NEMPCO & Biker's Choice in Hot Rod Bikes
by K. Randall Ball
HRB - November 2001
HOT ROD BIKES INTERVIEWS BOB KAY WHEN HE WAS HEADING UP BIKER'S CHOICE
Bob Kay married his high school sweetheart and a few years later married his professional being to the motorcycle industry. He's been an absolute success with both marriages and today continues to demonstrate a high level of passion for both, while living in Fort Worth, Texas, and heading up Biker's Choice for parent company Tucker Rocky.
HRB: Tell me how you got involved with motorcycling and what you rode.
BK: When I was growing up my grandfather rode and so did my father. My parents didn't want me to ride motorcycles, so I got into otherthings, like hydroplanes. I restored one at 14 years of age. Then I got into cars and hopped up a '53 Ford. I had a '63 Tempest that was a real piece of crap, then I had a '53 Cadillac Sedan DeVille.
Some of my father's friends would come over riding Panheads with cigarettes rolled up in their short-sleeved shirts. My father and my uncle were truck drivers, so there was always that element around the house: Country music and Harleys.
I went off to college and the first guy I met was John Bettencourt, who was a national motocross champion. We weren't even roommates, but we got along and had the same party attitude, so we threw his roommate out and I moved in. We became best friends and John got me into the motorcycle industry. After about a week in school, I went out and bought a CL 450 twin. We took it apart, flamed it and put apes on ft. That was my first bike, at 1$. That was in 1969. Then I got more involved with John, going to the races and helping out in the pits. Later on he became a Superbike racer. So I went to Daytona and worked the pits and the time clock and traveled all over working on the bikes in the van as we rolled from one race to the next.
About a year and a half later, after three semesters of college, I wasn't that thrilled with school and John's father opened a Honda shop and they asked me to come up. I started in the shop performing new bike assembly, adding fluids, timing the bikes and testing them. Then I got into parts and for years my forte was parts manager/new products guy. Today that's still my bag.
I lived in a converted milk truck. I parked it behind the shop. It had an electric blanket and no heater. The guys would unplug the blanket in the morning to wake me up. I had a good memory with parts, and they didn't have all the cross reference tools we have now. From hanging around the races you got the notion that if someone needed something, and you knew the parts numbers well enough, you could find something that would fit. I was good at that. I studied and ultimately became a walking encyclopedia of parts numbers. I became the parts manager.
HRB: Tell me about your first experience as the owner of a shop.
BK: I went to Mexico in the spring of '74 with my wife, Deb, a buddy of mine and his girlfriend. We hit Mardi Gras in New Orleans and we made sure to visit the cemetery where they filmed 'Easy Rider.' When we came back we decided that it was time to open our own motorcycle shop. We were just a couple of kids then. It was Bob Appel and me. John and I stayed good friends, but he was deep into traveling with the Superbike races so I didn't see him as much. It was time to try something. I had worked at the Honda shop for three or four years, which was a longtime as a kid. I don't know where we got the money, but we got some and opened this shop. We were turnin' and burnin' money. We would make a little and put it right back into the shop. It was called Motorcycle Madness in Walpole, Massachusetts. Basically we built Jap choppers, because no one else would. The Harley guys wouldn't touch one. The Honda dealerships wouldn't have anything to do with straight pipes and ape hangers. So we had this nice little niche business of making Jap choppers. One of the craziest ones was an H-1, a three-cylinder Kawasaki. This was a two-stroke-a 500cc death machine. It couldn't stop. We put twisted Z-bars on it and pipes that went to the moon.
We were building bikes in the 450 to 750cc range because there were parts for them. Anything we could do to make a buck. We did that for a year, then got kicked out of the place. We didn't have enough money behind us to get it going again, so I was working another job. I got up in the morning at four and drove a truck till noon, then ran the shop until 10 at night. I drove a truck for a glove cleaning service throughout the winter and I really didn't want to do that. In the spring I went into Honda of Boston and told them I wanted to work. I'd do anything.
They had a parts guy and didn't need another one. They told me I was too qualified but I told them I didn't care. I wanted to work in a motorcycle shop. I started doing all the jobs that nobody wanted to do: filling batteries, changing displays, cleaning stuff. And that was in '75. Two years later I was the general manager running the store. Then we started acquiring more stores, and finally we set up a small distributorship. By the time I left in '81, we had seven retail outlets in the Boston area and a growing distributorship.
