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Business Observer Friday, May 16, 2014 7 years ago

Back with a Roar

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Scott Fischer had to shrink his motorcycle-dealership empire during the recession, but he says the result is a better company today.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

It's a good thing Scott Fischer got fired from his first job.

He was 16 years old and a customer on a test ride at the motorcycle dealership where he worked in Columbus, Ohio, complained that he drove too fast. “I was devastated,” Fischer recalls.

After all, Fischer's dream had always been to work in a motorcycle store. “I started a shop boy,” he says. “I didn't care about getting paid.”

But life has a funny way of turning setbacks into opportunities. Fischer quickly landed another job at a dealership across town where he met Mary, his wife of 31 years, and became general manager and president of the Ohio Motorcycle Dealers Association by age 21.

Today, Fort Myers-based Scott Fischer Enterprises manages the largest group of Harley-Davidson stores in the country, and the company he founded is about to unveil a $10 million Harley-Davidson entertainment destination complex fronting Interstate 75 in Fort Myers with restaurants, a concert venue and riding track.

Fischer's ride has taken detours along the way to success. Fischer's company shed four of its nine dealerships during the recession and he pared back his staff. Just as the early setback he suffered as a 16-year-old, Fischer, now 54, says the recession made the company stronger and it made him a better entrepreneur and leader.

Indeed, Scott Fischer Enterprises posted revenues of $105 million in 2013, a 30% increase from the prior year. It's what earned him the 2014 Business Observer's Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Lee and Collier counties.

Humble roots
Friends and business associates who know Fischer say humility helped him weather the recession. “Sometimes successful people say, 'I don't need any help,'” says John Greene, partner and chief branding officer. “There's a degree of humility about him and a lack of ego that allows him to really reach out and ask questions, ask for help and input.”

In 2008, Fischer started working with business coach Iain Macfarlane, who was previously CEO of five companies. “He's a fantastic student,” says Macfarlane, executive coach with Action Coach. “It's sometimes very difficult for people who started a business to step back and say, 'wow, I need to know a bit more and learn.'”

For example, Fischer had no formal financial education, but after seeking help and insight into the fiscal reasons for the drop in sales in 2008, Macfarlane says Fischer realized he needed to shake up his accounting department to improve financial reporting.

Armed with the right financial data and analysis, Fischer decided to close four dealerships in 2009 that sold Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki motorcycles, keeping only the Harley stores. “We went through a major education on the cash and asset management side of our business,” Greene recalls. “You learn the most from the tough times.”

Indeed, that decision likely saved Scott Fischer Enterprises from a worse fate. That's because sales had collapsed at the import dealerships and the costs of keeping those open were threatening to swamp the rest of the company.

But even now as sales rise again, Fischer and his team are focused on developing the talent they already have. The company hasn't added staff in the last three years while sales have rebounded, a clear sign of increased productivity. “We came out as fiscally much better managers,” says Greene.

While Fischer made the tough decisions to close stores, he's surprisingly indecisive about seemingly trivial matters. Mary Fischer recalls a recent trip to Publix when it took her husband a half hour to select a hair gel, much to their daughter's amusement. “How hard can that be?” she says, saying it takes him just as long to pick a shirt to wear in the morning. “He can't make up his mind,” she laughs.

Up from the shop floor
Fischer grew up around engines. His father raced stock cars and owned Fischer's Garage in Columbus, Ohio.

“At Christmastime we got things with engines,” Fischer says. With golf carts and mini bikes the elder fixed up and put under the tree for his kids, it's no surprise Scott Fischer became an enduro motorcycle racer at a young age. “My high school was kind of a blank,” Fischer says.

Outside of school, you could find Fischer at the motorcycle store, sweeping floors and doing anything he could to be on the inside of the business. Fischer considers himself lucky to have found something he loved at an early age, a passion that continues today. “I live and breathe our business,” he says.

He met his wife, Mary, who worked in the parts department and helped customers. ““He was definitely full of himself and thought he knew everything,” Mary recalls. “He thought he was going to boss me around and tell me how to do stuff.”

On their first date, they rode to a Charlie Daniels concert. “He rode fast,” Mary says.

But Mary quickly recognized her future husband's leadership skills. “I always knew he was going to make something of himself,” she says. The couple moved to Fort Myers in 1986 after Fischer was offered the general manager's position at a Kawasaki dealership in town.

