sales, parts, service, F&I, owner, janitor and builder. My wife kept the books and tried to pick up my slack on everything else. The hardest part for both of us was trying to navigate the industry with virtually no clue what the hell we were doing. I’d just come from an industry where I worked for four hours each morning, then played free golf the rest of the day. My wife was an occupational therapist, which from what I could tell, meant that she played board games and helped people learn to knit.

From day one, I read anything I could get my hands on. I realized that there are multiple sources out there that cater to building success for successful dealers, and I needed more of the basics. Knowing how to effectively manage a 20-person sales force or how to best showcase my high-dollar inventory for optimum sales wasn’t necessarily an immediate need. Most of the crap I was selling had to be torn down to the frame and reassembled from the crate, lest it wouldn’t run.

I tell you all of that so that I can tell you this: there is no right or wrong way to build your business! I know, I know. Some people will disagree with that and to be honest, I probably agree with them, too. There are easier, more profitable ways out there than what you’re doing right now. There are ways to make more money, to avoid more mistakes and to be more efficient. However, if you’re just starting out, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed to the point that you cannot move. Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing, and it’s perfectly legal to come up with your own solutions to the problems that arise. You don’t always have to wait for the best answer — sometimes just getting things done is the best route.

I run into a lot of people in the industry these days that all seem to have the same question: how did I do it? How did I go from a 600-square-foot off-brand store behind the local Wal-Mart to a five-line, 20,000 square-foot store on the Interstate? The simple answer — I tried. I tried everything. But, most importantly, I never sat still, and I never chose not to make a decision.

I live by both of these mottos: the only bad decision is the one not made, and life’s only true failure is the failure to try. Both of those mantras speak to the same problem that businesspeople face everyday — the fear of doing something wrong. This was perhaps the biggest challenge for me as a former perfectionist. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from someone wishing they’d not passed on an opportunity, but they were afraid of failure at the time.

Believe me, I’ve made my share of mistakes (and yours, too) in this business. In fact, there’s probably very little that a dealership owner could do to screw up that I haven’t already done at least once. However, I’ve found that most any problem can be solved, if you’re creative. Nothing is the end of the world, except maybe the end of the world.

Over the next couple of months, I’m actually going to get serious about business and give some advice for small dealership owners and managers, based on my own experiences. (Yes, seriousness is a stretch for me — I’ll try to remain light-hearted during this exercise.) Keep in mind, the advice is free and therefore probably worth the price, but nevertheless, sometimes it’s nice to compare notes with someone else who has also been there. After all, a smart person learns from his mistakes; a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.

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