HRB: What about your first Harley?
BK: My first Harley was back at Motorcycle Madness. We took a '73 Sportster with an 18-inch over front end on trade for something. It hung around the shop. It was like riding a rubber band.
I took it out a couple of times and realized how cool it was to have a Harley. The chicks noticed me a lot more. I had always liked the chopper trend. When I was doing the Jap thing, I was involved in a lot of racing. At first when you discussed bikes with guys they were enthusiasts interested in performance. But the industry got away from the bikes and we had to carry ATVs, snowmobiles and it wasn't like real motorcycle people anymore. The real attraction to the Harley scene was that the people were really into it.
If you remember back in '82, Harley wasn't doing the greatest in the world. There was a lot of speculation and people thought I was crazy to get out of the metric market and shift to Harley-Davidson. To me it was like a dream come true. NEMPCO was a cool company. I was getting into Harleys and doing more with parts. There was absolutely no hesitation in my mind. In fact, originally I was supposed to bring more touring stuff into NEMPCO to broaden it, but after playing around with it for a year, I said that this would be crazy. We didn't have any touring customers. We were working with Harley guys who knew what they wanted. We would be forced to make a new category with a new catalog, so I trashed the whole project.
HRB: What happened to the Sportster?
BK: We needed money so we sold the Sportster. We didn't have a whole lot of money at Motorcycle Madness so we turned everything everyday. We sold something and bought more parts to sell. We didn't know what the hell we were doing. We were just kids building bikes and selling them. We sold the Sportster, but after that we had a clean little 45 Flathead for awhile. We didn't have enough money to keep anything around.
It wasn't until I worked for Ralph Cerundolo with the Boston Honda shops that I learned business. He taught me about buying businesses and he put me back in college. I was first going to study engineering. I learned basics from Ralph, but I needed more knowledge so I went back to business school. I went to night school and ran the shops in Boston and raced. I had about two hours of free time a week. We were cookin' all the time. That's when I hooked up with Larry and NEMPCO. I got my business degree from Dean's Junior College. I was feeling like it was time to send out my resume when I got the opportunity to be in the Harley business. Life was real good.
HRB: When did you find NEMPCO?
BK: Larry Coppola started NEMPCO in '7J, working out of his mother's basement. He would travel around New England selling parts. Then he moved his business to the basement of a schoolhouse. By 1982, he had to expand. He couldn't do everything so we started talking, and I joined him in '82. A couple of years after that I put money into the business and became a partner. That's how that started.
HRB: Didn't you have a problem with a snowstorm once?
BK: It was the winter of 1978. I was running one of the shops in the Boston area. Charlie Hadayia was one of the very first NEMPCO salesmen in the region, if not the first. He came into the shop and was trying to sell me Alphabet headers. Dave Weischman from Alphabet was in town doing the rounds with Charlie. They knew this snowstorm was headed in. They were staying at a local hotel, and on my way home I told them I would stop in to have a drink with them.
I never closed the shop early when I was in charge. I would send people home, but I never left early. The snowstorm was coming from the south when they usually roll in from the north. It didn't look real bad, but everyone was complaining, so about 3 p.m. I sent everyone home. I stayed and was cleaning up the shop. About 5, it was getting snowy so I decided to wrap it up and head home, but I had promised Charlie and Dave that I would stop for a drink. After one drink, I told them I had to go.
They told me I wasn't going anywhere. As I headed out to the parking lot, they ordered me another drink. I got to my van but couldn't move. Some four feet of snow fell in 24 hours and closed down Boston and all the highways right during rush hour traffic. People got out of their cars and walked to hotels and homes. It was a week later before they cleared the roads.
At the time we lived in a small house that was heated with wood. My wife Deb had to shovel off the roof of the house so she could light the fire. We had a fair time that week. We cleaned out the bar. A couple of months later I remember Larry and Joe Alphabet arguing over who was going to pay the bill for that week. It was a serious bill. But all the motorcycle people in the area were like family.
HRB: How did you put the money together to buy into NEMPCO?
BK: I had gotten involved in real estate and had bought a couple of houses and fixed them up. So I had some money when Larry came to me and asked me what I was going to do. I asked him what he wanted to do.