For his part, Fischer says he couldn't have accomplished what he did without Mary's support. He says he's seen other skilled executives entrepreneurs hobbled by their spouses. “Their spouses won't let them be committed to their work,” he says.

Two years after he arrived in Fort Myers, commercial real estate broker Paul Sands helped Fischer find two wealthy investors who were willing to help him buy the dealership. “I bought them out a year and a half later,” Fischer says, earning them nine times their investment.

The first years in business weren't easy. Landlords were unforgiving, forcing the business out within a month of Fischer taking over. “In a five-year period, we relocated four times,” he says. “I was scrambling to keep the doors open.”

Team-based management style
Because Fischer knows the motorcycle business intimately, you'd think he would be tempted to micromanage. But employees and colleagues say don't expect him to swoop in to try and fix things.

For example, Sean Delaney, the general manager of Thunderbird Harley-Davidson in Albuquerque, N.M., recalls a lesson he learned early from Fischer while he was trying to sell tires. “For about six months I tried this and that,” he says.

So Delaney picked up the phone and called Fischer. “I just can't sell tires,” he lamented to his boss. Fischer suggested Delaney shorten the length of time people had to wait to get new tires. Sales immediately rose after Delaney instituted a policy to change customers' tires while they waited instead of waiting two days.

Delaney asked Fischer why his boss didn't suggest that to him earlier. “You didn't ask,” Fischer replied. Delaney says he likes to tell this story to new hires. “He wasn't a jerk about it,” Delaney says. “He lets you learn from your mistakes.”

That management style extends outside of Fischer's business, too, says Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that's worked with Fischer. “A lot of times in philanthropy, [donors] feel as though that gives them the ability to tell an organization how to do their business,” she says.

By contrast, Owen says Fischer lets charities take entrepreneurial risks with the funds he gives them. “I feel like he comes alongside as a trusted adviser,” Owen says. “That's why it's so fun to solve problems with him.”

Organizational health
Despite the early challenges, Fischer added motorcycle dealerships in Naples, Huntsville, Ala., and Hilton Head, S.C. By 2005, the company had 450 employees and more than $150 million in annual revenues.

Fischer is blunt about the go-go years. “Customers didn't like us,” he says. “We had the money and we wanted to grow, but we didn't have a strategy.”Employees were stressed, turnover was high and Fischer wasn't happy.

Fischer also made mistakes by getting involved in ventures he knew nothing about, including a hair salon and a business that sprayed mulch on public right of ways. “When things are good, you think you can do anything,” he says.

In 2005, Fischer hid out in a cabin in North Carolina, armed with some management books he says changed his perspective.

Fischer says he came to the realization that great companies work on the people side of the business. He explains it this way: “To be great, you have to be smart and healthy,” he says. By smart, he means the systems that companies set up to operate. All good companies are smart, he says.

But the best companies are those that focus on training and benefits to boost morale, reduce turnover and encourage teamwork. That's the healthy side of the business and it's how Fischer came to develop the corporate vision: Scott Fischer Enterprises exists to make peoples' lives better.

Fischer says spends more than $1 million on training and other employee benefits, taking a leap of faith that it's the right thing to do. “You can't measure it,” he says.

For example, shortly after he closed the four dealerships in 2009, Fischer hired a human-relations director. And he realized he wasn't going to live forever. “I've got to develop people so I have a succession plan,” Fischer says, noting he has three partners now and will have more in the future.

If the recession left any scars on Fischer, you'd be hard pressed to find one. Friends say he hasn't lost his fun-loving enthusiasm. The 5'7, 181-pound entrepreneur had double-knee replacement and still hits the gym five days a week at 6:30 a.m. “He has a unique balance between hard work and having fun,” says Greene. “He can kind of switch gears.”

Fischer acknowledges that other Harley-Davidson dealers of similar size are more profitable because they don't spend as much on training and benefits. “I don't know if my model is better than theirs,” he says. But Fischer is more satisfied today than he was during the boom: “I like the business,” he says.

Revenues
Year Revenue Growth

2011 $74 million
2012 $81 million 9%
2013 $105 million 30%

Employees
2011 283
2012 280
2013 280

Source: Scott Fischer Enterprises

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