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Bob Fletcher's Harley-Davidson, a 48-year biker institution, to close soon

Bob Fletcher, here during his motorcycle racing days in the 1940s, died less than two months ago. Now his Harley-Davidson dealership is closing. “It’s a blessing he’s not here to see this,” a daughter says.

Courtesy of Fletcher family

Bob Fletcher, here during his motorcycle racing days in the 1940s, died less than two months ago. Now his Harley-Davidson dealership is closing. “It’s a blessing he’s not here to see this,” a daughter says.

LARGO — Built from the ground up by a former motorcycle racer, Bob Fletcher's Harley-Davidson dealership was for 48 years a local biker institution.

In the mid '90s, during the brand's peak, biker buffs camped outside the U.S. 19 showroom for three days to score a new Harley. Evel Knievel brought his bikes there for service.

But now, less than two months after Fletcher's death, his family-owned shop has lost its franchise. By the end of the month, Fletcher's will close for good.

The downfall has exposed raw tensions between the blue-collar franchise and the international Harley heavyweight, a rugged icon of outlaw Americana turned status symbol and boutique.

Shop owners said corporate demands for a pricey remodel and pinched supply lines led to the franchise's budget uncertainties and ultimate demise.

"We're a family company, and the new way of doing everything with corporate would have changed the way we do business," said Laura Fletcher-Taylor, who has run the shop with her two sisters since Fletcher's 1986 retirement.

Of her father, a former Harley devotee, she said, "It's a blessing he's not here to see this."

The recession made Harley's high-end hogs an unaffordable luxury for many, and Fletcher's sales were half what they were during the '90s, Fletcher-Taylor said.

Axed plans for the shop's expansion onto a nearby $5 million plot left the shop saddled with a massive mortgage. And road construction on U.S. 19 that swallowed them in dust helped to drive away potential sales.

But perhaps the most crushing blow came from Harley's tough demands on franchisees, which Fletcher-Taylor said mandated a host of cosmetic changes to meet new corporate standards. One of them, changes to a merchandise wall, would have cost $150,000.

"We needed then to put the focus on employees and health care," Fletcher-Taylor said, "not replacing something that works."

All franchise relationships are framed by controls from corporate bosses, and the standards set for Fletcher's were, as shop owners said, part of the deal.

But even Fletcher's Pinellas rival, Jim's Harley-Davidson in Pinellas Park, said the remodeling was for many franchises prohibitively pricey amid plummeting showroom sales.

While forced to trim its hours, employees and advertising, the Jim's franchise, the only other Harley shop in the county, paid $80,000 in recent years to upgrade its roadside sign to corporate standards.

Many shops, said Jim's general manager Steve Greenstein, complained they couldn't believe they had to spend so much. Harley leaders, he said, offered some financing assistance, but were "not budging" on the changes.

Officials at Harley's Milwaukee headquarters would not comment on Fletcher's closure or the requirements of franchisees, which spokeswoman Maripat Blankenheim called "the backbone of our business."

Founded in 1964, and one of Tampa Bay's oldest Harley dealerships, Fletcher's had outlasted long periods of Harley's decline, including during the '70s under parent AMF, now known for its bowling alleys.

In Fletcher's biography, The Life and Times of a Harley Davidson Motorcycle Enthusiast, former Harley CEO Vaughn Beals wrote a "corporate tribute" to Fletcher, saying his shop's sales in the years during the company's near-collapse "were key contributors to (Harley's) survival."

Fletcher, who as a teenager bought a 1929 Harley JD for $50, and in the years before World War II trained an Army motorcycle squad, was a lifetime champion of the brand. Five years before his death, at age 85, he rode to Milwaukee for the motor company's 100th anniversary.

But the Harley he long promoted had changed in his waning years. A 2009 restructuring, led by CEO Keith Wandell, cut factories and thousands of jobs. Some suggested thinning the herd of local franchises was a subtler part of stripping the machine.

"That's what this company was founded on: blue collar workers," Fletcher-Taylor said. "Now it's mostly focused on merchandise."

Harley's restructuring also aimed to reposition the brand, which dominates the American motorcycle market, away from its aging ridership and toward new customers, including women. Sales of the hogs gave way to more affordable clothing and accessories, including those sold at Fletcher's Clearwater Beach boutique.

Harley's motorcycle sales have recovered since the recession. The company reported Wednesday its second-quarter earnings, though still below expectations, had jumped 30 percent.

Owners are closing their beach boutique and will seek to sell their main store at 17129 U.S. 19 and the eight acres they bought during the boom for $5 million. The land is now assessed at half the value. Its 35 employees are looking for new jobs.

Tuesday was Fletcher's last day as a Harley franchise, ending the shop's incoming shipments and all warranty work. The shop can still sell its Harley-brand goods — including wine goblets, mouse pads and stuffed animals — and is doing so at a 20 percent discount.

One fan, Ralph Singer, a tourist from Hannover, Germany, stood outside Tuesday, photographing the shop's iconic orange-and-black logo, known as its "bar and shield."

Clad in a tattered Harley tank top, Singer, in broken English, said he had visited the dealership 20 times.

But never, he said, to buy a motorcycle. He just likes the T-shirts.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Bob Fletcher's Harley-Davidson, a 48-year biker institution, to close soon 08/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 11:21pm]

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