Do you hear that distinctive potato-potato-potato chug of an idling motorcycle engine?
Perhaps it’s a harbinger of milder weather.
Or it could be Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson dealership owner Greg Ernst, warming up for yet another record year.
The Harley brand itself has hit a rough stretch, with U.S. sales falling 8.5 percent in 2017 – the fourth consecutive yearly decline.
Yet Lone Wolf has grown steadily since Ernst launched the business a decade ago, earning 10 consecutive Gold Bar and Shield Circle of Excellence awards given by Harley-Davidson to its top dealerships, based on sales, service and customer satisfaction.
“My father-in-law taught me all retail is local,” Ernst said, “and this is a great market.”
During a recent interview, Ernst discussed electric motorcycles, Clydesdales and crashing.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Ernst: St. Louis.
S-R: What were you into?
Ernst: We had a farm where I spent a lot of time and learned to ride a dirt bike. I also liked to hunt and fish.
S-R: Any other interests?
Ernst: I’ve always loved to travel. When I was 14, I spent a summer building houses in Honduras with a church group. That opened my eyes to the whole world, and I’ve traveled as much as I can ever since.
S-R: Did you envision a career back then?
Ernst: I went to St. Louis University to study business, and after graduating got a job with a big CPA firm. I realized pretty quickly that wasn’t what I enjoyed doing.
Next I worked as controller at a floor covering store, and we expanded from one to nine locations. Then I had my own consulting business for a while. When it was time for my twin boys, Bill and Chris, to get jobs, I said, “Why don’t we open a motorcycle shop?”
S-R: What brought you here?
Ernst: We were still in St. Louis at the time, and I was friends with most of the Harley-Davidson dealers there. But none of them were ready to sell. So we looked around and saw an opportunity to open a Harley dealership in Coeur d’Alene.
S-R: What did it cost to start from scratch?
Ernst: A lot. Purchasing a dealership would have been a wiser move, because you make money the day you take over. I had money flying out the door for five months before we could start selling.
S-R: When you opened in May 2008, the world was on the doorstep of a major recession. Did you have any clue hard times were ahead?
Ernst: Absolutely none. Neither did Harley-Davidson, or they wouldn’t have given us the new location.
S-R: What were the early years like?
Ernst: In retrospect, it was good we hadn’t experienced the Harley glory days of ’03, ’04 and ’05. We operated lean and mean and did awesome, selling 200 new motorcycles the first year. Now we sell over 1,000 new motorcycles every year.
S-R: What skills from your earlier careers transferred to this one?
Ernst: Probably the most important ones were management skills. In the floor covering business, there’s a store on practically every corner. If you don’t treat customers right, they’ll just walk down the street.
S-R: How long before you expanded your dealership?
Ernst: Two years after opening in Coeur d’Alene, we purchased a Spokane dealership. In 2011, Harley told us to consolidate the two because they didn’t see the economy turning around. So we bought the vacant United Coatings facility (just off Interstate 90 and Barker Road) and moved both shops to our current location at 19011 E. Cataldo Ave. Two years later, Harley allowed us to open a shop in Lewiston.
S-R: With so many brands to choose from, why did you go with Harley in the first place?
Ernst: I own both a Honda CBR and a Yamaha dirt bike. What separates Harley from other motorcycle dealers is that once you buy one of the other brands, your relationship with the dealer is over. When you buy a Harley, your relationship with the dealer has really just begun. That’s where you meet new friends, because Harley riders hang out at the dealership and ride together.
S-R: What else distinguishes Harley customers?
Ernst: People used to believe if they rode a Harley, they were on top of the pecking order. Those days expired around 2003, 2004. But Harley is still the No. 1 brand among all minority groups, including women, millennials, African Americans and Hispanics.
S-R: How has your dealership evolved since you opened?
Ernst: The main difference is we’re selling a lot more smaller motorcycles, and we’re selling those to younger people. Which is great, because we know once they start out with a Harley, they’re going to stay with the brand.
S-R: Who are your typical customers?
Ernst: People who have already owned a motorcycle and women. We’re the seventh-highest-volume Harley dealership in the country, partly because we have a way higher percentage of female buyers – about 50 percent.
S-R: When did you start offering lessons?
Ernst: Three years ago. I felt an obligation to teach as many people as I could to ride properly. The novice course is spread over four consecutive days and costs $279. We also offer an advanced course and a trike course.
S-R: If you were on Harley-Davidson’s board of directors, what direction would you steer the company?
Ernst: The most important thing for Harley is to get the motorcycles that customers want to the dealerships when they need them. We have the largest selection in the Northwest – about 300 bikes. But they come in so many different models and colors that if we don’t have what you want, we have to go find it. My staff is on the road 365 days a year getting motorcycles for our customers.
S-R: The company has said it will offer an electric motorcycle sometime next year. Harleys are known for their throaty growls, and electric bikes are virtually silent. How do you think riders will respond?
Ernst: One of my sons rode an electric Harley LiveWire prototype at a dealer meeting in L.A. two years ago, and afterward he said, “I don’t care what it costs. I’m buying that bike.” So I can’t wait for it to come out. As far as their being quiet, younger riders aren’t as interested in their pipes being loud. An electric Harley will bring a whole new person into the sport.
S-R: Is the outlaw biker image associated with Harleys accurate?
Ernst: That’s so 20 years ago. Last Sunday, we hosted a biker church service here and drew 250 people. But I also appreciate the loyalty shown by biker clubs over the years. Quite literally, those clubs kept Harley in business when the company really needed help. If those people want to buy bikes from us, we want to sell them bikes. But they’re not your average Harley customer.
S-R: How do you market to younger people?
Ernst: Last summer, we had an MMA (mixed martial arts) fight out in front of the shop that was so huge it literally stopped freeway traffic in both directions.
S-R: If someone is considering buying their first motorcycle, what advice would you offer?
Ernst: My first suggestion would be that they take our riding academy course. As far as which bike is right, that depends on what type of riding they want to do.
If they’re into flat-out speed, Harley’s probably not for them. But if they like the idea of riding with friends, we’re a good fit. We’re very event-driven. Each winter we take 50 customers to Arizona for a weeklong “Vitamin D Tour.” We also sponsor a ride to Sturgis (S.D.) every year and a cross-country ride to Washington, D.C.
S-R: Have you ever put a motorcycle down?
Ernst: Yes, in Florida on spring break years ago. A bunch of us who had no business on motorcycles – we were wearing T-shirts, swimming suits and flip-flops – rented bikes. As I went around a corner, I got distracted, hit something and went over the motorcycle.
S-R: Where you hurt?
Ernst: A little bit – scraped up on the arms.
S-R: How old are you now?
S-R: How do you relax?
Ernst: I ride, fish and breed Clydesdales.
S-R: When will your sons take over the business?
Ernst: When I’m 90. Maybe.
S-R: Do they know that?
Ernst: (laugh) No. Well, they may know it now.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.