Carrying on a Harley-Davidson legacy

It’s been almost a year since Bruce Rossmeyer’s death, but his giant face still smiles down on billboards advertising his Harley-Davidson dealerships.

Rossmeyer’s family has moved slowly with any transition to protect the brand their father built as the world’s largest Harley-Davidson dealer. The billboards are gradually being replaced without the image of the bearded, beefy Rossmeyer. but the Bruce Rossmeyer name will remain.

“It’s timing,” said Shelly Rossmeyer Pepe, Rossmeyer’s youngest daughter. “You’ve got to refresh the brand, and the name is what we care the most about. The family felt strongly about maintaining that.”

Rossmeyer’s family has taken over running the six dealerships, which represent 12 locations in Broward, Central Florida, Colorado, Mississippi and Boston. Rossmeyer’s wife, Sandy, has taken over the helm as president and the family has divided up responsibilities.

“We were never prepared to lose him, but we are prepared to carry on,” Sandy Rossmeyer said. “With the economy there has had to be some changes. We’re trying to make him proud of us.”

The family has had to weather some difficult times since the 66-year-old Rossmeyer’s death in a motorcycle accident last July on the way to a Sturgis biker rally in South Dakota.

Experts say that replacing a legend like Rossmeyer in a family business is never easy. but taking him off the visual imagery is the right move.

“You can still talk about him in a legacy sense,” said Don Schwerzler, founder of the Family Business Institute in Atlanta. “That way you can talk about the contributions he made. you can use that transition as a way to celebrate the Dad and his legacy.”

Rossmeyer’s family has also had to deal with fallout from the economy. The Rossmeyer dealerships saw a 35 percent drop in sales for the fourth quarter of 2009, about average for most Harley dealers, Rossmeyer Pepe said.

The picture has been even worse in South Florida. just before Rossmeyer’s death last year, the company had closed its Boca Raton Harley clothing store. As sales got worse, the Pompano Beach Harley store closed this March.

“South Florida is the most underperforming market for Harley-Davidson in the nation, other than California,” said Jeff Cheek, chief operating officer and general manager of the South Florida operations. “We have two large stores here and we felt that was sufficient to provide opportunities for all the loyal enthusiasts.”

Harley-Davidson’s performance nationally continues to struggle and the brand is in the midst of a major restructuring. The company reported a more than 70 percent drop in earnings for the most recent quarter ending in March, compared to the same period last year.

Rossmeyer dealerships have seen seen business start to stabilize and sales are flat compared to last year.

“It’s looking better,” Shelly Rossmeyer Pepe said. “We had a great Bike Week.”

Shelly Rossmeyer Pepe has taken on her father’s mantle as the dealer representative and she’s also become the front person for the family. Family members say that’s because she mirrors her dad’s personality and ability to relate to customers.

Sister Mandy Rossmeyer Campbell handles marketing and events, while brother William Rossmeyer serves as operations manager at the Daytona dealership. The other two sisters are not actively involved.

“Really the only thing that’s changed is mom’s the boss now, not dad,” William Rossmeyer said.

Key members of the executive team remain: Cheek and Dean Pepe, the general counsel and Shelly Rossmeyer Pepe’s husband.

“We’re always looking back and thinking about what would Bruce have done?” Pepe said.

Carrying on a Harley-Davidson legacy