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Ride West BMW Takes It to the Next Level

In a new north Seattle location, the long time dealership is ready for motorcycling's future

It was time for Ride West BMW to move. The dealership had stood for a quarter century at its old location, in the Greenlake neighborhood on Seattle's north side. The old place was not without its charms: it's on a back street of a small commercial core made up of small- and medium-sized businesses, many oriented toward dining and recreation. The nearby lake that gives the neighborhood its name draws throngs of walkers, joggers, 'bladers, and bicyclists, who endlessly circulate its paved, 3.2-mile track. The neighborhood is a destination for people with free time and some money to spend on their leisure pursuits: the largest business near Ride West's old location is a bicycle and rollerblade shop.

Ride West had a lot of history there, with the BMW marquee, as well as the neighborhood: it represents a tradition of BMW dealerships under various names and owners going back to the early '70s � first as Aurora BMW Center (on nearby Aurora Avenue, in the building now occupied by Moto International ), then (in Greenlake) as Gregg's BMW-Kawasaki and Buckingham BMW.

But the shortcomings of the shop itself � a 4,200-square-foot storefront and service area, with no off street parking in a parking-challenged neighborhood � quickly became obvious to Keith and Ann Thye.  The husband-and-wife co-owners purchased the business from Bill Buckingham in 1995 and renamed it Ride West BMW. "The fact is, we just flat outgrew the location," Keith Thye says. "It was a funky old building and it worked for those years, but we just outgrew it."

Keith Thye (pronounced tie ) is matter-of-fact � direct and to the point, neither boastful nor diffident � about the business he and Ann have grown. "When we bought the business, we were the 47th largest BMW dealership," Keith says. "Today we're the 7th largest BMW dealership, in terms of new bikes sold."

He's standing in the showroom of Ride West's new 20,000 square foot facility on Lake City Way, just a couple of blocks off I-5 in the north end of Seattle. It's an impressive space with a high, raked ceiling. Gray carpet and freshly painted white walls contribute to the room's spacious air; so do the big arched windows along the front wall. Large wooden posts and massive roof beams strike an old-fashioned note that plays off the modernism of the store fixtures � to say nothing of the Teutonically futuristic-styled motorcycles that stand here and there about the room.

Racks at the far end of the room display a generous selection of gleaming black leather pants and jackets; colorful BMW riding suits in leather and nylon hang along the far wall. On prominent display near the door is a heavily customized R1200C cruiser, a Ride West project which was recently the "cover bike" for BMW Owners News BMW ON cover bike.

It's quite a contrast to the old place. The old shop's tiny showroom afforded space for only a few bikes, and the parts-and-acce-ssories area was hardly larger than the galley kitchen in an apartment. If you wanted to look at leather jackets or other apparel you climbed stairs to a narrow mezzanine above the showroom. Space was tight.

Increasing sales volume exacerbated the space problem. Ride West sold 161 new bikes in 1999 (the last year in its old quarters) and the showroom was literally overflowing: used bikes were displayed behind the building in tents, where they got damp and dusty. Howard Parr, Ride West BMW's Sales Manager, has been with the company since the Buckingham BMW days; he recalls times when his garage at home was packed with bikes because there was no room at the shop.

"So we had gotten to the point down there," Keith Thye says, "where we were smothering ourselves. We didn't have room to display the bikes, we didn't have room to push accessories, and I think we'd pretty much maxed out what we were able to do at that old location."

The Thyes began looking around. "We looked for a building � or for a site to build a building � every week for 2 years," Keith says. The place they finally purchased was one of first they considered buying.

At the time the building housed a carpet sales and cleaning business. Keith and Ann had heard it would be coming on the market, even though it had not yet been listed.

"One Sunday we drove up and we had our noses to that window over there," Keith says, nodding toward the front of the showroom, "and this van pulls up, this guy jumps out, and says, 'What are you doing?! Can I help you?' "

The Thyes explained to this man � the owner, as they soon learned � that they were potential buyers, not robbers casing the joint. Turns out that the owner wanted to retire but was not sure he was ready to sell the property, and at that time was asking a "what the hell" price (as in, "If somebody will offer me that much, then what the hell, I'll take it!").

Ride West BMW, 8100 Lake City Way, SeattleA year and a half later, Keith and Ann had visited over 100 other locations. The building was back on the market, and this time the owner was ready to sell. "Boom, we snagged it," Keith says. After a lightning-fast makeover � two months for permitting and four months for renovation � Ride West BMW celebrated the grand opening of its new quarters on April 28, 2000, with executives from BMW North America in attendance.

