If every motorcycle dealership built its retail brand the way Arun Sharma built MotoCorsa’s, how many more people would ride motorcycles?
Every November during its global dealer conference, Ducati presents an award to the highest-volume dealer in every region. This past November, the top U.S. dealer was MotoCorsa, in Portland, Oregon.
MotoCorsa again. I guess winning for the sixth time proves their previous five wins weren’t flukes.
The first time I heard about MotoCorsa, it gave me pause. If the top-grossing dealership was in New York or LA, I’d think, Well of course. But Portland? There’s any number of bigger, richer markets.
To understand MotoCorsa, you need to get to know Arun Sharma – although he no longer works there, everyone agrees that he’s the guy who created the dealership’s unique culture and retail brand.
Motorcycles aren’t exactly the Sharma family business; Arun’s mom & dad, and his sister, are all college professors. He was an English major who left Wisconsin on a long and winding motorcycle journey – that ended with a Life-flight to a hospital in Mesa, Arizona. He took that as a sign Arizona was not for him. A friend suggested Portand.
After working a few low-level retail jobs, Arun settled into an art shop where he worked as a framer. “I ended up in sales, and in the late ’90s I started an online business called TheArtBroker.com,” he told me. “It was great. I was living the life of Reilly in a cool apartment in downtown Portland but I worked by myself. I decided that I needed another job around other people.”
While Arun was sitting around in his underwear, selling art online, Ducati came back to Portland. A successful regional auto dealer group, Ron Tonkin Dealerships, started selling Ducs out of an existing Ferrari dealership. When Arun heard that Tonkin was about to move the Ducati franchise to a stand-alone store near Nike’s headquarters in the suburb of Beaverton, he applied for a part-time sales job.
“Of course the GM’s first question was, ‘Had I ever worked in a bike shop?’” Arun recalled. “When I said no, his second question was, ‘Then how are you going to sell Ducatis?’ I told him that I sold fine art and rode a Ducati, and that I’d figure it out.”
The new shop was staffed like a car dealership. “The sales manager was a guy from a big multi-line store. He would just stand there with his hands on his hips while I talked to a customer. He’d take me aside and ask, ‘Are they buying?’” Arun recalled. “I’d say, No, they’re just looking, and he’d say, ‘Don’t waste your time talking to them, go find someone who’s buying a bike today.’”
Sharma sometimes ran out of the shop, to catch customers as they left so he could apologize for the shitty customer experience they’d just had. When that got old, he decided to quit, but he wanted to hand his resignation to the owner, Brad Tonkin. When Tonkin asked why Arun was leaving, he spoke from the heart.
“When you sell a brand like Ducati, you’re a steward of that brand,” Arun told him. “It’s not a widget; it’s almost a member of the family.”
You can guess where this story’s going: Tonkin offered to let Arun run the shop. In case you think it was all sunshine and lollipops from then on, however, you should know that Sharma summarily fired almost the entire staff. (Only the shop’s best tech was spared, because he had a great attitude and also, I suspect, because Arun realized he had to keep the service department ticking over.)
He re-staffed the shop in his own image, hiring a bunch of young guys (and gals) who all loved bikes. They may not have had much experience, but Arun told them, “All the times you’ve said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?..’ Well, now we can do those things.”
“I really wanted to curate a community,” Arun told me. “It wasn’t, ‘What are you going to buy today?’ I just wanted to make you feel comfortable and welcome. It was like ‘Cheers’ for motorcycles – a place where everyone knew your name.
In the mid-2000s, Sharma went back to his boss, Brad Tonkin, and convinced him that MotoCorsa had outgrown its suburban location. Arun was sure that it would do better in an urban setting, and found the dealership’s current location – a 10,000 square-foot industrial building close to downtown Portland, in an area that was either hip or gritty depending on your point of view.
He hired Skylab Design, a highfalutin’ architecture firm that had never designed a motorcycle dealership; the company specialized in things like fancy boutique hotels. He told his architect that he wanted a retail setting that showcased motorcycles as if they were works of art.
