Easy, Riders: Harley Dealer Has New Owners

  • Twin States Harley-Davidson manager Staci Baker, right, laughs with Bobbi Kuhn and her boyfriend Tom Young, of Braintree, Vt., left, in front of the new bike she had just purchased in Lebanon, N.H., on Nov. 30, 2017. The couple both bought identical 115th anniversary bikes at the Lebanon dealership. With them Ivan Salo a fit specialist at the dealership, middle, and Josh Collins who works in service. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Motorcycle technician Brad Akers woks on a bike at Twin States Harley-Davidson on Nov. 30, 2017 in Lebanon, N.H. Akers has been the only technician at the dealership this past year. The business has recently been sold. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Duane Rondeau, of DeVoids Painting works at Twin States Harley-Davidson on Nov. 30, 2017 in Lebanon, N.H. The dealership was recently sold. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • New Harley-Davidson motorcycle owner Bobbi Kuhn is given a bell by employee Ivan Salo at Twin States Harley-Davidson on Nov. 30 ,2017 in Lebanon. Manager Staci Baker, left, looks on. Kuhn had just purchased a new motorcycle. Bells are good luck charms for motorcycle riders to keep gremlins and demons away. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/3/2017 12:17:59 AM
Modified: 12/3/2017 12:18:00 AM

Lebanon — Hog heaven has a new owner and an old name.

Seacoast Harley-Davidson in North Hampton, N.H., has bought Granite State Harley-Davidson in Lebanon and restored its original name, Twin States Harley-Davidson.

The sale of Granite State, by co-owners Staci Baker and Natascha Niffka, makes Seacoast and its co-owners, Al Contois and Shawn Lillie, the largest Harley-Davidson distributor in New England. Seacoast Harley-Davidson was started by Lillie in 2003, and Contois joined the business a year later. They went on to add Harley-Davidson dealerships in Rochester, N.H., and Revere, Mass., outside Boston, and now operate four dealerships.

“Shawn and I had been looking for a new, smaller store but also one that was close to the other locations,” Contois said in a telephone interview from Seacoast’s North Hampton dealership. “We are attracted (to the Upper Valley) because of all the potential going on there with the college and hospital,” he said, “and it’s a great area for riding.”

The sale marks the fourth significant commercial property along Miracle Mile in Lebanon to change hands in recent months, following the sales of Flanders and Patch Ford, Bridgman’s Fine Home Furnishings and Gerrish Honda. And Twin-States Harley-Davidson becomes the third of the four landmark properties to go to owners from outside the area. Both Flanders and Patch and Gerrish Honda were sold by their longtime local owners to auto dealership groups outside the Upper Valley, while the Bridgman’s property is becoming the new offices and anchor store for Lebanon-based Listen Community Services.

“This area has been kind of forgotten for a while,” said Baker about the stretch of Miracle Mile that is one of the city’s main commercial retail corridors, along with Route 12A in West Lebanon. “It’s been in need of some updating and I see all these transitions for the positive,” she said.

Baker, who is staying on at Twin States Harley-Davidson as general manager, welcomed the acquisition by Seacoast and said the new owners plan to renovate and redesign the showroom, in addition to hiring additional sales staff for the motorcycle selling season that typically runs from April to October.

She declined to specify how many Harleys the dealership sells annually, other than to say it was “several hundred,” but said the dealership has one of the highest per-capita sales ratios for a Harley dealership in New England.

Twin States carries a full range of Harley-Davidson models, from the entry-level Street line, which begins at $7,000 for the 500 series, up to the CVO Limited for $43,000.

“We have a very, very active Harley population in the Upper Valley,” she said.

The Lebanon dealership is also home base for the Upper Valley Harley Owners Group, which meets there every month to discuss plans for club rides. Kevin Blake, director of the group, said he hadn’t been aware that the dealership was up for sale.

“I was surprised when I heard the news,” said Blake, who works in the IT department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “But I was glad who they sold it to. When you’re a Harley rider you have to stop at all the Harley dealers and I had been down to Seacoast a couple of times. I know it’s a well-run place and I was glad they sold it to somebody who has the experience to make it even better.”

