Cole H-D stays small while operating big
Cole Harley-Davidson in Bluefield, W.Va., is small in a lot of ways. The family-owned dealership’s local area consists of only about 18,000 people, many of whom have been affected by a weakened coal industry. A lean staffing model asks many of its 22 employees to wear multiple hats.
But the dealership is also large, as part of a group that owns five Harley-Davidson dealerships, including Charlie’s H-D in Huntington, W.Va.; Black Wolf H-D in Bristol, Va.; Black Bear H-D in Wytheville, Va.; and Black Jack H-D in Florence, S.C.
“One of the things that we like to advertise is we’re your small town dealer, but we have the big city selection,” said Chaz Cole, general manager of Cole Harley-Davidson, a 2013 Powersports Business Power 50 dealership.
The partnership among the dealerships allows each to share inventory. One employee’s job is to drive a truck from store to store, shifting motorcycles, parts and MotorClothes among the dealerships.
“Short of the store in South Carolina, everything else is within a couple hundred mile radius, so if a customer comes in looking for a specific model in a specific color, the chance that we have it is pretty great,” Cole said.
The cooperation also lends itself to joint staff training and spurs a bit of competition. Three outside consultants have trained employees of the respective dealerships, and the group conducts collective general manager meetings weekly and combined sales meetings monthly.
“There’s definitely a lot of competition between the stores to see who can do the best. It’s kind of like having a mini 20 group between the stores,” Cole reported.
Through the first quarter of 2014, sales at Cole Harley-Davidson were up over 2013, though Cole admits that last year was rough as the local economy is based heavily on the aforementioned coal industry. Its customers include people who work directly for coal companies, along with those in the railroad industry, people who work on machines used in coal mining and truck drivers who deliver coal.
“A lot of our customers work in that industry, and it’s been hit pretty bad with the war on coal and the EPA, so I guess things in our area … it’s been tough,” Cole said.
Because sales have been slow, the dealership’s staff has been slimmed down, but many have stepped up to the plate to chip in. The marketing manager, for example, also sells F&I, and many members of the parts staff can serve as service writers as well.
“We’re a little bit more leaner than we were. I guess one of our strengths has been that we’ve been able to do some cross-training, which has helped us,” Cole said.
But with that dedication, and a little help from Mother Nature, Cole Harley-Davidson has seen some positive results, including a 25 percent year-over-year increase in March. Cole believes Harley’s 2014 lineup also has contributed to the growth.
“I think it’s been one of the best models years really that Harley has had maybe ever,” he said.
The Tri-Glide and Street Glide Special have been among the best sellers so far.
“Street Glide Special has definitely just been very hot. We’ve had a lot of luck accessorizing them as well. Recently we just did one with a chrome front end and Agitator wheels,” Cole said. “A lot of our stores have had a lot of luck customizing their Specials because they’re such a great bike.”
Demos have been key to selling the new product. Cole said a recent Street Glide Special sale went to a customer who was upgrading from his Street Bob.
“We couldn’t wipe the smile off his face when he came back from riding,” Cole said. “It’s just something that you’ve got go out and experience to really get the full effect.”
With the new infotainment system, batwing fairing and front end, Cole believes the Rushmore models will draw even recent Harley buyers to upgrade.
“We’ve very optimistic about it. The new product that Harley’s come out with is fantastic. I think the Rushmore bikes have really given those guys that have a late model touring bike a reason to trade,” Cole said. “I’ve actually had our sales manager pull all our deals where we’ve sold 2006 to 2011 touring models and had our salespeople go back and call those customers because we want them to come in and trade those bikes in because we want to have better used inventory, and we want to also sell them new motorcycles.”
Cole is also looking forward to selling Harley’s new Street 500 and 750 models, which will be used in the dealership’s Riding Academy. To promote the academy and the new entry-level bikes, the dealership is offering a local TV anchor a slot in one of the classes for a story. Another slot will also be given away to one of the TV station’s viewers.
“We’re really excited about that opportunity, and I think it will be a good way to get excitement for motorcycling and of course, our program,” Cole said.
Though the new models are drawing buyers, so are pre-owned bikes, as the dealership sells one used bike for every one new motorcycle.
Events and community involvement
When buying pre-owned bikes from private sellers, the dealership’s staff has learned that many are selling because they haven’t found any riding partners. Because of that, Cole H-D has made events, connecting riders to each other, a big part of its marketing efforts.
“Right now we’ve got on average three or four events per month. We try to have something going on at least every Saturday, even if it’s cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill,” Cole said. “I think events are very important, and anything we can do to get people out riding the motorcycles is of the utmost importance.”
The events can also be fruitful for the dealership when it comes to day-of sales and profits. A March 15 St. Patrick’s Day event, complete with a sale on licensed merchandise, corned beef and cabbage made by a local restaurant, green dessert, beer and entertainment, contributed greatly to the store’s March success.
“Our MotorClothes department did about $7,000 worth of sales that day. We were able to sell I think four or five motorcycles that day,” Cole reported. The event’s singer even bought a V-Rod Muscle that day.
But some events aren’t only for the benefit of dealership and its customers. Cole H-D is already planning a Christmas in July event to benefit Bluefield’s annual Community Christmas Tree. Each holiday season, the dealership contributes to nearly 800 gift bags that are distributed to local children in need. Cole Harley-Davidson has been involved in the event since the dealership’s 1998 opening, but the Cole family has been participating for more than two decades, going back to when Chaz Cole’s father Charlie was in the automotive business.
“Giving back to the community in ways like that is what sets us apart,” Cole said.
It’s just another way that this dealership that’s big in resources stays grounded in its small town.
Locations: Bluefield, W.Va.
General manager: Chaz Cole
Brands carried: Harley-Davidson