“I was hyper-involved, and I drove my staff crazy because I micro-managed them,” Sharma admitted. “People say I’m hard to work for. I’m an asshole, I have high standards; I wouldn’t want to work for me. But I had a very particular vision and to deliver it, I had to start with people who got it.”
When I asked what ‘getting it’ meant, Arun answered from a customer’s perspective. “The short answer is, you walk into the shop and you meet someone, or more than one person, and when you walk out you’ve made new friends.”
He continued, “Beyond that, the world’s a big and daunting place. So if you’re going to do something, it’s really nice to have someone who makes you think, ‘That’s my guy!’ – someone who is going to do what’s best for you, not what’s best for him.”
“Over the years, I got in regular fights with my sales staff, because they would want to sell someone the wrong bike. I wouldn’t sell a new rider a bike that was way out of their league. My salesmen would say, ‘They’re just going to go and buy one somewhere else.’ Well, too bad; I can only control what I can control.”
So ‘getting it’, in Arun’s vision, is the oldest trick in marketing. ‘It’ is making customers believe that you are their friend. And the way you do that is, you actually become their friend. Remember that hands-on-hips sales manager who asked whether the customer was going to buy today? Arun was happy to chat about motorbikes with customers who came in every few weeks for years – years! – before purchasing.
That’s a radical difference from most motorcycle dealerships, which operate on the principle that in every transaction there’s a winner and a loser; the Sales Manager’s job is run up the score on that loser customer
For years, motorcycle dealers have been fighting for a bigger slice of a shrinking pie, and the double-your-profit, control-the-sale mindset has resulted in most dealerships providing customer experiences that alienate all but the most determined buyers.
So far, I’ve been describing MotoCorsa’s growth in the early 2000s, when the whole motorcycle industry was booming. That all changed at the beginning of the 2008 model year, when U.S. motorcycle sales dropped by half.
“One thing I’ve always believed is that motorcycles are your escape from the real world,” Arun told me. “People buy motorcycles to meditate, to turn off, to light up from the inside. To get away from the bullshit. In 2008, when the crash happened I said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do: Everyone’s going through shit, so when they walk through our doors, we’re going to make them forget all about it. Never mention money or the economy; we’re only going to talk about motorcycles and fun.’ In June of 2008 we sold 61 motorcycles and broke a record for Ducati North America.
Jason Wilson is MotoCorsa’s sales manager. He’s been with the shop for nine years, over which time he’s seen the rise of online comparison shopping.
“Nowadays, I definitely see customers fewer times before they purchase,” he told me, “because they’ve done so much research online.” Customers who comparison shop online can trigger a race to the bottom among retailers, but MotoCorsa’s mitigated that trend by maintaining a large fleet of bikes with a liberal demo-ride policy – after all you can’t take a test ride online. Even more important, they’ve created a sense of community.
“It’s no accident,” Wilson told me, “that we have a disco ball in the showroom. We throw parties and they’re not necessarily even motorcycle focused. They’re just for fun – these are our friends; we’ve made friends by selling them bikes, but that’s not the only thing they do. Obviously we have the conventional sales – Black Friday or whatever – but at the end of the day it’s those extra touch points that make the difference, and most dealers just don’t do those things.”
When it come to bricks-and-mortar retail, the Internet taketh away, but it giveth, too. MotoCorsa’s been a savvy – often disarmingly offbeat – user of social media
A few years ago, Ducati released a typically sexist set of ‘wallpapers’, of scantily clad women draped over an 1199 Panigale. MotoCorsa responded with a calendar of its own male staffers. I’d describe them as cross-dressers but some were hardly dressed at all.
Images from the dealership’s famous ‘Red Room’ have also been shared countless times on customers’ own social media accounts. Every time a new bike’s sold, the customer takes possession in a dramatically lit, red-walled alcove. The Red Room is one of the best-known aspects of the MotoCorsa brand; customers travel from other states – often passing rival Ducati dealers en route – in order to literally have their moment in the spotlight.