At the time, real estate was a good investment and putting my money into motorcycles probably wasn't as good a bet. Larry saw it as a commitmentfrom me, and I liked motorcycles so that's where I was going to put my money. I felt that this would give me more control of my future. It was obviously the right thing to do because in a couple of years real estate took a bust, the Harley industry turned around and took off with Vaughn Beals and Harley going public. We were on a roll.
We were rolling into our 20th anniversary in '91 when our business was beginning to peak. Tucker Rocky wanted to get into the Harley business and couldn't do it on their own. They had tried twice and were unsuccessful. Repeatedly we told them that we didn't want to sell, but in '92 we finally came to an agreement. Everything was working good. Our sales people were Harley mechanics. It was a tight little family and we were focused on what we were doing. Life was good.
HRB: Lets go back to when Larry started NEMPCO. Why did he believe that it would be wise to start a distribution company?
BK: Number one, there was nothing on the East Coast. Jammer and AEE were out west. Larry had gone to MIT. He was on the West Coast teaching and he met Derrick Whitehead of Santee. Larry was a drag racer and was into performance. He had one class dialed in. Larry was smart and had the highest integrity of anyone I had ever met. He was also computer savvy at a time when people didn't know about computers. Somehow he met Derrick Whitehead and traded a car for some parts and brought these parts back to the East Coast and started selling them. At that time it was basically drag pipes and Z-bars, and a few extended fork tubes. Not a lot of parts, but he recognized that need in the marketplace and started NEMPCO. A year later he brought his brother into the business. That's when I met him, when he was selling extended fork tubes, Z-bars for Jap bikes, British Bikes and Harleys all at the same time.
He had one of the first computerized UPS manifest systems, one of the first computerized inventories in the motorcycle industry. That's how NEMPCO got an edge at the time, through service, a high fill rate and fewer errors. We didn't have everything, but what we had was well done. Later, he became more focused on Harleys. Soon it wasn't mixed up with Harley guys selling metric stuff and vice versa. Harley guys sold H-D stuff, it was clean.
HRB: How was NEMPCO, now Biker's Choice, structured when you started?
BK: He had moved to a small warehouse in Dedham, Mass., then he moved to Foxboro. He had a couple of sales guys, but he did most of the purchasing. Then Don Hannon was hired to handle buying. Larry was at a point where he needed to do some things and grow the business. He was carrying extended fork tubes, Colony Hardware, belt drives, Alphabet headers and Santee components, gaskets, and some more odds and ends. In the early'80s, the players were Custom Chrome, Gary Bang and NEMPCO. Jammer was more retail at that point.
I was cocky at the time and I asked him what he needed, a sales manager, a parts manager, I would do whatever he needed. He had just hired a sales manager, so I told him I would do the parts thing. I started expanding the product line, being focused on broadening the parts, sourcing parts and cataloging the parts. In '82, CCI and NEMPCO had the same-sized catalogs. Larry wanted to stay focused on the region, being in control and doing the right thing, but CCI came out with reproduction fat bob tanks and that pushed them to a new level. They were suddenly manufacturers.
We wanted to stay in the Northeast, do the best job we could and create a lasting relationship with dealers and customers. That's when we came up with the philosophy that if you were an H-D mechanic, you could be a NEMPCO salesman. We wanted the entire crew to be involved. Everybody rode and knew our customers. These guys knew what the customers needed before they needed it. We brought in Jim Thompson at the time, who was the top motor builder in the Northeast. He started coming up with kits of parts that were only available from the factory. They included snap rings, key ways and shims that you couldn't get in the aftermarket before. There was a big demand for this stuff for rebuilds.
We tried the fashion thing for awhile by taking on the Hein Gericke line of leathers. But fashion was a whole different animal. We would bring stuff in then it goes out of style and you have to dump the inventory and bring in next year's line. Up to that stage of the game, 1936 to 1984, stuff fit-it was all the same. We decided that we wanted to be the motor specialists. We had that whole act going down real nice. We did a good job for a lot of people. We built a reputation of being consistent.
Once we carried something, we always had it. Because we delivered, we were able to carry lines that customarily were dealer direct. We took on Gardner Wescott and James Gaskets. We became the East Coast base for James. James would run out and we still had them in stock. S&S was the same. Manufacturers would run out and refer their customers to us. We had the stock. We were always watching the inventory.