Some rue the fact and others celebrate it � but few deny that style has become a big part of motorcycling. The motorcycle business now is subject to the power of the image and the whims of fashion. Riders want to "look the part," in whatever way they define their individual roles in the multiplex world of motorcycling. Manufacturers know this and have been quick to offer merchandise to satisfy those desires. That's why you can buy race-replica leathers to match your F4 at your Honda dealer, and Harley-Davidson will gladly sell you a whole wardrobe of "motorclothes," and BMW offers everything but underwear (last time we checked) emblazoned with the R1200C cruiser's iconic "phat C" symbol.

The Bavarian motor works is serious about the image business. Lately it has launched a new line of gear that it advertises with some quirky pictures: maybe you've seen the stickball player sliding into base while attired in snappy black and yellow leathers.

Special tools for Bavaria's finestThis new gear goes only to dealerships that meet BMW's strict requirements, which specify not just color and appearance but details such as the vendor and style for carpeting, shelves, and other fixtures. The steely gray of Ride West BMW's showroom carpet is literally a "factory" color. The shelves are of metal whose drilled planes and heavy struts suggest both lightness and strength, with a distinctly "techno" feel. The room is a precision-engineered sales machine.

"Because we went with the total image program," Keith says, "we are one of the pilot retailers for the new line of BMW clothing. There are only a handful of dealers in the country that are able to handle this product. We're the only ones north of Sacramento and west of Iowa that can carry this product, because we're the only ones that meet the image requirements for coloration, fixtures. They won't let any BMW dealer handle this stuff if you don't have their total program."

Would this be a motorcycle boutique, then? Keith smiles and nods. "Exactly!"

Keith Thye seems very much in his element here: He's wearing a pale-green polo shirt and off-white pants whose colors harmonize with those of his surroundings: cool tones to set off the bright colors of the bikes and riding gear. Keith's pale skin and hair add to the effect, as do his stature and bearing: tall and restrained, he's as elegant as his new showroom.

1963 moto adventures in S. AmericaFancy touches abound in Keith and Ann Thye's modern "moto boutique," from the $10,000 restroom (it required a total remodeling for wheelchair accessibility) to the customer workstations in the waiting area. They provide DSL hookups so that the busy Beemer pilot can check e-mail while her K1200RS is downstairs networking with the service department's diagnostic computer. Those who'd rather loaf than work can sit on sofas and chairs in the waiting area (which, like the sales desks and the cashier's stand, is integrated into the dealership's big front room) and watch motorcycle videos or read back issues of the obligatory bike rags. Nearby shelves have a good selection of motorcycling books for browsing � including Keith Thye's own MotoRaid , the story of his and riding buddy Dave Yaden's 1963 trip to South America (on BMWs, naturally).

Andy Kilchmann's bike hangs from a beamKeith Thye has his own personal history with BMWs, as you can see, quite apart from that of his dealership. Like a symbol of that tradition � a link to Ride West's past amid the shiny fixtures of its future � an early-'80s R80 G/S hangs on chains from the showroom's roof beams. The tank is painted zebra-style, and the boxy aluminum panniers display neat rows of travel stickers.

The bike used to belong to Andy Kilchmann, a Swiss traveler who had been touring the world on the bike for four years when he got to Seattle and ran out of money. The bike needed major repairs, and Andy needed to get back to Switzerland. Bill Buckingham gave him enough for the bike to get home on, and the two agreed that Andy would send money for the repairs. Later he would return to Seattle, retrieve the bike, and continue his travels.

"Well, that was about 14 years ago," Keith says. "And the bike remains here."

Keith talks to Andy every two years or so; he works for an import-export company, lives in Mexico City, and soon will move to South Africa. Ride West will never sell that R80 to anyone else, Keith says: "If we sell this place, they take that bike, and put that deal in the contract � so there's no buyer for that bike other than Andy."

Four months after the grand opening, Keith Thye's enthusiasm for the new venue is still quite plain as he takes a visitor on a behind-the-scenes tour of the dealership. There's a high-ceilinged room in back that used to serve as a huge rug dryer: newly cleaned rugs were hung on ropes running through pulleys overhead, and a huge gas heater was fired up, raising the room temperature to 140� F. Now this room is North American HQ for Touratech accessories; Ride West is the exclusive North American distributor for this line of high-tech goodies for hard-core touring, rally, and dual-sport riders. Keith notes that a $50,000 order of Touratech merchandise is due today.

