ROCK FALLS – Talk about the road to success. The owners of Workman Harley-Davidson not only found one, they got to name it, too.
From a hobby to heading up their own Harley shop, Jane and Vern Workman’s love of motorcycles has led them from their basement to a successful business.
It all started simply enough in 1968 with the couple’s used Harley XLCH, which they rode about 3,000 to 4,000 miles a year.
Then it started to happen.
In 1970, Vern customized the XLCH. Then he began doing the same thing for his friends’ bikes, and eventually started buying bikes and fixing them up to sell. Before long, he was in business.
Jane said if she wanted to see him, she had to go to the basement.
Things really started picking up speed in January 1982 when the couple opened their first Harley-Davidson dealership after meetings, classes at service school, and a bank loan.
“One of them took a chance on me,” Vern said, ”and we paid them back.”
“Jane quit her job,” he said. “I kept working at Illinois Forge. She ran the shop and learned to do parts. She knew every part.”
Like any budding business, things weren’t always easy.
“It’s hard to stay in business,” Jane said. “You have your good years; you have your bad years.”
“When we started we had one rack of T-shirts and about two jackets,” Jane said. Today, the couple can look back on more good years than bad, and the dealership boasts a wide variety of items – like a big box store for bikers, but with a hometown touch.
Their next milestone was in 1986, when it was time to expand. The business moved to a location it would stay at for 14 years – but that wouldn’t be the couple’s last move. That came in 1999, when they outgrew their building.
Jane still remembers the day she went to the bank to get a loan.
“I knew approximately what the loan was going to cost, and I knew it would be a million dollars,” she said. “I went up to the bank, and with a handshake he told me I could have the money.”
Her hand wasn’t the only thing shaking that day.
“I remember I was so shaky,” Jane said of the drive home from the bank. “I told him [Vern] ‘You’ll never guess what. They told me they’d give me a million dollars.’ That was when the banking business was more or less done with a handshake. There was a lot of trust in those days.”
One happy bit of Harley happenstance of their new address at 1903 First Ave.: 1903 is the year Harley-Davidson was established.
The story behind the address got even better when they sold some land to Culver’s, which then took over the First Avenue portion. The Workmans’ had a new road, and what’s more, “We got to name the street,” Jane said.
The result: 1903 Harley-Davidson Drive.
During the first few years at the shop, those wanting a Harley needed patience. Customers would put money down and could wait up to 2 years for their bike.
“Our showroom was empty,” Jane said. “One time, we brought in hay bales and a chuck wagon and had a Western theme because our showroom was empty.”
Today, the showroom’s full, the racks and shelves are stocked and the payroll’s picked up. From one employee, the dealership has grown to 14, and the couple’s son and daughter, Tom and Jerri, both work there now.
“I like working with people … and being around motorcycles,” Tom said. “I’ve pretty much worked in every department here. I worked in the back for the first 15 years in service – now pretty much in sales, and I run the service department.”
Jerri is in charge of Harley-Davidson Motor Clothes and general merchandise.
The business’ crowning glory was to earn Harley-Davidson’s highest award for dealerships – the Gold Bar and Shield Circle of Excellence in 2012.
“That was really awesome,” Jane said.
“It’s very hard to earn,” Tom added.
Although motorcycles are more available now, there’s another concern – an aging population.
“The biggest challenge is bringing in young people because a lot of people who’ve been riding are aging,” Jane said, adding that Harley-Davidson is working on this.
“Three-quarters of people coming in here have gray hair,” Vern agreed.
Next year is Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary and celebrations are already being planned.
“They’ll have a lot of special celebration items and will come out with a lot of Harley-Davidson special edition motorcycles,” Jane said. “It’ll be really big next year.”
Workman Harley-Davidson Inc.
Address: 1903 Harley-Davidson Drive, Rock Falls
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday