The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Three generations of Wilkinses carry on a Barre tradition

wilkins-leadBarbara Wilkins (right) stills works three days a week at Wilkins Harley-Davidson, the Barre dealership founded in 1947 by her late husband, Harry. Running the business with her are her daughter, Ann Lyon, and her grandson John Lyon.

I love to work.” That’s John Lyon in reply to a question about what he does in his spare time. “I enjoy what I do, working and making things better. That’s probably due to my dad and my mom’s willingness to make things work and be better.”

Lyon is the owner, with his mother, Ann Wilkins Lyon, and maternal grandmother Barbara Wilkins of Wilkins Harley-Davidson in South Barre. “Although my dad, William, didn’t work in the business, he was a guy that worked from the time he got up in the morning and then went back out till the time he went to sleep.

“He was public works director in Northfield, and he worked Christmas — was out before the rest of his team — and every holiday, to make sure his guys didn’t have to work as much as he did.”

The elder Lyon also had a side construction business and a septic tank business, and Lyon often rode with him on weekends, pumping out tanks and driving the bulldozer.

“I truthfully enjoy every minute of what I do, and while that can be foreign to some folks, I enjoy working and innovating and developing new ways of taking better care of customers and enhancing their experience. To me that’s the fun part of the job.

“Every job has the firefighting duty where you have to put the fires out on a daily basis,” he continues, “and to get away from those and concentrate on the fun part of your business, I enjoy that — revamping things.”

Lyon admits that this approach is often hard for employees to pick up at first. “There’s no way to tell an incoming staff member that we are constantly changing. They say, ‘I love it,’ at first, but not everybody likes being as busy as we are, and we do experience turnover because of that.”

It was never Lyon’s plan to join his mother’s family business. Born at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin and raised in Northfield, he attended Norwich University as a member of the Corps of Cadets under a full scholarship established by the will of G. Max Sanborn, a pharmacist in Northfield. After graduation in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he earned a law degree in 2002 from Quinnipiac University and returned to Vermont to join a Barre practice.

Wilkins Harley-Davidson has a long history in the Barre area. Harry Wilkins, Lyon’s grandfather, was a fan of Harleys before he went off to World War II and had a chance to see them used overseas. In Guam in 1946, knowing he was about to return to the States where he would need a job, Harry decided to sell motorcycles. He applied for a dealership before he even left Guam.

“His first year in business, 1947, he sold three motorcycles out of his mother’s garage. “To make a go of this, he also had to make a living somehow,” Lyon says.

Harry worked in the Barre granite quarries and supplemented that with a job at Prosperity Dry Cleaners, a business owned by the parents of Barbara Corey. It wasn’t long before he and Barbara were married and had twins: Alan and Ann.

“In late 1947, they purchased a house — a rundown old sawmill on Farwell Street — and that was their first dealership,” says Lyon. Harry and Barbara ran the dealership and worked multiple jobs for several decades. “We both worked for my parents,” says Barbara. “And I worked at night in restaurants, too.”

“It was probably in the late ’60s before they were able to focus on the dealership itself. It was full time, jockeying other jobs, and working alternate shifts to keep things going.” By 1996, they needed more space, and moved the dealership to its current location in South Barre.

“The thought was always that Barb and Harry would run the business, and when they didn’t want to be there, Ann and Alan would run it,” says Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon, a CPA, friend, and former law client of Lyon’s. “Obviously a tragedy changed that.”

The tragedy started with Alan’s announcement to the family, in 2000, that he had leukemia. “My grandfather had a heart attack and died,” says Lyon, “and two years later, my uncle died of leukemia.” Ann and Barbara stepped up to run the company.

Lauzon says he was sitting with John one day in 2004 and asked him why he was still practicing law. “I said, ‘John, you’re an incredible entrepreneur. ... Now let’s talk about your career choice for a moment. You’re an attorney: You represent me, we have a case, we win, then you send me a bill and I’m not so happy. Then on rare occasions when you’re going to lose a case and send me a bill, I’m really not happy. Let’s face it: You’re in a profession where I’m never really happy to be here.

“‘Now you have this family business, where your mom is and your grandmother is, that needs some assistance. When I go into Wilkins, everybody is happy. The guy on the bike, he’s living the dream, everybody’s upbeat, and you’re sitting here as an attorney. Dude, you need a career change!’

It’s just a backstory,” Lauzon continues, “but it wasn’t a month after that that John called me and said, ‘I’m going to go to work at Wilkins.’”

Sales have thrived since 2004 when Lyon joined the dealership, from 60 motorcycles a year to now over 400. “Space is always a challenge,” he says. “We’ve had, let’s see, four renovations since I’ve been here. We purchased another business next door — an oil-change business — about six years ago, and that’s been very good. Our original intent was to use that for expansion, but then we purchased another business on the other side of us — a gas station convenience store — that allowed us to do the expansion. Across the street, Accura Printing was bought and moved to Jet Service Envelope, and we bought the building.”

Last December, an expansion brought the square footage to 18,000, plus 6,000 square feet of warehouse. The business supports 23 employees, including five service technicians, two of them master technicians, says Lyon, who adds that having two is rare for a dealership.

Understandably, summer is the busy season — “a fire-hose mentality in the middle of the season. Every day begins with a meeting of the management team; every department reports in. Then we fan out and cascade that information to other team members and other departments.”

“I am fanatical about taking care of everything I can; I’m a servant to my team, so am always thinking about what it is that I can help with on that specific day to help them be more successful. And as a seasonal business, we’ve never laid anybody off in 70 years.”

Barbara, now 87, still works three days a week in sales, greeting customers and helping guide them to the right departments. Ann works in accounting doing, she says, “general paperwork.” Bill, her husband (and Lyon’s father), doesn’t work for the company, but occasionally delivers or picks up bikes.

Lyon confesses that community involvement is his hobby — “pretty much anything that I do is considerably behind the scenes. We’re involved with a lot of groups that may be in need or want additional support, whether monetary or products. And probably any organization that has a tie to motorcycles we’ve been involved with somehow.”

His occasional use of firefighting analogies is probably because he spent 16 years volunteering with the Northfield Fire Department, starting in childhood as a tagalong with his father, who was fire chief for 20 or so years. “I got off the fire department a few years ago when I moved to Barre.”

Valerie Beaudet, the owner of Ladder One Grill, housed in Barre’s historic firehouse, met him in 2007, not long after she bought the building in 2007.

“My firehouse is based on firefighters, so I have memorabilia, pictures on the wall. John came in with some other firefighters to check things out. I was showing them some of the pictures of people and things and said that all this stuff I got from Northfield, from Bill Lyon. And John said, ‘That’s my dad!’

“Wilkins sends us so much business it’s just fabulous. And we send people to them. And the customer service, the respect people here have for him, he’s all that: a standup guy. And the people in the community, if you say John Lyon, immediately, it’s ‘integrity, respect.’”

Things are good, says Lyon, especially compared to the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when the product wasn’t as popular. “That era is what guides us. That is a daily reminder of why we cannot ever take anything for granted. That people spend their hard-earned money with us every day, whether for a part or motorcycle, it’s still hard-working Vermonters supporting a luxury toy business. And if you forget that, then you’re going down the tubes. In the scheme of things, things are pretty damn good.” •