Many business maxims are nothing but pure cliché: collections of words repeated ad nauseam by assorted experts and gurus until their sum value is about as useful as a three-legged mule on roller skates.
And then there are those that quite simply — when put into practice — work. Take the phrase “People do business with people they know, like and trust.” Those who understand and implement the implied message know that a great deal of truth lies in this one simple expression.
Consider the owners of J&W Cycles, a longtime Top 100 dealership in Washington, Mo. (And by longtime, we mean placing in the Top 100 every year for the program’s 20-year history — the only dealership to do so.)
Brothers Bob and Jimmy Jones and their 34-year-old store are fixtures in the small town that sits on the Missouri River, about 50 miles west of St. Louis.
The Jones brothers are behind the popular motocross race held each year at the region’s Town and Country Fair. The store donates UTVs to a local group that holds senior rides along the city’s riverfront trails. It also supports the local affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the St. Louis VA Medical Center, Jefferson Barracks Division. In addition, Bob serves as president of the chamber of commerce and has served as chairman of the fair’s board of directors and on several other local boards. Jimmy has served on the board of MMI for several years.
The way Bob sees it, this heavy involvement not only shows a commitment to his community, but also serves to strengthen one-on-one relations with his store’s customer base, many of whom are local farmers. It also earned J&W the Top 100 Best Community Involvement Initiative award in 2007.
“I don’t know how many civic functions I’ve been at where a contractor will walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, I need a new ATV. I haven’t been able to get down to the store. When are you going to be there?’” Bob Jones says. “I’ll tell you what, I think that’s the kind of thing that keeps us viable when the economy is bad because you still have a real good solid customer base. You’ll always have people who will buy from you because they know how important you are to the community and how much you enjoy living in the community in which you have a store.”
It’s a smart move to foster and support a loyal customer base through excellent service, especially given the dismal state of the economy for the past two years. Like with many dealerships, J&W’s business dropped off a cliff in 2009, forcing the Joneses to cut expenses to the bone, but not the standard of service. Perhaps this is what helped unit sales in 2010 stay about flat, and helped the store make more money on the units it did sell.
Now that it appears sales have somewhat stabilized, door swings are increasing and customers are getting a bit more comfortable with the new reality. Of course it’s too early to say at this point, but a less-nervous buying population could mean a more positive 2011, and J&W is heading into the future armed with lessons learned during the recent rough spots.
Scaling back meant cutting the store’s advertising budget — compounded by a lack of available OEM co-op dollars — a move that pushed it to increase its social media presence and take on more focused promotional campaigns and marketing efforts. Bob notes that a recent promotion offering 20 percent off all Fox gear for anybody getting the message via the store’s Facebook site resulted in a handful of sales. The store even launched its own in-house direct mailing effort and around Christmas offered $10 gift certificates to all buyers of units.
Jones is quick to point out that while the store scaled back on expenditures, it didn’t have to cut any employees loose. In fact, the dealership’s many longtime workers are the reason customers are so loyal to J&W.
“Jeff Walde is my service manager. He started just out of high school. He’s been here 28 years,” Bob says. “He brings so much business into the store because he’s so good at what he does. People say, ‘I’m going to have my bike fixed, but I don’t want anybody to touch it but Jeff.’ My parts manager, Rick [Nolkemper], he’s been here 25, 26 years. And I’ve got eight or 10 employees who’ve all been with me for 10 to 12 years.
“They like working here. They’ve built up great relationships with customers and the community. Even during these times I don’t have to be here as often as a lot of guys because I’ve got such great people working for me,” he says, adding that another service manager, Jeff Struckhoff, has a group of loyal fans. His son and sales manager, Doug, is the reason Bob can devote so much time to community projects.
To what does Bob attribute this long-term commitment? One thing is all employees are involved in some aspect of powersports outside the dealership, whether it’s racing or restoring vintage motorcycles. He also pays them well and offers a 401(k) plan and a health insurance program for those who wish to enroll. While the recession forced him to stop contributions to the retirement funds, Bob says that when the economy returns, it’ll be one of the first things he reinstates. All of this helps to stem the turnover common to many dealerships.
“I think it speaks volumes to the kind of business that we do and the kind of customers we’ve got,” Bob adds. “By doing what we do, we don’t have a whole lot of conflicts. We’re not perfect, but we don’t have a whole lot of people pissed off at us, who walk into the store with their dander up.”
FOCUS ON SERVICE
The drop in unit sales forced the store’s management to look for other profit centers. The most obvious was service, which has always been a big part of J&W’s business given Jimmy’s involvement. Prior to opening his own dealership, Jimmy was service manager for a big shop in St. Louis. Now, J&W Cycles runs eight full-time mechanics, all of them with at least 10 years dedicated to working for the Jones brothers.
Bob says the store found that many customers were keeping and fixing their older units rather than trading them in, a trend that corresponded with an increase in sales of consumables. The dealership also started in 2009 servicing brands other than those it carries, work that it now actively tries to bring in.
