It’s the classic American success story: pro racer moonlights at a gear store, gets into accident and can’t race anymore, buys out his partners and turns the store into a nationwide chain. And the rest, as they say, is history.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Cycle Gear, the national motorcycle retailer. But to get the details of how, seemingly overnight, a local, independent chain blew up nationwide to become the largest motorcycle gear retailer in the US, we went straight to the source: Dave Bertram, CEO of Cycle Gear Inc. Bertram is the aforementioned racer, the man who took Cycle Gear from a local northern California shop with four locations to a public company with 97 locations in a matter of years.
Cycle Gear is the only national chain retailer of new motorcycle and ATV gear in the US. While mail-order distribution houses are a dime a dozen, Cycle Gear operates 97 stores in 26 states across the country, mainly in the West, South, and Northeast. And this is no franchised dealership where all the stores are different; Cycle Gear employees are owners of corporate stock options and as such have a personal stake in the store and its products. They are expected to achieve a certain level of quality, selection, and customer service. And according to Bertram, those are the three legs of the Cycle Gear shop stool: “The product, the people, and our commitment to customer service — that’s always been our cornerstone. We know who signs our paychecks.”
Started in Benicia, California, back in the early 1980s, Cycle Gear was a small operation, with just a few Bay Area stores and four owner/partners. One of these was Dave Bertram, a young man who was also carving out a name for himself on the regional off-road racing circuit, racing ISDE (International Six Days’ Enduro) qualifiers on weekends. Dave was named managing partner at Cycle Gear in 1982, just as he came into the expert class. That same year, he received his first factory sponsorship with Husqvarna. Bertram rode for Husqy for five years before moving to American Suzuki for five more successful years, then switching back to Husqvarna — all the while running the operation at Cycle Gear.
“We’d try to open a new store whenever we could scrape together enough money,” he said, but it was clear he more interested in motorcycle culture and getting the most out of CG than were his partners. In 1992, on the downside of a successful riding and racing career, Bertram shattered his wrist in a crash at a race in Australia. Having already decided that ’92 would be his final season on the circuit, the crash sealed Bertram’s fate; Dave hung up his leathers for good and turned to devoting his time and energy to Cycle Gear.
“I was 34, had accepted the fact that I’d lost that butterfly in the gut, that passion, that burning desire to win,” he admits. But he hadn’t lost the will to succeed.
Bertram bought out his partners, and put a business plan in place: a nationwide chain of retail outlets, by motorcyclists for motorcyclists, offering a wide selection of riding gear at the lowest possible price, all the while providing quality customer service. It seemed simple enough, and for advice and inspiration, he turned to the contacts he’d forged over a long racing career. And the reaction was unanimous: it’ll never work.
“Everyone told me that it would be like herding cats,” he remembers with a laugh. “They all said, ‘You’ll never get motorcyclists to follow rules and guidelines.’” But Dave had a vision, part of which was forming an employee stock ownership plan.
“Whenever you have a business that you can’t really control from under one roof, you need the team to be on the same page,” he said. “And including them as part of the ownership base was an important part of that equation.
“Motorcyclists are very results-driven, proud people in general — risk-takers. I knew that owning a piece of your own business was very rewarding. So I figured I could provide some motorcyclists with a career path, give them a competitive salary and bonuses and have them own a piece of the action. There’s a lot of pride that goes with that.”
Bertram had taken the very quality that all of his advisors cited as the main reason a chain of motorcycle-related stores wouldn’t work and turned it into a competitive advantage. “As long as you rally them and keep them focused,” he contends, “motorcyclists are very determined. We just give them the tools to get the job done and get out of their way.”
So in 1995, with six stores and an employee stock ownership plan in place, Bertram began growing the business of Cycle Gear — “shoring it up, polishing it” — and then proceeded to market it to fine growth capital. He secured a public company that provided the resources to launch his business plan, and with its backing and investment, Cycle Gear grew from six stores to 45 by 2001.
But this was no random growth spurt. Bertram chose specific markets and regions in which to open Cycle Gear stores, focusing on states with large, year-round riding populations. Locations popped up in Southern California, then hopscotched to Texas, Florida, and Georgia. In January of 2005, Cycle Gear recapitalized with another private equity, and in the ensuing years ballooned from 45 locations to 97, expanding into Northeastern markets such as New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
Today, Cycle Gear is the predominant retailer of motorcycle gear in the US. Recently, the company launched a pair of exclusive new lines: a cruiser-oriented line called BiLT and a sporty, Italian-inspired line known as Sedici. While still offering premium brands like Alpinestars and Joe Rocket, Cycle Gear gets these exclusive lines factory direct — meaning, there’s no middleman to take a cut. The savings to the consumer are way more than just substantial.
It’s deals like these that make Cycle Gear different from the mail-order companies — that, and the ability to offer quality gear and excellent customer service. With an employee base of motorcycle enthusiasts who have a tangible stake in the company, you can bet your local CG store is going to treat you right.
“When a customer comes in, he’s dealing with an owner of the shop, somebody that’s as equally passionate about motorcycling as [he is],” Bertram says. “Before we had two nickels to rub together — terrible-looking stores with no air conditioning and torn-up carpet — we had one thing we could hang our helmet on: extraordinary customer service.” Not to mention that 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.
In a world full of nameless, faceless catalog retailers, Cycle Gear has rapidly become the friendly, knowledgeable face of a motorcycling nation. RB
Story By Jon Langston