Success is about 'who you know'

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Some powersports businesses are doing better this summer than last. One that’s doing great is Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation — they’re up to their eyeballs in customers. They’re so busy, they have a waiting list for custom bikes. And, if you order a popular accessory like their 10-inch Monkey Bars, it may take a few weeks before you can use your monkey wrench to install them. In response, Yaffe is hiring staff and scouring the globe for high-quality manufacturers to catch up with demand. It’s refreshing to hear about this kind of activity after such a long drought.

I recently visited Paul Yaffe Originals in north-central Phoenix to interview Yaffe for an article about his Arizona Centennial Copper Chopper. I’d met him before, but didn’t know him well, even though he was a graduate of MMI back when I was running the school. I found Yaffe to be a savvy businessman and a talented custom builder who loves what he does and is very good at it.

During the interview I was reminded that in business, as in life, success or failure is often connected to who we know and what we do about it. In the case of the Copper Chopper, the person to know was motorcycle enthusiast and Arizona State Rep. Jerry Weiers (R-Glendale). It was Weiers’s idea to use a motorcycle as the centerpiece for celebrating Arizona’s 100th anniversary and, at the same time, promoting motorcycle safety awareness. Weiers approached Yaffe well over a year ago with the idea to build a custom motorcycle for this purpose.

That first meeting was what I call a moment of opportunity. Some might call it luck, but the cause and effect of that meeting were due to two things; 1) Yaffe attracted Weiers’s attention through his hard-earned reputation for building gorgeous custom motorcycles and 2) Yaffe took advantage of that moment of opportunity by not judging a book by its cover. He was open to discussing Weiers’s ideas without prejudice for the fact that Weiers looks nothing like your traditional biker or that they don’t run with the same crowd. Yaffe recognized an opportunity and made the effort to capitalize on it.

Even so, the project wasn’t a slam dunk. There wasn’t a lot of money in the state fund to build a custom bike. But being a smart promoter, Yaffe realized that building a two-wheeled state mascot could be worth its weight in gold (in this case, copper) for the number of positive impressions it created. And he was right: the Arizona Centennial Copper Chopper has become famous in Arizona and soon nationally, along with the guy who created it. The Copper Chopper has its own website, it can be rented for personal appearances and for $5 a ticket, one can enter a contest to take it home after it’s finished doing its official work next year.

Are there moments of opportunity in your future? Will you recognize them when they confront you? Will you respond in a manner that maximizes your chances for success? That’s the point of this column. Yaffe recognized his moment of opportunity in Jerry Weiers’s initial visit and was willing to invest significant energy up front for the success he envisioned in the future.

Your next moment of opportunity could be disguised as a police officer in for parts, a building inspector needing a vehicle service or a city councilman checking out new bikes. You see, you never know when it’s good to know people in influential places. Knowing that cop might mean a warning instead of a ticket. The building inspector might save you thousands of dollars in remedial work during a construction project, or that city councilman may intervene on your behalf when there’s a crazy regulation being considered. It’s good to have friends in high places — friends who support your industry and your business, friends you can lean on when the crap hits the fan.

Unfortunately, too few powersports business owners make an effort to create relationships with their elected politicians and civil servants. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye — or, as we see so often these days, loses the right to hold an event or loses the right to ride due to an overbearing law. Yaffe enjoys building creative new customs. He’s currently playing with a sidecar project that has a three-way adjustable air suspension. The bike, sidecar chassis and the sidecar itself all can be raised and lowered independently. You can see the joy on Paul’s face.

You get the message. But don’t think it’s just the shop owner who has the responsibility to take advantage of these moments of opportunity. Often, it’s the service writer, parts counter associate or motorcycle salesperson who interacts with the customers who can make a difference. Learn a lesson from businessmen like Paul Yaffe who build relationships by being courteous, open-minded and willing to listen to their customers no matter what they look like or what their profession might be. During those interactions, moments of opportunity may present themselves that, when capitalized upon, can turn into lucrative ventures for the future or prevent disasters that could stop your business in its tracks.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews August 2011 issue.