HRB: Where did the name NEMPCO come from?
BK: It's an acronym for New England Motorcycle Parts Company. We referred to it as New England Motor Parts Company. We never published the meaning of the acronym. It was just NEMPCO. That's very consistent with Larry. Larry had a solid engineering background, he's very straightforward. Where are we? We're in New England and we sell motorcycle parts.
When I first started working for Larry, no one knew NEMPCO unless they were really into the Harley scene. In the spring of '83 I finally went to Cincinnati to represent NEMPCO. It was a real big thing to me. I was on top of the world. I had my business cards that said I was the vice president. I was pumped.
I handed out my cards and people said, "What's NEMPCO?" I was deflated. The next year I took the catalogs and stapled my cards to them and when they asked the question, I handed them the catalog so they understood. We had a 300 to 400 page catalog by then. After doing that for a couple of years, we needed to tell people what NEMPCO was, so I talked to Larry and we met with some marketing guys and we did some brainstorming, and we decided to call it NEMPCO, The Biker's Choice. We had always believed that we had the products that everyone wanted. We started putting it on packaging. We thought that someday we would drop the NEMPCO name and just go with Biker's Choice.
HRB: Tell us about the merger with Tucker Rocky.
BK: We worked with Bob Nickell, who was really the guy who orchestrated the Tucker Rocky empire. He bought Ed Tucker Distributing around 1971 Tucker had been working out of the back of a bowling alley. Bob had a vision of what it could be, and he had been watching what was going on the West Coast. His dream was to build a professional sales organization. He started, worked real hard at it, took the chances and was a true entrepreneur type of guy. Through acquisitions he started building the company, buying other regional distributors. He bought JC Industries out of Maryland. He bought Wheel Sports out of Oregon, then they bought Answer and MSR, which were big dirt bike names, and that's how they built it. Then there was one more major acquisition, which was Rocky Cycles. That was their competitor back then. It was more of a merger and that's how Tucker Rocky came about.
Rocky Cycles tried to get into the Harley business at one time. They didn't understand it. They wanted to have all parts for all people and it didn't work, so they got out of that business in the mid- '80s. Well then they started seeing the Harley trend picking up and Bob knew that they needed to be in the H-D business again, so they hired some people and bought some lines, but it just didn't work. They couldn't grow it fast enough.
At that time there was NEMPCO, Custom Chrome, Mid-USA and Chrome Specialties, all well established and doing a decent job. With the Harley family, from consumers to distributors to manufacturers, it was a very tight group. It was difficult to break in, so the only solution was acquisition or merger. Parts Unlimited acquired Drag Specialties. Although we were happy, the offers got better and Larry was getting ready to retire. So I said to Larry that whatever he wanted to do, I was with him.
NEMPCO was a very clean company. There were no ghosts in the closet. The deal went down in 30 days. It was so clean that the deal was sealed and two weeks later I was doing a presentation to 200 people on what Harley parts are all about. For the first three years, '92 to '95, NEMPCO was totally separate. They had a warehouse in New Jersey and we had a separate facility, sales, marketing, etc. I ran it. We put more parts in Tucker Rocky warehouses. We were part of the family but separate. We had a small, 24,000 square foot warehouse though. We didn't have enough room, and it was time to grow.
At that time I did some research and opened a facility in New York, which became the corporate headquarters for Biker's Choice and a distribution center for Tucker Rocky. A few years later they started to centralize operations in Texas and they wanted me there as part of the senior management team. I moved to Texas in '97.
HRB: This is a business about passion. It's not a necessity, correct?
BK: It will never be a mass market product. There's a big segment of society that will never get on a motorcycle, but when they do it's because of passion, danger and a slice of that bad boy image. It's the fringe element that drives people to Harley. If you recognize that, you have to do something to support that element. You don't have to rob banks, but you have to recognize the element and encourage the passion. That's a challenge. I must maintain the corporate responsibility and keep the fun.
HRB: How about the future, will distributors change? Will they still fill a service? Will manufacturers go more direct to dealers?
BK: I think that's up to the distributor. They play a very important role in the supply chain. A manufacturer who goes dealer direct or consumer direct starts to lose focus on their role as a manufacturer. If they have to worry about receivables, customer service, marketing, then they can't concentrate on manufacturing.
