Hog Wild

Motorcycles are more than a business for this couple

by Anne Averyt

harleySince they bought Green Mountain Harley-Davidson in Essex Junction four years ago, David and Debby Pearson have transformed it into an award-winning community treasure.

For David and Debby Pearson life is about motorcycles and challenges. Whether it’s a grueling desert race, a cross-country endurance race, or being first-time owners of a motorcycle dealership, the Pearsons take on challenges with energy, enthusiasm, and equanimity. Along the way they always make friends.

The Pearsons bought Green Mountain Harley-Davidson on Vermont 15 in Essex Junction four years ago. Since then they have transformed the business into an award-winning dealership and a destination site for HOG (Harley Owners Group) members from around the region.

It doesn’t take long after walking into the showroom to know there’s something special here. It’s more than just the shiny chrome and the dozens of motorcycles standing at alert in the spacious aisles. It’s the chatter, the energy, and the welcoming aura of good feeling all around that makes bikers and non-bikers alike feel at home.

Providing a life-enhancing experience is the Pearsons’ business philosophy. “It’s our mission statement,” Debby explains.

“We are local, hands-on owners and riders. Our core value is community: supporting the community that supports us.” That means both the community of Harley riders and the greater Vermont community, she says. It means rolling out the welcome mat for Green Mountain HOG members, and it involves hosting events to raise awareness and funds for local organizations and charities.

“David and Debby are special people,” says Holly Bickford, the GMHOGS activity director. “They foster good feelings. They’re always willing to work with us to set up events, whether it’s a group ride to just have fun or a ride to raise money for breast cancer or the Special Olympics.”

“We’ve done our best to be welcoming,” David says, but he adds that it is the HOG culture that makes their dealership special. “I’ve never been in a business environment where customers are really involved in the success of a business — where customers volunteer at events, come here and wash windows, cook for other customers, set up tents at events and take things down …”

“The HOGS are the heart of the business,” adds Debby. The group, with almost 200 members, keeps growing. “People meet here to start their day or to do a ride.” A member gets an idea, such as visiting a creemee stand in Huntington after work, and the word gets out to meet at 6 p.m. Anywhere from two to 10 people show up, she continues. “I like to think we are Vermont’s destination dealership — that we provide a central place where people can come and meet.”

The Green Mountain Harley-Davidson dealership is really not one business but five, David explains — a complex mix under one roof. “We sell motorcycles,” he says, “which are ‘want’ items not ‘need’ items, so that makes the sales process and our connection with our customers unique. But parts and service are about need and demand — customers needing to get their motorcycles serviced — so that’s a different kind of traffic.

“Then we have a motor clothes department where we merchandise leather and T-shirts, all on a trendy fashionable basis.” The company also does rentals and provides help with financing and insurance, which adds another level of complexity. There are, as David puts it, “a lot of moving parts, but what we want is to offer our customers a seamless experience.”

GMH-D is obviously doing that. The business sells on average 400 motorcycles a year and employs a staff of 28, almost half of whom are women, Debby says proudly. For the last three years GMH-D has been named one of the top 100 motorcycle dealers in the country by Dealernews.com. For 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, the dealership was ranked the top Harley-Davidson shop in New England, based on customer satisfaction surveys.

The Pearsons work hard to win their customers’ approval. David explains that Harley-Davidson has built a culture of camaraderie and community in addition to building motorcycles. “For me, the culture that happens around H-D that makes it par to none — it’s just amazing.”

David and Debby share their customers’ love of biking. Both of them logged a lot of miles before they rode into the Champlain Valley to set up shop.

David grew up in Canada and moved to the United States with his family when he was 18. He has raced professionally on the aggressive off-road National Enduro Circuit and competed in the thousand-mile, day-long Baja desert race. “I always joke that motorcycles are a bit of an addiction,” David says, “but they are a much better addiction then many things out there.”

Debby was born in Flint, Mich., and called California home as a child before moving after college to Boulder, Colo. She is a second-generation biker; both her parents rode and one of her earliest memories is sitting on her father’s cycle. It took a lot of pleading, but Debby got her first bike at age 9. “It was a fiery red Honda XR 75 and I could barely touch the ground on my tiptoes, but it was so much fun.”

He was in the retail banking industry and she was in the mortgage business when they met in Boulder — through a motorcycle connection, of course. They married in 2006 and celebrated with a three-week honeymoon trip, riding their cycles from Colorado through Mexico, down to Guatemala and Belize.

Soon after, David left banking to be a financial/managerial consultant in the motorcycle industry. When the possibility opened for them to purchase the dealership in Essex Junction, they decided, as Debby puts it, “to trade the Rocky Mountains for the Green Mountains.” It’s been a move neither of them regrets.

“I love Vermont,” Debby says. “I find it very peaceful out here, not a lot of hustle and bustle. Riding here is meditative and I like the solitude of it.” When you’re on a Harley, riding Vermont’s back roads, she says, you’re free, just being in the moment with all that is around you.

While bikers, and dealers, live for the joy of the short Vermont summer, the Pearsons make sure they don’t lose their connection during the months of knee-deep snow. The showroom stays open in the winter, hosting a variety of events from women’s breakfasts to motorcycle video nights, potlucks, and bowling derbies. The idea is to help people stay in touch and keep alive the anticipation of being back on the open road come spring.

The biggest challenge of managing the company, David says, is the seasonal nature of the industry. “Staffing seasonality is challenging, so we have tried to find unique ways to balance that.” One way has been to establish a connection to the Community High School Program through the Vermont Department of Corrections.

The Community High School is the only accredited high school in the country that’s run through a department of corrections. For the last three years, the staff of GMH-D has gone into the classroom to teach both technical skills and life skills.

“Working together with the state gives some of our technicians the opportunity to work over the winter and allows kids to get technical training on a motorcycle,” says David. “The kids design and build a project bike, then we turn around and donate that bike to an organization that raffles it to raise money.”

The Community High School project each year involves six to 15 boys and girls, and David calls it a win-win-win situation. “The kids win, we win, the state wins,” he explains. “It’s neat to be involved. Our technicians say it is very inspiring to see these kids, who’ve had a bit of a rough start, get excited about building a bike. It means a lot to them to be part of that, to help break the cycle.”

The program has been so successful that last year GMH-D expanded its involvement with the corrections department to include a new program at the Women’s Correctional Facility. There, a technician works with the women, who tear apart a motorcycle and learn how to put it back together again.

GMH-D is always ready to lend support to a charity ride or event that its members want to sponsor. The showroom is the launching pad for community fundraisers from multiple sclerosis to breast cancer, from Special Olympics to Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. But the Pearsons and the HOG members have a special interest and commitment to the Moose Foundation, which David helped found.

The nonprofit’s mission is “riders helping injured riders,” he says. It is designed to help a Vermonter or someone from out of state who has been injured in a motor cycle accident here. Its creation was spurred by Bruce Brown, who had a serious run-in with a moose in 2007. Thanks to the effort of the motorcycle community, Brown has been able to get back to his life and back on his bike.

Life is good now for the Pearsons. At Green Mountain Harley-Davidson, jokes Debby, they have found their retirement job: “a job you don’t have any desire to retire from.” •