Wilkins H-D says secret to success -- is no secret

Publish Date: 
Jun 17, 2014
By Marilyn Stemp

THIS IS NOT a riveting, tell-all story. Here, you won’t find the silver bullet to instant success, the magic catalyst to turn around an ailing business or the secret sauce to stability.

Because things don’t exist, according to John Lyon, co-owner and general manager of Wilkins Harley-Davidson in Barre, Vt.

So why keep reading?  Because as winners in the Dealernews Top 100 competition and recipients of H-D’s Platinum Bar & Shield, the Wilkins family must know something about running a successful dealership. Lyon said it’s essentially this: “We excel at the fundamentals, and the fundamentals aren’t sexy or exciting. People ask us what we do to thrive and they generally know this is the answer, but they’re looking for an easier way.”

Photography by Bear Cieri

Think of it like this: If you were fixing a broken motorcycle, you wouldn’t begin by taking the bike apart. You’d start by checking the basics -- spark, fuel, connections -- and work from there. That’s the approach Wilkins has taken from the beginning: Get the fundamentals right and success follows.

If you were fixing a broken motorcycle, you wouldn't begin by taking it apart -- you'd start by checking the basics and work from there.

A family-owned dealership currently under the guidance of a third generation, Wilkins H-D had humble beginnings. When Lyon’s grandfather, Harry Wilkins, was still serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he wrote a letter to Harley-Davidson asking to be appointed as a dealer at war’s end. In 1947, when he got back to his mother’s home in Barre, he learned his application had been approved. He sold the first three motorcycles out of his mother’s garage.

To supplement his income from the fledgling dealership, Harry had a second job at a dry cleaner, where he met -- and married -- the boss’s daughter, Barbara.

At their 67th anniversary party this past January, 85-year-old Barbara was on hand, as she is every day, along with her daughter, Ann, who runs the back office, and Ann’s son, John Lyon, who’s been managing the business for the past 10 years. Lyon credits his military college background, law practice experience and family examples like his grandmother for providing the foundation that keeps Wilkins H-D on an even keel.

“It’s Leadership 101,” Lyon said. “Everybody in a group needs to do themselves what they ask others to do. I encourage the staff to challenge me. I try to maintain a level playing field with them on most issues. Anything I hold them accountable for, they should be able to hold me accountable for.”

Lyon also says that while there is no strict hierarchy, there is a chain of command, but it’s there only to achieve a certain process. He grew up observing and emulating the family example, and realizes that the entire Wilkins staff learns by example every day, which gets back to accountability -- for everyone. Unparalleled customer service is the hallmark at Wilkins H-D.

Barbara (see photo) runs the sales floor and she’s the undisputed queen of her realm.

Wilkins has customers who can say that Barbara has sold motorcycles to four generations in one family. Some of them recall days at the old shop near Harry and Barbara’s home when Barbara would pass a plate of sandwiches around the shop for anyone who happened by.

People say she’s always treated everyone like family and that homey atmosphere is a core part of the company culture. Lyon keeps the tradition going by maintaining a presence around the shop, stopping to share coffee and doughnuts with customers and staff alike. The pictures here reflect the climate of camaraderie at Wilkins.

“Our customers can sense the genuineness of our staff,” Lyon said. “Our staff aren’t being told to take care of our customers, they truly want to.”

Part of that equation is that no one at Wilkins, not even the sales people, work on commission. “Our staff is not driven by money to sell products to customers,” Lyon said. “They’re here to help customers the best they can. Others disagree with this structure and it may not work for everyone, but it works well for us.”

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