The distributor's job in the supply chain is to augment the dealer's inventory. There are so many products that a dealer can never afford to carry everything, so we become an extension of their parts department. They can carry a cross section, but they can't carry one of everything. Since manufacturers are disconnected from each other, the dealer would need to be connected to multiple sources, a real pain in the ass.
I believe that the manufacturer's job is to make product and help create a demand for it, but they can't create all the demand or service it. The distributor buys larger quantities and has them readily available to the dealers who supply the consumers.
The dealer can't represent everything that is out there as far as choices for the consumer. That's what all distributors strive for. Some years one distributor does a better job than another, but that's what were all striving for. We never want to run out of inventory. That's our job and it's a challenge. We have other jobs helping the manufacturer market his product, not just advertising, but programs for product launches with the sales force. There are so many products available that a dealer can't keep up with all of them, so it's our job to provide technical support. We need to provide a link to the manufacturer if there's a problem.
The bottom line is that the end user must be happy and find it easy to enjoy his purchase, especially the new rider. If he has to stop alongside the road to fix his bike, like we thought was part of the deal in the past, he'll go play golf or buy a BMW. It's real important for the distributor to cushion that link from the end user to the manufacturer, whether it be technical support, warranty coverage, stocking levels or information. It's up to the distributor to provide product information and technology.
HRB: There's the performance element, the chopper trend and the touring aspect of the market. Do you see any major obstacles to these markets in the future? Or do you see an element that will create another boom to the market?
BK: Trends are cyclical. Choppers have been around since 1945. The performance side goes even deeper. There are three groups-basic motorcycles, choppers and the minimalist look. The new Harley is a chopper, the V-Rod. The newest trend is sportbikes that have been stripped or chopped. That's the fastest growing segment of the market, chopped sport bikes. Then there's the touring bike in varying degrees. The styling of the touring bike is constantly changing from the full-on touring bike to the convertible style, to the standard bike with bags.
No matter what the government regulates, the most important aspect of bikes is being able to personalize them, and people will figure out a way no matter what regs they throw at us. That's the beauty of motorcycles. Plus OEMs are always 10 years behind the trends. There are no obstacles. The challenge is to keep bringing new people into the sport. Trends will constantly change. The extreme style is the latest craze, but kids won't always want to do wheelies at 100 mph. It will change. A car will never give you the same thing that a motorcycle does.
HRB: So CCI is building engines and CSI is after the wild chopper market. What gives Biker's Choice an edge?
BK: Our deal goes back to bike-in-a-box offerings. We force value into the kit at a reasonable price. Our competitors make a couple of mistakes in this area. They put too many components into the kit, which doesn't give the consumer the opportunity to personalize their ride. Then there's no choice. Others concentrate on making it cheaper by using substandard or import products: then you don't end up with a quality ride after all your efforts. So we try to concentrate on quality and American-made components, quality frames, Perewitz designed tanks, West Coast Choppers fenders and keep looking at that aspect of it.
We are trying to expand our supply and enhance our wheel line. We have several proprietary designs. We're focusing on chassis components and we're after the apparel line. We want a moderate price range but good quality leather goods. We are not a manufacturer like CCI. That changes focus. Complete and reliable delivery is also a key issue. If you're going to be a player in the distribution industry in the 21st century, it's not a matter of just having parts and a catalog. You've got to have service. Where we will be different will be our ability to offer added service and high-tech systems while not running out of parts, and helping vendors forecasts. What will make the difference will be involved companies that understand the consumer needs and respond.
HRB: What's in the future for Bob Kay?
BK: I like the motorcycle business. It's the only thing I've ever done since I've been out of college. For years and years I never felt I was working, really working. Sure, I spent a lot of long hours talking to people about motorcycle parts. Then I would come home and for relaxation I would go out into the barn and work on a motorcycle. It's my life. I used to rebuild engines on the porch when times were tough. If, for some quirk of economic factors, the motorcycle industry failed, I would go back to the barn and build engines. I've got a nice shop in the barn now, so I wouldn't have to do it on the porch. I've been with Biker's Choice going on 20 years. It's part of my family and my life. I want it to be the best distribution company out there. I want to keep the excitement in the industry.
Someday I may retire from Biker's Choice and have a little shop by the ocean somewhere. We'll see.
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