Loyalty Crosses Sporting Brands at Doc's Harley-Davidson


Consider this: The top Harley-Davidson dealer in the Midwest could have ended up a Walgreens. Now ask yourself the following: Does the world need another Walgreens?

Back in 1999 Patty Bush decided the answer was no. This is when she decided to not do what Harley-Davidson wanted.

You see what The Motor Co. wanted was to close down Doc's Harley-Davidson, a V-twin fixture in the suburbs in and around St. Louis, Mo., since 1955. While popular in the area, Doc's was also a seriously underperforming dealership in H-D's Midwest market.

A former hairdresser, Bush found herself in the unlikely position of saving the family business. With Milwaukee breathing down her neck to close up shop and an offer for the building on the table from Walgreens, Bush pushed back and reclaimed her family's slice of orange and black.

She ended up telling the drug store to take a hike, buying the dealership and some surrounding property, and rebuilding Doc's into a 28,000 sq. ft. powerhouse that is a household name among not only St. Louis County's Harley fans, but it's sports fans too.

The move also put Doc's on the path to become the grand prize winner of Dealernews' 2007 Top 100 contest.

"Every time I drive by a Walgreens, I think of it," says Bush. Her dealership's marketing drive and sales force have earned it a No. 1 ranking out of 128 dealers in the Midwest and sales in excess of $15 million in 2006.

Bet on Sports

When it comes to powersports dealerships its seems there are a standard set of tricks used to boost visibility. Weekend rides? Check. Barbecues? Check. Raffles? Giveaways? Gimmicks? Check. Check. Check. Let's face it, getting a dealership to shine a bit brighter than the rest can be a full-time hustle.

At Doc's, there never seems to be a shortage of ideas, and most of these spring forth from Bush's fertile imagination, employees say.

In considering that St. Louis is viewed as one of the country's great sports cities, Bush realized that when she was out at the games, Harley's name was nowhere to be found.

"The Motor Company isn't going to put their name on anything," she says. "They don't do anything for their dealers like that unless it's a co-op with all the other dealers in the area.

"We decided to farm it out on our own."

With the guidance of Rich Blosser, Doc's marketing guru, and Wendy Dover, Doc's CFO, the dealership struck a deal with the St. Louis Blues for a bike giveaway, signs and other promotions at Savvis Center (now known as Scottrade Center). The partnership was a hit, so much so that Doc's struck a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and Busch Stadium. Out among the McDonald's and Best Buy signs, next to the Jumbotron a Doc's Harley-Davidson sign was on prominent display.

"It was exciting for us," Blosser says. "Every time you watched a game and the ball was going over the wall you saw the Doc's sign."

The reaction from the public and their customers was healthy, and Doc's ended up signing deal with the St. Louis Rams. Sports marketing turned out to be a success for Doc's even as the Blues were plowing themselves into a perfectly dismal season.

This hometown loyalty turned the Blues' bust into a boon for Doc's.

"We were getting a lot of responses from our customers who said 'You know, they're having the worst season in history, and you guys are still supporting them. ... I'm going to buy a bike from you because you support the underdog," recalls Blosser, who adds that the shop no longer sponsors the Blues.

Not only had Doc's stepped up to be St. Louis' hometown Harley dealer, it had effectively marketed and branded a name that was already well known among riders in the area.

Suddenly Doc's was the go-to dealer when any of the big media outlets that covered Cardinals baseball wanted to do a story on motorcycling.

Bush adds, "We've even had big companies rent our space to have nighttime parties in here for their employees."

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter did an event at the shop for its primary investors, inviting people who had more than half a million dollars invested with the firm. The group got dinner and a history of Harley-Davidson. Not a bad bunch of potential customers to have as a captive audience.

Bush says the efforts have put Doc's in the catbird seat.

"Now people really want to use us," she says. "We can now pick and choose where we put our name because we wear our employees out being busy."

By combining its sports marketing work with its traditional advertising methods, the dealership has built something that is larger than the sum of its parts, Blosser adds.

Hogs and Hagar

In addition to its promotional work in the sports world, Doc's is the official motorcycle sponsor of UMB Bank Pavilion, a concert venue in St. Louis. The shop's advertising is looped on a video screen before and after a concert. Outside the pavilion, participants in the shop's Ride to Rocks from Doc's event can park their bikes in the Doc's Very Important Biker parking right up front. The VIB section is bike-only parking that features Doc's signage, and flagpoles in the parking lot also wave the shop's banners.

"We pick two concerts a year and we give away 100 tickets and then we all ride out to the venue," says Wendy Dover, Doc's CFO. "They [the venue] section off an area for us, and have security and you have to show that you have one of our passes to get into the area."

Thus far, Doc's has sponsored rides to concerts given by Sammy Hagar, Lynard Skynard, the Allman Brothers, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson and the Eagles to name a few.

"It was one of those things where you didn't want to ride your bike out there because they didn't have parking that was secured," Dover adds. "It's something that we brought to the biking community that's really paid off."

Racing in the Blood

Given that Bush grew up around the motorcycle business — Doc's was founded by her grandfather Doc Schneidewind — her love for two wheels goes far beyond retail. This accounts for the shop's race sponsorship in drag racing and flat track racing.

In addition to individual racers, the shop is also the official sponsor of Gateway International Raceway. Doc's places signs around the facility, including one that is visible during nationally televised events.

"My dad drove me around to all those sponsored racers when we were kids," she says. "When I came in here I knew these guys couldn't race if somebody didn't help them. They're still out of the backs of their vans ... [and] paying their own freight unless they've got a great big name like Chris Carr, and [even] he got there the same way."

Dover adds that given her responsibility for the shop's finances, she was a bit skeptical about the questionable return on investing in a racer. She's since come to understand the emotional payoff that comes with backing a guy who's out on the quarter mile. The goodwill this engenders with customers is a bonus to boot.

Having a little racing fuel in her own blood, Bush just gets it.

"The only payoff is the smile on those guys' faces when they win," Bush says.

While it's only been seven years in the new store, and about as long since she forced Harley's hand, Bush and her team have propelled Doc's out of the St. Louis area and into the national spotlight.

There's a saying around her dealership that Bush "has more good ideas in a minute than most people do in a lifetime." Blosser, Dover and her other employees don't disagree. Bush's determination fuels a creative fire that burns among the entire staff.

"I get bored easily, and I think our customers do too. I just think it's fun to do all things. I like to do anything once," Bush says.