QT Interview: Bob Laidlaw: 50 Years as a Harley-Davidson Dealer

INTERVIEW BY RANDY TWELLS, PHOTOS BY PETE ALVA

Baldwin Park, CA—-Where were you and what were YOU doing in 1958? Probably not what Bob Laidlaw was doing—- buying his Harley-Davidson dealership, which he had worked in since 1947, that would keep on motorin’ down the road until here we are in 2008, and he is still going strong.

It’s hard to keep up with Bob. I followed him around a bit after he, as main sponsor, gave out the last of the AHDRA Drag National Awards back in November at CA Bike Week, and he was dropping ME off at my ride in his golf cart, and still going to handle business on into the late evening.

He works 6 days a week at his dealership in Baldwin Park, with the majestic San Gabriel Mountains thundering their inspiration a stone’s throw to the north. After 40 years in the first building, Bob moved it practically on top of the 10 Freeway in a new building about 5 years ago, with full window views of shiny Harleys on display to tempt all those rush hour commuters whizzing by. It has 60,000 sq. ft. and 85 employees now, but is really a family-run business. His sons Brent and Jerry now handle the day-to-day affairs of running Laidlaw’s Harley-Davidson, but he outruns them—they only work 5 days a week. Between the three of them is 100 years of experience in motorcycles.

Bob says, “We really appreciate every customer who comes to our store,” which they call, “your family Harley-Davidson store.” It shows, too.

At the winter dealer show, Bob received his 50-year award in a ceremony from Harley CEO Jim Zimmer. As they go, his was special, as there were four dealers who received 50-year awards last year, but Bob was the only dealer of them all who was the original dealer, the others inherited theirs as 2nd or 3rd generation. Bob is, the man.

I got a chance to talk with Bob Laidlaw and asked him a few questions:

QT: What does it take to last 50 years in the motorcycle business?

Bob: “Start young!” He started in high school. He has actually been 61 years in the motorcycle business, ‘only’ 50 as a dealer. The last 2 semesters of high school and 1 summer, when he was a junior/senior, he was already on his second Harley—a 1936 61” Knucklehead.

QT: What has being a Harley dealer meant to you personally over the years?

Bob: “Financial success…. There were lean years and good years, the good years more later on. The last 25 years or so, it was a sellers’ market, we had more customers than bikes. I always enjoyed the police work. You know 2008 marks 100 years of Harley-Davidson Police bikes. From 2005 to 2007, many Police Departments including LAPD changed over from Kawasaki to Harley-Davidson for their police bikes, and all together now have 297 units.”

….all sold to them by, you guessed it, Bob Laidlaw.

QT: So what is the biggest change in the industry in your opinion, in your 50 years in business so far?

Bob: “Used to be, people rode motorcycles as a cheap, economical mode of transportation, or because that was all they had or could afford. Now, motorcycles are a sport or a hobby. Baby boomers!! Honda came along and took the bad image out of it, it became respectable to ride a motorcycle instead of people thinking of the guys in the leather jackets. And, people wanted something to do that they could use anytime, anywhere, pull out of the garage in 60 seconds, get their head cleared out and then go back to what they were doing.”

QT: What words of wisdom do you have for someone who wants to get into the motorcycle business today?

Bob: “Hmmmmm…. It’s a little late in a lot of cases… it takes a L-O-T of money, and you have to reaaaallly love the sport! If you are a bean counter, that won’t help. It used to be great times in the past, things are tighter now. Used to be we started at MSRP and added to it, set up fees, etc. Now, we start at MSRP….but we don’t go up. You have to be willing to spend a lot of time. It’s uphill and a lot of hard work. The little shop struggles if they don’t have all the computer/digital/diagnostic equipment to work on the newer bikes, they can’t really do it without that. And, location, location, location. There’s so many small shops now; but MMI is cranking out these guys continually… where will they go? They work in their back yard, or garage.”

QT: So what would you say to all our readers, about motorcycling and life today?

Bob: “Well my two boys are with me in the business. For me it’s fun to come to work. I enjoy motorcycles and have fun now. I go on many of the rides, some even out of state. I have also owned and fly my own small single engine airplane for the past 25 years and feel it is also the kind of freedom—the pleasure—that the motorcycle does for a person.

“And I love it when girls go to school and come in and buy bikes. I will personally give riding instruction and set up the Harley to fit and work best for them. We have the HOG Chapter, people going places, doing things, happy! A guy comes in the dealership, he loves his motorcycle, he wants it right, it’s a way of life now for lots of people.

They have a good time riding and it’s a social thing. They have recreation doing this instead of watching TV. They do charity work. They are good people. I stand out there on the floor and shake hands and talk to them. ”

***

To celebrate Bob Laidlaw’s milestone 50 years as a dealer, Laidlaw’s Harley-Davidson partied all month long in April. They had a special party, “Bob’s Birthday Bash”, all day April 5 and we took the opportunity to shoot some pictures of the festivities and we hope you enjoy them. Congratulations, Bob! Here’s to the next 50 !!

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About Randy Twells