Ken Anderson checks valve clearancesThe six-bay service area downstairs posed one of the hardest renovation tasks: a large part of it was four feet below the level of the back alley which was to be the service department "driveway." The elevation change posed some problems with logistics (a high-tech term for "moving bikes in and out"); the solution was to raise the floor. That part of the project was a headache, but it did allow for one small, thoughtful, and rather trick feature: Keith grins as he lifts a small metal hatch set into the shop floor, revealing a connection for the shop's central exhaust system. Similar hatches are inset in the floor at intervals all over the shop, so that the technicians at Ride West don't have to breathe exhaust fumes when they run motors indoors.

It's a busy place, and Keith Thye, as general manager, stays involved in the daily details of the operation. When his visitor arrives to talk about the new building, Keith is helping a customer select a jacket. Keith knows what day the big Touratech shipment is due, and when the showroom starts to feel just a little warm on one of Seattle's few hot days, he politely asks an employee to check the air conditioning immediately.

Almost everyone wears a shirt embroidered with the Ride West BMW logo; everyone has that intensity you come to expect in most outposts of the motorcycle subculture. Sometimes the mood makes you think of a race team, as people busily juggle phone calls, peer at screens and tap keyboards, unpack boxes of parts, tune and repair bikes, and do the myriad other things that make a motorcycle dealership a going concern. Keith says the interviewing process for new employees is extensive, and experience often counts less in hiring decisions than does a person's ability to be part of the team.

The crisp operation, the fancy technology, and the spacious building causes Keith's visitor to reminisce about the time he spent working as a parts man and technician (though they were called "mechanics" then) at bike shops back in the early '70s. The motorcycle business was much more casual then; often as not, a shop owner was not a businessman, but an enthusiast whose hobby had become his business. Microfiche viewers were considered sophisticated data-management tools, and the guys in the service department just opened the overhead doors when the exhaust fumes got too thick. The visitor remarks on how different Ride West BMW is from the motorcycle shops of old.

Howard Parr fields a call"It needs to be [different]," Keith says. "The industry is changing. The old technician that ended up becoming a dealer is going to be extinct."

Keith acknowledges that the changes in the industry are having some negative consequences. The "small independents" are dying off, he observes, sometimes leaving motorcyclists in remote and rural areas without nearby dealerships. But Keith sees these changes as inevitable.

"You know," he says, "the Wal-Marts and Costcos of the world are changing the landscape of retailing. And it's the same thing in this business.

"To be an exclusive dealer, particularly with BMW, which is a very small segment of the motorcycle industry, is difficult enough. Mostly you see multiline dealers, like Lynnwood Cycle Barn, the big guys, are the ones that are opening satellite dealerships and what not."

"But Ann and I didn't buy this business because we wanted to get rich. We bought it 'cause we were looking for a business that was going to be fun to run for many years and make a decent living. And we've managed to do that. But I tell you, from time to time, the impulse to take on another line is certainly there � especially when BMW is in a tough supply situation."

BMW is selling record numbers of bikes these days � so many that demand greatly exceeds supply for certain popular models. You're lucky, for instance, if your dealer can get you an R1150GS in any color at all, much less in the color of your choice. Production isn't in step with sales. Tuning a huge sales machine like the entire BMW organization � factories, dealerships, engineering, marketing � might have something in common with tuning an engine: you put in a new cam, and suddenly the carburetors are too small or the exhaust too restrictive. You build a bike that everybody wants, and suddenly your assembly lines are too slow or your production plan is out of synch with reality.

But BMW has shown itself to be an agile company. Once the builder of stodgy, but reliable, "old man's bikes," it has shown its savvy not just in following trends but in pioneering motorcycle technology (think Telelever, ABS, catalytic converters. . .). The cruiser and the F650, both major departures from BMW tradition, showed the company's willingness to bend with market realities, as well. Its muscular promotion of dealership standards represents, if nothing else, BMW's commitment to following motorcycling into the age of the Superstore Boutique.

Keith and Ann Thye and their crew are now ready to ride with BMW into that future. "We had very high expectations for this building and it has exceeded them," Keith says. "I think it's the nicest dealership � BMW dealership in particular � that we've seen."

Bill Nolan/Fall 2000


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