While Bruce Rossmeyer’s career selling bikes has been stratospheric and long-lasting, his motorcycling profession’s beginnings were short and catastrophic.
At age 17, Bruce was into the ducktails and leather scene. His less-than-approving parents thought motorcycles were a step too far on the wrong side of the tracks, so when Rossmeyer bought a Harley-Davidson, he stashed it at his brother’s house and rode it on the sly.
His dad spotted him riding the bike in their New Jersey neighborhood, and confronted him when he came to work at his father’s auto dealership. He started by chewing out his son for riding a borrowed bike without insurance.
“Even as a kid getting into a little trouble, one thing I never did do was lie to him,” Bruce said. “I told him, ‘I didn’t borrow it, I own it.’”
His father’s reaction was text book.
“You can pack everything you own on it into the saddlebags and give me the keys to my demo,” his dad said, “and get the hell out of my house.”
Bruce sold the bike in order to patch things up, ending his motorcycling until he was out of the house and on his own. He continued to work in his father’s Chrysler dealership and went on to a less-than-distinguished college career at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“I was in school for four years,” Rossmeyer said. “I took a couple of leaves of absences and four years went by and all of a sudden all of my buddies were graduating so I figured it was time to go home and I left.”
When the university chose to honor him as the Entrepeneur of the Year, the search committee felt it also might be appropriate to give him an honorary degree.
“I was there for four years and they thought that I would probably need only a few more courses to graduate,” Rossmeyer said. “When they figured it out, I was there for four years and had earned enough credit for one year.”
The dean said, “We are not giving him this award as a scholar. If anyone wasn’t supposed to succeed, it was him.”
Rossmeyer went back to Jersey and worked for his dad. When he and his father clashed again, Bruce struck out on his own and bought his first auto dealership, Rossmeyer Dodge, at age 25. He expanded a few years later, and purchased three more dealerships in central Florida. He also did some real estate developing. And motorcycles continued to be a part of his life, leading him into the motorcycle business.
In 1994, he was living in Daytona Beach and owned a Toyota dealership. He heard that his favorite motorcycle dealership was up for sale.
“I bought it as a hobby not as a business. I probably bought 20 motorcycles from Joe, and I had heard that he was going to sell it. I liked motorcycles and my kids all rode motorcycles, so I bought the place to mess around on weekends,” Rossmeyer said. “Weekends became Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I saw that there was a lot of opportunity there. I had a Toyota dealership in Orlando. In order to take it to the next level, I just need to sell this dealership and give it 100 percent.”
His vision was inspired by people like Rick Hendrick, who did well by owning several dozen dealerships. He felt he could do the same thing with motorcycles, and he started out by opening a 22,000-square-foot facility in Daytona Beach. The risk paid off, as people flocked to the at-the-time huge facility, and his business was off and running.
He followed up by taking the lead in turning Daytona’s Beach Street into a 24/7 party. When he built his new facility on Beach Street, the area was a ghost town during Bike Week and the newly-formed Biketoberfest. Rossmeyer had the place built in record time in order to capitalize on Bike Week 1995. His idea was to make Beach Street a destination for the masses of riders that flood the town.
“When I started out, you could park anywhere on Beach Street that you wanted. That’s about a year after the city started Biketoberfest,” Rossmeyer said.
“We just started pushing and during the next couple of years you couldn’t park within a mile of Beach Street. We had vendors. We had bands. We had bars. People on bikes want places to go. We just gave them a reason to go to Beach Street. Pretty soon, everybody was on Beach Street,” Rossmeyer said. “We just created the party.”
True to his vision, Rossmeyer grew by purchasing more businesses. He stuck with Harley-Davidson, but bought dealerships all over the country. He started by picking up the nearby Harley dealership in New Smyrna Beach in 1997, and then followed up by buying dealerships in Grand Junction, Colo; Fort Lauderdale, Fla; Pompano Beach, Fla; and Aspen, Colo. He also expanded to choppers and founded Hollywood Choppers.
His empire extended to include 15 dealerships in four states, including a megaplex known as Destination Daytona that includes customization and apparel stores, a hot rod shop, restaurants, condos and Daytona Harley-Davidson, Rossmeyer’s 109,000-square-foot dealership.
That dealership showcases Rossmeyer’s flair for bringing large groups of people together in interesting collaborations. One of the motorcycle dealerships at Destination Daytona is Arlen Ness Motorcycles, a mash-up of a shop run by Bruce’s daughter, Shelly Rossmeyer-Pepe. The shop sells Ducati and Triumph motorcycles, used motorcycles, and a line of custom bikes that includes Ness Motorcycles, as well as bikes built by Rooke Customs, American Ironhorse, Rucker Performance and Sucker Punch Sally. This unique blend of machines adds appeal to Destination Daytona, and means that motorcyclists of just about any bend can find something of interest.
Daytona Harley-Davidson is the largest motorcycle dealership in the world. In 2008, Daytona Harley-Davidson was the nation’s top-selling H-D dealership. Number two on the list was Rossmeyer’s dealership in Fort Lauderdale.
His college career may be less than auspicious, but Rossmeyer has been about as successful as you can be as a motorcycle dealer. He credits his success to dedication. “I have to work harder because I’m not as smart as they are. If you work hard, you can sometimes offset working smart.”
When he accepted his award from the University of Southern Mississippi, he addressed a throng of students. “I said college teaches you how to get to the lake, but it doesn’t teach you how to swim.”
Part of what has made Rossmeyer’s dealerships work well is partnerships with the right people. His little black book includes listings for musicians and actors as well as everyone who is anyone in the motorcycle business. ZZ Top and Foreigner played at Destination Daytona’s opening ceremonies. Rossmeyer also built a custom motorcycle in a partnership with his riding buddy Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. Only 10 of the limited-edition models were built and signed by Tyler. Buyers who ponied up the $80,000 retail price were treated to a private reception with Tyler and Rossmeyer and a chartered private jet flight to Bike Week 2007.
Another hallmark in Bruce’s career has been his involvement with charities. He cites Jim Moran, the owner of Southeast Toyota, as the inspiration for his dedication to charity work. While he participates in more than a dozen charities including Kyle Petty’s Ride Across America, the Boys and Girls Club of America, and Joe Dimaggio’s Children’s Hospital, he is most heavily involved with Camp Boggy Creek. A division of The Hole in the Wall Camps, founded by the late Paul Newman, the retreat is for children with life-threatening diseases and their families. Rossmeyer founded that organization and sponsors an annual “Ride for Children” that raises money for them. As of the 12th Annual Ride for Children, the event had raised more than $2 million for the camp.
“The fact is I’m glad to be in a position that I can help charities out,” Bruce said. “It’s my way of giving back.”
In the end, even Rossmeyer’s dad had to admit that motorcycles can be a positive force.
“One time my dad came to visit me during Bike Week, when there is 500,000 people around,” Rossmeyer said. “He walked into my office and said, ‘You know, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life but maybe I shouldn’t have told you to sell that motorcycle.’”