Norton Motorcycles USA rebuilding storied brand, new dealer network

Publish Date: 
Nov 11, 2011
By Dennis Johnson

Motorcycling's history is filled with the names of marques that have come and gone — and come back again and then disappear yet again.

And then there are those that never really seem to go away. These are the ones that seem to just hang about, as if suspended in time, surviving on the strength of legend and the dedication of diehard enthusiasts.

"We need to ensure that most U.S. riders have reasonable access to a Norton dealer."

-- Dan Van Epps, CEO, Norton Motorcycle USA

Like Norton Motorcycles. It's one of the handful of brands that is synonymous with the word motorcycle. Norton, two short syllables that sound like internal combustion. It's also one of those names you'd expect to see paired with the words "resurrection" or "revival" in a sentence.

But U.K. businessman Stuart Garner is hoping to change all that with a renewed manufacturing effort in Castle Donington, U.K., where he has resurrected (there's that word) the Norton brand and the Commando model name with a lineup that includes three iterations in that range. Earlier this year, the company received a British-government-backed trade loan to help increase production and help benefit its supply chain.

 

This revival (again) is slowly taking shape here in the United States as its Connecticut-based subsidiary works to solidify a North American dealer operation. Dan Van Epps, Norton Motorcycle USA's CEO, says the Brit bike company is focusing on building a network of about 50 profitable dealers over the coming two years.

"Fundamentally, we need to ensure that most U.S. riders have reasonable access to a Norton dealer," says Van Epps, adding that they eventually expect to reach about 15 different markets. "The goal is not quantity, but quality. We want the very best professional, experienced dealers in each market, obviously delivering superior service and support to the Norton owners, who this is all about."

Thus far, Norton USA has seven dealers signed up, and about six more in the pipeline, with the company taking a very methodical and calculated approach to placing more. Why such painstaking steps? Because the success of its dealerships is intricately tied to the future success of reestablishing Norton, Van Epps says.

Yes, a manufacturer has to educate its dealers, but it also has to listen to them, he explains. The dealers are the experts in their markets. A dealer in Dallas is going to best know what products his customers want and how the company can improve its products to satisfy more customers.

Dealerships also have to be profitable in order for the company to be solvent in the current market, he says. And Norton is looking to do things differently both on the manufacturing side and on the dealer-relations end. This includes a lean U.S. management structure and an effort to make sure each dealer has a Norton "specialist" on hand, who knows the brand and its dealer programs backward and forward.

"We looked carefully at the motorcycle business over the last decade and we've seen this universal struggle for motorcycle dealers to remain profitable, or break even, for that matter. Dealers who have been around for 50 years are closing their doors," he says. "We believe that a lot of the current practices are clearly unsustainable for Norton to be profitable in this market.

"We don't seek to produce the volumes of the larger European manufacturers. Our growth plan, infrastructure are calculated to make sure we remain flexible, profitable and able to scale ourselves with the market. Rather than trying to push the market, we want to react to the market. That's the fundamental difference. We're not going to be leaders in absolute volume, we will be leaders in the contribution to our dealer's bottom line." (continued)