Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Gearing up for new ownership

A few years ago, John Gonzales rode his candy-blue and slate-gray Harley-Davidson FXR more than 150 miles for a hamburger.

Yes, it was some hamburger – one pound of a “great hamburger,” he says.

But the burger was just an excuse.

What Gonzales was after was a ride, a ride with hundreds of other leather-clad bikers cruising down sunny New Mexico roadways in staggered formation, their two-wheeled metal beasts – Harleys, Yamahas, Hondas and more – growling like machine guns with tuberculosis.

Chick Hancock, owner of Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell on Alameda Boulevard, helped him get it.

“He took the lead on setting a lot of that (group rides) up around here,” he says. “He always pushed for us to see all this different stuff around the state we probably would have never thought of seeing on our own.”

There were many other group rides – hundreds – Hancock led over the years. They went to ruins, to old churches, to the Salman Raspberry Ranch in northern New Mexico, to Colorado. They were a chance, Gonzales says, to connect with other riders connecting with the freedom of the open road.

But Hancock’s days of group rides – leading them, at least – are over.

After two decades of selling and fixing Harleys, the 55-year-old owner of Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell had a choice: Expand his dealership or sell it and leave its future to somebody else.

“I just agonized over that,” Hancock says. “I got into this 20 years ago because I loved motorcycles.”

But, he says, “It just seemed like a good time to bow out.”

With the new owners set to take over Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell in December, New Mexico bikers and beneficiaries of Chick’s largesse are wondering: Will the store ever be the same?

Harley-Davidson/Buell of…?

John Greene, Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell’s new half-owner and operator, isn’t sure what the business’ new name will be.

“We will commit to changing the name,” Greene says. “When that happens, and what the new name will be – I would tell you if I knew.”

He may turn to Chick’s employees for the answer – “an internal name-the-dealership contest,” he says.

Another possibility comes from Scott Fischer, the other half-owner of Chick’s: Harley-Davidson of Albuquerque.

Using the city’s name in a dealership’s moniker has been the inspiration for many of the six other Harley-Davidson dealerships Fischer owns throughout the country. A name evoking the region also has promise; think “Sandia” or “High Desert,” he says.

But “our primary focus right now is to get the closing done,” Fischer says.

When the sale is closed – terms of the deal were not disclosed – things will change at the dealership, but not much, Greene says. The business runs smoothly, he says. Why completely overhaul it?

“One of the appeals of this store is the reputation that it has and the quality of employees that are there,” he says. “That was one of the big positives for us as we looked at it.”

He wants all the employees to stay, but admits his different style of management could push some away. “We may have different operating philosophies and processes and so forth,” Greene says. “If they like that stuff, and they want to stick around, we’d love to have them.”

Eighteen-year Chick’s employee Rob Lundy says “all the employees are concerned, of course, because we’ve all been used to dealing with Chick.”

“Things will change,” Lundy says, but “everything’s going to be fine. . . . They’re (the new owners) very professional. I think they’re determined, which is great. I always wanted to be No. 1 and that’s how they are.”

Being No. 1 in the Albuquerque metropolitan area means growing bigger, Greene says.

As soon as 18 to 24 months from December, look to the north for a Harley-Davidson store in Rio Rancho that could employ up to 60 people and be as large as the Alameda Boulevard store – about 25,000 square feet, he says, noting the time frame could change.

“Harley has some statistics that they’ll track that kind of relate to the number of Harley-Davidsons that are out and in use in a marketplace,” he says. “Albuquerque is one of their highest-ranking markets that they have. Some of it’s the weather. I don’t know why other than that.”

Hancock says it’s the expansion that originally made him wonder: Should he stay or go?

The expansion has to happen to continue the dealership’s success, he says. He could have stayed and carried it out, but the cost would be more of his time and energy. After years of fine-tuning his business so it basically ran itself, was he prepared give more so the Rio Rancho store would take off?