The whole moto industry would be healthier if there were more dealerships like MotoCorsa
Over the last decade, the motorcycle industry has suffered and searched its soul. There are, to be sure, genuine headwinds out there: increasing income disparity; young people coming of age in the era of Uber – kids these days can’t even be bothered to get a driver’s license. Still, a lot of the moto industry’s post-recession problems were self-inflicted.
OEMs are finally aligning product offerings with market needs; there are more affordable and approachable new models on showroom floors. The next hurdle for the industry is improving the customer experience. To be clear, I’m not saying MotoCorsa is unique; there are other great dealers. But there are more bad ones than good ones, especially when it comes to being approachable and sharing enthusiasm for motorcycles with customers who don’t yet ride.
The culture that Arun created at MotoCorsa sells motorcycles. More importantly, it sells the idea of motorcycling.
Under new management
In 2014, Sharma’s career went full circle when he assumed the management of the Tonkin group’s Ferrari dealership. For a while, he tried to manage the Ducati store remotely, spending just a day or two per week on site. But having the managers of the motorcycle store report to the GM of the car store hadn’t worked when Arun was a kid, and it didn’t work when he was the boss, either.
So this past summer, Jamie Rucklos took over MotoCorsa. As a former Regional Business Manager for Ducati North America, Rucklos knows as well as anyone how high the bar was set. When I asked him whether MotoCorsa’s success could be replicated by other dealers, he thought it could, but he acknowledged that most dealers probably wouldn’t apply the lessons.
“We don’t drive how society changes. You just have to adapt to it,” he said. “The dealers who adapt with more vision and less animosity are going to do better. The guy who says, ‘I can’t do demos because of insurance,’ or, ‘they’ll get wrecked...’ Well you know what? That guy’s not going to be around in five years; when the industry shrinks, he’s going to be part of the shrinkage.
Intellectually, I think Jamie gets it. “Arun and I are very like-minded,” He told me. “Everyone here is a part of this, and brings their personality to the brand. On social media we put up crazy, fun videos. People can see us and realize, It’s the opposite of my local dealer.”
In my time in the ad business, I tried to help some of my own clients preserve their cultures when a charismatic founder turned over the reins. This kind of leadership transition is fraught with peril – and that’s especially true when it’s a retail brand and an expression of the founder’s own personality. I hope that MotoCorsa continues to be managed with that ‘community’ vibe, and doesn’t just become another dealership – however well run it might be – because losing that quirky personality would be a loss to the whole Portland motorcycle scene.
After hanging out at the shop most of a day, I went down to interview Arun at his new job, in the Ferrari dealership. He ended a long chat with this story...
“When I was starting out, I used to call dealers for advice all the time. So it meant a lot to me when people started to call me. I had this friend who paid to have a video made promoting his dealership. It showed the outside of the building, and the bikes and helmets, the service center... and it was beautiful, with very high production value, but they shot it after hours.”
“I felt bad when my friend asked what I thought of his new video. I had to tell him it was terrible; he wasted his money. He said, ‘Why?’ And I told him, everyone has Ducatis, and Arais, and benches with tools. The thing that makes you stand out is you; it’s your staff and customers. So you don’t have to have a café, and you don’t have to have the real estate for a Red Room, but you do have to have a genuine experience. You can’t fake it, you have to want to make people happy and want to connect with people. If you don’t, then you are not in the right business.”
At that, I closed my notebook and turned off my voice memo app. The last thing I had to get was a photo of Arun with his copper-colored Ferrari FF, outside in front of the dealership. He positioned the car while I set up my camera, and I snapped a few photos. As I was packing up my camera, he hopped back into his car to park it properly, in a spot right beside my rented Kia.
The window slid down. “Hey Mark,” he asked me with a shit-eating grin, “Have you ever driven a Ferrari?”