In having a strong commitment to service sales, the store displays prominent service menus at the service counter, something it’s done for the past 20 years or so. Bob explains that customers like to know from the get-go what it’s going to cost for a given job. Most people don’t get upset about paying for service work unless they’re hit with a big surprise when the work is done. “We keep a full-time service writer, and it’s his job to keep tabs on all the service tickets. If they run into something and they think it’s going to be a problem, it’s his job to call the customer and get a verbal OK and explain why it’s going to cost more than originally estimated,” he says.
J&W has another location on six acres about a mile up the road that features a machine shop and serves as a full-time setup shop. All units are delivered to this building and set up before being trucked to the dealership. The separate facility is also where employees refurbish used bikes and auction-sourced units, and do all UTV repairs and accessory work — blades, cabs, winches, they’re all done at the remote location.
The neat thing about having a machine shop handy, Bob says, is that the facility can turn out one-off parts for customers.
In addition to looking for more service dollars, the store also turned its eye toward increased PG&A sales by devoting more floor space to gear and apparel. While the store isn’t exactly where it wants to be with these sales, it is doing well with some Victory accessories, with motocross and off-road riding apparel, and the sort of four-wheeler equipment valued by its mostly rural customer base.
“I bet there’s not a UTV that doesn’t go out of here with at least a top on it, and half of them go out with windshields on them,” Jones says. “We keep all that stuff in stock. We’ve got to have it in stock so they can put it on when the guy’s picking up the unit.
“What’s big right now is wheels and tires and jacking them up and adding sound systems. I’ve got a Ranger Crew in here right now that a guy bought from us last spring. He’s got a full metal cab on it. He’s got tires and wheels and a lift kit. He’s got a complete stereo inside, and he just bought a defroster and a blade. We figured it up conservatively that when this guy gets done, he’s going to have close to $30,000 invested.”
With the store’s heavy off-road focus, it puts a ton of effort into its seasonal ATV/UTV displays. Making good use of props and mannequins, the store’s employees set up elaborate Christmas displays and hunting scenes that show off not only units, but accessories and gear.
“The off-road season lasts later than the streetbike season. It tends to last into the winter,” Bob says. “People need ATVs to feed the cows and do all kinds of stuff all year round. It’s not like they put it away in November and don’t look at it again until March. That’s why put a lot of emphasis on [the displays].”
So with customers trickling back into the store the Jones brothers and their crew are going to continue catering to their loyal group of customers just as they have for the past 34 years. After all, these customers, the same ones who have done business at J&W over the years are their neighbors and friends. The kind of people you really get to know, like and trust.
“We’ve been here for a long time. We’ve got a fantastic customer base, and in meetings [held during the rough months] I stressed how important it is to go above and beyond even if it is going to cost us money,” Bob says. “We cannot have any negative customer feedback out there. I think every industry, every business is doing this. If you’ve got a customer, you do anything in the world possible to keep him.”
A 20-YEAR WINNING STREAK
Just as Dealernews is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Top 100 contest, J&W Cycles will be celebrating its 20th year of placing within the esteemed collection of dealerships.
While some dealers skip a year or two between entries, J&W’s Bob Jones says there’s no way he wouldn’t send in an entry. After all, there’s no Academy Awards or Golden Globes for powersports retailers, so what better way to convey to their customers that they’re shopping at a top-notch operation?
“There’s not a whole lot of things in this industry that differentiate one store from another that a customer can look at,” Jones says. “You don’t have a four-star dealership like you have a four-star restaurant or a four-star hotel. But the Top 100 is something where when a customer walks in, you can point to the plaque with pride and say, ‘We’re one of the Top 100 dealers in the country and we’ve been one for 20 consecutive years. We’re the only dealership in the country that’s done that.”
MORE THAN A PARTNER
Not too far back, Bob Jones can remember when it came time to order units from Polaris, there was usually an argument in the offing.
Now he doesn’t want to be too negative in remembering those days, but the way he saw it — as did many other Polaris dealers — there was no rhyme or reason to the OEM’s ordering system. It just plain didn’t make sense. “We kept calling it Minnesota math,” Jones says.
This prompted Jones to try his hand on the Polaris Dealer Advisory Council, joining a handful of other dealers in an attempt to help improve the OEM/dealership process when it came to service, warranty, orders, and retail selling practices, in addition to offering advice on the company’s product lineup.
What they came up with — the Maximum Velocity Program — was a game changer. Rather than ordering new units every six months, dealers could start ordering every two weeks. The program allows the OEM to respond quickly to market changes and trends, and emphasizes retail sales or wholesale fulfillment.
“Now, they’re on it. They’ve got the formula,” Jones says. “It’s been a complete turn-around. This has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve been able to help with.
“They got the message. They listened. And now, they’re the most responsive company I work with.”
This story originally appeared in the Dealernews February 2011 issue.