By Jamison Cocklin
Looking out over the sales floor at Harley- Davidson Biketown is a lot like seeing doubles.
It’s staggering, hundreds of motorcycles it seems fill the floor; a sea of chrome, black paint and steel hardware sprawls out before customers, as Jim Morrison and The Doors serenade shoppers through the loudspeakers above.
If there’s a biker’s paradise, the Austintown dealership must be it.
About 50 employees in sales, service and management have helped to make Biketown one of the top 25 Harley-Davidson dealerships in the country. It is the highest-grossing Harley dealer in Ohio.
Moving beyond the sales floor, to the corner of the store and up a flight of stairs, into a loft area where the floors are made of thick hardwood and throw rugs adorn the room, sits Tom Wronkovich on a plush, red leather couch. Biketown belongs to him. As its owner, he has orchestrated both its atmosphere and its success.
“Motorcycles are what drives the business; it’s the motor that drives the business,” he said, recalling his 20 years in the business. “You have to sell motorcycles, and then all ships rise with the tide. There’s no doubt about it — the best business to be in is the Harley-Davidson business.”
Although Wronkovich’s dealership operates independently of the Milwaukee-based corporation, Harley-Davidson Inc. saw its sales soar nationwide in the second quarter, with profit increasing by 30 percent from a year ago. Strong demand at home and abroad earned the company $247.3 million.
Wronkovich says his dealership alone sells about 1,000 new and used bikes per year, with most of his customers coming from throughout Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
After a few years of slumping sales due to economic issues, consumer interest and sales of motorcycles finally are seeing gradual increases. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, year-to-date sales are up 3.6 percent.
On NADAguides.com, the largest publisher of market-reflective vehicle and motorcycle pricing and information, Can-Am, Harley-Davidson, Boss Hoss and Lehman Trikes made up 93 percent of all interest-related searches in July.
Still, one problem continues for Harley. Despite its cultlike following and its loyal customers, Harley-Davidson riders are mostly baby boomers; their median average age is more than 47. The company has struggled to grow its market share among younger consumers.
However, Wronkovich likes to think he has his finger on the pulse. For some time, he has been developing a new concept for his dealership that he hopes will translate well for others across the country. About three weeks ago, Wronkovich opened Soul Biketown, a cross-section of “motorcycles, music and art,” as he describes it.
The “vintage meets rock ‘n’ roll” loft space in the corner of his dealership is now dedicated to selling custom motorcycles, vinyl records and hi-fi vintage speakers, all geared toward younger customers.
“It’s not that younger people aren’t interested in motorcycles — it’s hard for them to get on to metric brands because of insurance and financing,” Wronkovich said. “This generation wants less branding and more individualism; they think Harleys are for their dads.”
Wronkovich believes Soul could go a long way in fixing that misconception. Harley-Davidson Inc. also has engaged in efforts to redesign some of its models with younger riders in mind.
In the coming months, Wronkovich hopes to open his dealership to live music, something he said he’s working to accomplish by trying to attract both national and local acts, such as Youngstown indie-rock band The Zou.
If anything will ensure Harley’s longevity, it will undoubtedly be its status as an American icon. Its industry is one that permeates the American mind and evokes freedom and the wild abandon that come with youth.
In 1901, at the age of 21, William S. Harley completed a blueprint drawing of an engine designed to fit into a bicycle.
A Milwaukee factory was later opened, and in 1907, William A. Davidson quit his job for the Milwaukee Railroad and joined Harley in his pursuits.
By 1910, the company’s famed bar and shield logo was patented, and early on, almost half of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced were sold for use by the U.S. military in World War I.
Finally, in 1931, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company came to dominate the American market, with all its competition gone except Hendee Manufacturing. Today, some maintain they’ll ride nothing but a Harley.
“It’s totally a lifestyle — it’s a way of life. What other lifestyle can you think of when you have a rally in the middle of South Dakota?” Wronkovich said, referring to The Black Hills motorcycle rally, which takes place annually during the first full week of August in Sturgis, S.D. “You get almost a million people showing up on motorcycles. It’s huge, and it’s definitely a culture.”
After outgrowing its space in Canfield, Wronkovich opted to move the dealership to its Austintown location on Interstate Boulevard in 2007. He attributes much of Biketown’s success to Interstate 80, which is adjacent to the location. He estimates that about 77,000 cars pass the dealership each day.
On average, new Harleys sell for about $17,000 to $18,000. Wronkovich added that their resale value is “phenomenal.” The dealership also sells Polaris off-road vehicles and a variety of apparel, in addition to housing a full- service center.
Nationally, Harley-Davidson Inc. said it plans to ship between 245,000 to 250,000 bikes to dealers this year, which means an increase of 5 percent to 7 percent from last year. When asked if this means more pressure for the dealership, Wronkovich was indifferent.
“Stressed? Do I look stressed to you?” He said. “There’s times when the place is crazy and the customers just want their bikes, or whatever, but for the most part, a lot of what we do is about having fun.”