Hancock says he’d rather spend his time with his family, his car collection and teaching – a job that first brought him to the Southwest.

What if

In 1971, Hancock took a trip to a Navajo reservation in Arizona. He recalls a “20-mile dirt road” leading to a school he intended to teach at for the summer. The work was a way to connect with the community he was researching as part of completing an undergraduate anthropology degree from Wesleyan University.

“There was something about it I just liked,” he recalls while seated at a round wooden table sharing dining room space with a 1966 Velocette Thruxton, one of three motorcycles displayed in his university-area home. On the walls hang black and white documentary photos of biker gang members wearing thick leather jackets and grim faces.

Through the summer job, Hancock heard of another teaching position in northwestern New Mexico at Borrego Pass School. There he taught English to Navajo children from 1973 to 1977. The lack of age-appropriate educational materials meant he spent a lot of time making the materials on his own.

“I had never worked that hard,” he says. “It’s rewarding, but it’s immensely draining, too.”

He moved on to teach at the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico. But his passion for the work was lessening; he looked to the business world, and got an MBA from the University of Michigan in 1980. That degree – added to his B.A. and a master’s degree in teaching – led to work in Albuquerque banks. He stayed with them until 1985.

That’s when the offer came.

Hancock was a 35-year-old motorcycle lover and had walked into the Harley dealership owned by Jake Alcon with the intention of putting down a deposit on his first hog. He walked away with Alcon’s offer to sell the place.

“I was so blown away, I got in my car and drove five miles the wrong way,” he says. He thought it through and concluded, “If I don’t do this, I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering, `What if.’ ”

Twenty years later, and Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell has grown from 5,000 square feet on Central Avenue to 25,000 square feet on Alameda Boulevard filled with motorcycles going for roughly $6,000 to $30,000. He employed six people when he began; today that number is 65. His first year in business, he sold 80 motorcycles, he says. In 2004, he sold a little more than 600.

He never expected the success.

“I thought it would putter along at the same size it was and I’d be making the same, admittedly small salary I was making at the bank, but I’d be doing something I’d like,” he says. “I got into it because I like bikes. . . . I was lucky.”

He hasn’t minded spreading his luck around.

“Not a bad credo”

All told, Hancock estimates he has given $200,000 to charities and organizations since being in business.

“That stuff is partly to boost our image, and also, that’s just how I was raised,” he says. “My dad, who is still alive, says, `Money isn’t everything. It’s very important that you be generous.’ It’s not a bad credo.”

Beneficiaries of Hancock’s largesse have included the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, the American Cancer Society, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Museum and Alameda Elementary School.

Beverly Moya, principal at Alameda Elementary, says the tutoring program sponsored by Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell has allowed many students to make “great gains in literacy.”

Since 2002, the program has paid for up to 10 teachers a year to tutor students – five to six per teacher – before and after school. Chick’s has also given school supplies.

“They’re just a great organization,” she says. “Mr. Chick Hancock and his wife, they’re just an incredible duo. They really care about the community.”

FACTBOX: Here’s a look at the store:

Bought: 1985

Number of motorcycles sold in 1985: 80

Number sold in 2004: 600 plus

Original square footage: 5,000

Current square footage: 25,000

Original number of employees: Six

Current number of employees: 65

Number of group motorcycle rides organized: About 250

Source: Chick Hancock, owner, Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell

FACTBOX: CHICK IS SHORT FOR . . .

“My name is Charles Hancock, but my parents thought Charles was awfully formal sounding for a 2-hour-old kid, and they didn’t like Chuck or Charlie,” explains Hancock, owner of Chick’s Harley-Davidson/Buell. “Chick is a rarely used but accepted nickname for Charles.”

Though he says the name works “magnificently as the name of a Harley dealership,” it has caused some confusion.

“A lady called several years ago,” he says, “and when we answered, `Chick’s Harley-Davidson,’ she said, `Do you have anything for guys there?’ “

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