Scott Holbrooks is a powersports industry veteran who’s been on two wheels since his dad gave him a Yamaha XS400 for his 16th birthday. He got his start at Iron Pony in 1988 before moving into the wholesale side of the business. After stints at Tucker Rocky, Motorcycle Stuff and Fulmer Helmets, Holbrooks has returned to the Westerville, Ohio, store he once called home, as brand director for Iron Pony Motorsports and Pony Powersports, the 2011 Top 100 Dealer of the Year. We talked to Holbrooks about making the transition.
DEALERNEWS: How does it feel to be back on the front lines of retail?
HOLBROOKS: Excited! I really enjoyed the 20 years working on the wholesale side of the business, and wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, but I did miss the direct interaction with the retail customer.
I didn’t know how much until I spent several years attending the International Motorcycle Shows gathering market research for my previous employer. I love the passion people have for motorcycling, the look they get in their eyes, the excitement in their voice. It reminds me of why I got into this business in the first place. It is all too easy to try to reduce it down to numbers. In reality that is a recipe for disaster and it is very easy to fall into that line of thinking in wholesale.
There is no need for motorcycles, at least in this country. It is all about wants and desires, and the best place to understand what really drives people is [to have] direct contact with them. In wholesale, you can poll your dealers, talk to your sales people, create focus groups, and mine the internet forums — these are all great ways to discover what people want — but each has huge flaws and the information gathered is suspect, especially when applied to the aforementioned “numbers” process. Nothing beats face-to-face interaction and the guts to act upon your findings. When the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance to rejoin the team.
DN: Any advice for those thinking of changing from wholesale to retail?
HOLBROOKS: There are lots of clues on the wholesale side that things have wildly changed at the retail level, but it’s hard to grasp until you see it in action.
It isn’t the change itself — this is easy to comprehend. The challenge is that it now seems to be a continually moving and evolving target.
We know that women are now a large percent of the retail customer base, but the effect in the store is really surprising. Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for women to sit in the car and wait while their husband came into the store. I would say women are now 35 percent or more of our customer base. It’s getting more and more common to see women introducing men to motorcycling.
E-commerce now plays a huge role in how we market to the consumer. Additionally, social media means that our relationships with our customers are less personal, but it is increasingly easier to immediately connect with them.
I can send out an email blast or share something on Facebook and have all our followers notified within seconds. Riders are informed. Years ago they might read a magazine article, listen to their buddies and then to the salesperson before making a buying decision. Now the rider can do this all online from the comfort and convenience of his or her home or office, pulling information from a myriad sources and coming to a conclusion on their own without pressure from a salesperson. The consumer, in a way, becomes the “ultra expert” on whatever product they are focused upon.
It is not always the case, but it is increasingly common for the retailer to simply act as a facilitator because the customer’s mind is completely made up. In fact, you may lose the sale if you try to push too hard in another direction.
DN: Any advice for dealers considering a hire with an aftermarket pedigree?
HOLBROOKS: If you have room on your staff, a person from the wholesale side is a good addition. The different perspective adds depth and knowledge and will enhance your ability to develop a thorough strategy.
Industry connections made on the wholesale side can be valuable. As in, “It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.” Sourcing, logistics and large-scale strategic planning might be valuable skills and are a big part of the wholesale business.
It also helps that a person from the wholesale end of the business has been exposed to the entire market and may see trends and opportunities that might not yet be a factor for the local retailer. By nature, the wholesale person has been conditioned to look a little further out, potentially making them a valuable asset to your team.
DN: What can other dealers and shops learn from a big dealer like Iron Pony?
HOLBROOKS: Iron Pony is led by owner Chris Jones. His vision, determination and guts set us above the rest. Strong, passionate leadership is needed in this industry. Sure you can have a board and can lead by committee, but the end-product will always pale in comparison.
For the first 30 years, Iron Pony did not sell motorcycles, not even used bikes — just parts, accessories and apparel. Motorcyclists could choose to ignore us and have their needs met by the local dealerships.
Iron Pony realized they had to go an extra step. They had to have a wide selection of product in stock, have fair prices, be accessible and exceed people’s expectations. The store created the want.
Iron Pony has mounted and balanced tires while customers wait for the past 25-plus years. It makes a huge difference. For many people, dropping off their bikes and waiting even 24 hours is very inconvenient. Iron Pony is open seven days a week, even service, and has been doing so for 25-plus years.
You need to be open when people want to shop and spend money. The majority of Americans have Sunday off. Why on earth would you be closed? The big-box stores tout value and selection to their customers, but in reality, convenience plays an enormous role.
DN: What can we expect from Iron Pony — the 2011 Dealer of the Year — in 2012?
HOLBROOKS: There are a many surprises up our sleeve that we can’t divulge. What I can say; we plan to do more of the same. Why upset the apple cart?
We (Pony Powersports, Iron Pony’s sister company) added a Suzuki franchise at the end of 2011 based upon an opportunity and our customers’ wishes. We will continue to go in that direction.
Additionally, our marketing plan will solidify Iron Pony as a destination location, welcoming visitors from all over the U.S. There will be new divisions launched with a focus on creating new motorcyclists. We think everyone should enjoy riding motorcycles.
Motorcycling has deep roots in Ohio. We are working with civic leaders to establish Ohio as a riding mecca with incredible roads, wonderful trails and warm, motorcycle-friendly, hospitality.
This story originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Dealernews.