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Former corporate execs find satisfaction in dealership

John Seelmeyer

John Crowell probably knew as much as anyone in the world about Harley-Davidson dealerships when he and his wife, Marci, bought Reno Harley-Davidson/Buell three years ago.

Crowell had spent 25 years in the corporate office of Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson including a stint as director of dealer development.

But what he didn’t know couldn’t know, really was the sheer exuberance the couple would feel while powering their own dealership down the road.

“I just love the speed of the business,” he says. “There is result for action. If it is broken on Monday, you can fix it by Monday afternoon.”

There was nothing broken about the dealership when the Crowells bought it from Bud and Patty Evans in 2004. The couples had known each other for two decades when the Evans confided they wanted to sell.

That was a moment of truth for the Crowells, who’d met and wed while both were working at Harley’s corporate office.

They’d been thinking for a couple of years about leaving the corporate world behind to purchase a dealership, and they’d methodically prepared a list of conditions they wanted to meet.

They wanted a home in the West. A good town for their teen-aged daughters. A solid dealership in a growing market.

“We didn’t do this as a snap decision,” John Crowell says.

Reno Harley-Davidson met each of the criteria and demanded a decision.

And it was an even bigger commitment than it looked. Unable to buy the dealership while he still was a Harley executive because of conflict-of-interest standards, John Crowell left the executive suite and headed to Reno to work as general manager of the dealership for four months.

As the couple completed their purchase of the dealership, they put into place a business plan based on best practices that John Crowell had seen in dealerships across the world.

But the couple isn’t necessarily working harder “We’ve always been pretty hard-working people,” John Crowell says because one key element they sought in a dealership was an established management structure and a good culture that didn’t demand that the owners keep control of every detail.

Priorities for the dealership’s 75 employees in the past three years, John Crowell says, have included improvement of customer service in the service department and creating community partnerships as part of the marketing plan.

A key step came in early 2006 when the dealership opened an 1,100-square foot store inside the Silver Legacy Resort Casino that sells Harley-branded apparel and accessories.

The dealership looks for other opportunities to work with hotels and casinos to tap into the rich market of traveling Harley owners, Marci Crowell says.

She’s also driven the company to deep involvement with Klothes 4 Kids, which raises money to clothe underprivileged kids. A Black-and-Blue Ball with participants in leather and denim on April 23 is projected to raise $30,000. A benefit poker run later in the year is projected to raise another $20,000.