Nonetheless, Baker said, the Lebanon dealership has faced the same challenging sales environment that has hit Harley-Davidson nationally.

The Milwaukee-based company reported profit fell 40 percent in the most recent third quarter amid an ongoing slump in motorcycle sales, which were down 7 percent. The company earlier this year said it would throttle back production in response to falling demand.

Baker and Niffka bought the Lebanon Harley-Davidson dealership in 2008. At the time of the purchase, Baker and Niffka represented one of the few non-inherited, women-owned dealerships in the country.

But not long after they bought the dealership the worst recession since the Great Depression hit and, although it did not cut into the Upper Valley until somewhat later than the rest of the country, sales were still “up and down,” Baker said, depending upon the year.

At the same time, Harley-Davidson, like most motorcycle manufacturers, is finding it difficult to attract millennials, who don’t share the same passion for motorcycle riding as did their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

In response, Harley-Davidson has been redesigning lines of bikes with features such as LED headlamps, “over and under” exhaust pipes, “soft tail” suspension, black-cast wheels and mat-black surfaces to appeal to a younger generation.

In addition, the Lebanon dealership “lost contact with our local community and we were not serving them properly and that’s what we’re in the process of changing now,” Baker said. She said the “core team” is “re-trained, re-invigorated and ready to go.”

“We’ve got to get new riders or we’ll lose our customer base,” Baker said. “That challenge is something we’re addressing with new ownership.”

Both Baker and Contois acknowledged it was a little unusual for a co-owner to stay on after the sale of a business as an employee under the new owner, but they said it was a decision that presented itself after the sale and one which Baker said she was “flattered” to receive.

“It was a unique situation that allowed us to do this,” Contois said. “But Staci’s been very involved in the community and everything we heard is that she’s been really positive and supported by the community.”

Among the changes in the works are more on-site promotional events to pull in the Upper Valley’s Harley community, such as barbecue cookouts and chili cook-offs, live music and building a lounge in the showroom where riders can hang out and enjoy free coffee and doughnuts, said Evan Paraskos, the dealerships’ new business manager who relocated to Twin States from a Harley-Davidson dealership in Florida.

“It’s going to turn into a home to a lot of people ... like a club,” said Paraskos, who noted that many Florida dealerships have benefited from a similar strategy.

“The marketing that is going to be put in by the leadership is going to come back to us 10 times,” he predicted.

Contois said Seacoast is also investigating offering a “riding academy” in the Upper Valley, as it does at its other locations, where novices can train to ride motorcycles and then a earn a certificate that they bring to either the New Hampshire or Vermont DMV which will add motorcycle certification to the person’s drivers license. The weekend-long course, however, requires a large flat parking lot to conduct rider-training exercises, which Seacoast is scouting out.

“We’re researching some parking lots now and to see if people might rent them out for the weekend that would allow us to put on some classes,” he said.

Further down the road, Contois said, they would like to introduce a motorcycle maintenance and repair technology certificate program in Lebanon, as Seacoast does at its North Hampton dealership. The 24-week program is run in conjunction with Great Bay Community College.

The approximately $11,000 Harley-certified program was designed as a lower-cost version of motorcycle maintenance schools in Florida and Arizona that cost four times as much and can saddle students with debt. “Students get trained to become entry-level technicians, so they can step into a job (at) any dealership, and it’s much more affordable,” said Contois.

Paraskos, the business manager, acknowledged Harley-Davidson riders, with their devotion to “one of the best-known brands in the world,” are known to put other things in life on hold in order to own a Harley (about 90 percent of sales in the Lebanon dealership are financed with loans, he said).

“Hardcore Harley riders will live in a refrigerator box for a $42,000 bike,” he said. But steep as that cost seems, he added, “it’s still cheaper than therapy.”

Baker, the general manager, agreed.

“You never see a Harley outside a therapist’s office,” she said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

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