The Colgate Scene
September 1999
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The wild one
by John D. Hubbard
John McGonagle '65 was 14 the first time he lied his way onto a motorcycle.

     "I told the owner I knew how to ride, got on and promptly hit a wall. He said, `It's yours.' It was an old BSA 350, I brought it home and my father chained it to the garage."

     McGonagle has long since broken any chains that bind. At turns a hockey player, Marine pilot and Eastern Airlines pilot, he is a businessman today -- owner of one of the country's most successful Harley-Davidson dealerships and founder of New England Police Vehicle Leasing Corporation.

     Pretty much skating backwards through Colgate, McGonagle was a defense man with a knack for acquiring penalty minutes.

     "I was rough and dirty because I didn't have much ability," he confessed.

     When he wasn't on the ice, his thoughts were in the air. McGon-agle, who had long been interested in military flying, was in the ROTC program and didn't bother with job interviews, signing up for the Marine Corps instead of his junior year.

     After flight training, he flew A-4 Skyhawks and C-130 Hercules during two tours of Vietnam.

     Out of the service in 1971, McGonagle took a job with PSA, a small airline out of San Diego. Six months later he was flying for "the wings of man," Eastern. For the first 12 years he flew all over the United States and for the last seven it was strictly South America.

     "I loved South America. Two or three hundred people would come out just to see us land." Despite the appeal of the less evolved, less corporate nature of flying into Paraguay and other southern hemisphere ports of call, McGonagle increasingly was finding airline flying unfulfilling.

     When the Eastern mechanics went on strike in 1988, McGonagle saw an out and began to look for new challenges. He thought of college hockey -- not many 40-something assistant coaches -- and motorcycles. He looked around for dealerships, eventually buying Seacoast Harley-Davidson in North Hampton, N.H.

     "My goal was to make what I was making at Eastern," says McGonagle, who instead has presided over a decade of growth, renewed demand for Harleys and vastly increased sales. Seacoast was a modest operation with six employees that was selling about 160 bikes and doing something less than $2 million in gross sales a year when McGonagle took over.

     Today, there are 56 employees, customers buy 500 bikes a year and sales topped $17 million last year. Seacoast is about the 20th largest of Harley's 630 authorized dealerships. In addition, the leasing business, which supplies 70 police departments with motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, watercraft and even the occasional paddy wagon, is the largest such enterprise in the world.

Live to ride
Harley-Davidson, named for the two young Milwaukee bicyclists who put a motor on a two-wheeler, began business in 1903. The company's history is a roller coaster ride of booms and near busts. Of all its recoveries, none has been more dramatic than what has been happening the last ten years. The motorcycles, once considered hopeless dinosaurs in danger of extinction at the hands of Japan's advanced technology, are now prized as never before. Big, powerful and with the primal roar (Harley tried to patent the sound) of the fabled V twin engine as their siren song, Harley-Davidsons hold an almost animal attraction for riders from all walks of life.

     "Harleys are a totally American product and, like so many American things, they are big. It's an incredible American institution," said McGonagle, more in awe than by way of hype.

     Early in the century there were "a bazillion," as McGonagle puts it, American motorcycle manufacturers. Only two survived World War II, and Indian went out of business in 1953. Harley-Davidson nearly followed but hung on despite neg-ative biker images out of Hollywood, corporate takeover and screaming foreign bikes.

     "The Japanese and British are light years ahead in engineering but a lot of riders don't like things so well-engineered. They like a little shake and rattle."

     The outlaw image, which once nearly sank the company, is frankly part of the appeal, too. While it might take a banker's salary to afford a Harley, even the white collar crowd wants to feel a bit rebellious now and then.


     The irony, of course, is that Harleys are also strongly identified with law enforcement. Seacoast sells black leather, but McGonagle's office is decorated with police department patches from all over New England. Sell image, lease power.

     Harleys don't come cheap -- $17,000 on average -- and everyone wants to look a bit different. Custom accessories -- chrome, wire wheels, saddlebags and on and on -- typically add $4,000 or more to the price. Then there are the Harley doodads and the clothes line.

     "Everything from gas caps to underwear," said McGonagle, slightly puzzled by the demand. "You want boxer shorts? We've got them. You put the Harley name on anything, charge 30 percent more and sell it." Seacoast devotes 9,000 square feet and carries an inventory of $800,000 of "stuff to sell," as McGonagle put it.

     Seacoast, on Rt. 1 only a mile from the ocean, has a nautical motif -- moorings, a lighthouse and saltwater aqua with an aquamarine, blue and weathered gray scheme -- and is as much a tourist stop as a home for bikers.

     "People come in happy. Motorcycles are their fun in life and we become a second home," said McGonagle, who sponsors an active Harley Owners Group (HOG).

Business sense
McGonagle had limited business experience when he bought Seacoast. He had owned the vending machines at Delta Kappa Epsilon, "fooled around in real estate" while at Eastern and, with Ralph Casale '65, DKE Stables.

     "One horse -- Black Marble -- made a ton of money. Thanks to him I didn't lose too much in the business," said McGonagle, who also gained some valuable experience watching Eastern.

     "I learned how not to treat employees."

     McGonagle told Business NH Magazine, which selected Seacoast one of the state's top ten companies and the only retail outfit in the bunch, "I don't really think so much about my customers as much as my employees." The company provides 100 percent medical, vision and dental coverage, various incentives and abundant education opportunities, everything from Harley workshops to college courses.

     "I'll pay for employees' education as long as they maintain a B average. As somebody who wasn't a great student, I think education is important whether it's related to the business or not. It makes better people."

     McGonagle has gone from doing everything at Seacoast to operating largely behind the scenes.

     Though he never turned a wrench, the owner started out selling bikes, buying used motorcycles, handling the books, dealing with the state and doing title work.

     "We were growing all the time and it was exciting. Now I deal with HMOs and benefit packages. I'm the antithesis of the micro-manager. I hardly manage at all. We hire good people, compensate them well and let them do their own thing."

     Looking for new challenges, McGonagle is thinking about acq-uiring another dealership.

     "I'm a competitive person, I don't want to be second best. I wonder, too, `Am I a fluke or the real thing?'"

     McGonagle is real, all right. Fun, generous and tender-hearted, he knows the secret.

     "You have to put a little thrill in your life." With that, John McGon-agle works through the gears of the silver Harley-Davidson Road King and New Hampshire flies by.

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