MAKING IT: Staying ahead of the curve with three Harley dealerships

SPONSORED: After working her way to the top, Dia Matteson took over the family businesses on the Kenai Peninsula, in Wasilla and Anchorage.

In November, when other Alaska H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) members have winterized their bikes and lovingly tucked them into garages to wait out the snow and ice, Dia Matteson is still out riding.

Last year, the House of Harley-Davidson owner figured out a way to extend her season from six months to 12: she rolls out the trike. She's got studded tires, a heated jacket and heated gloves, so she stays toasty on the ride from Anchorage to Wasilla, which is important, since she's back and forth between the two cities every Friday. In addition to House of Harley-Davidson in Spenard, Matteson also owns Denali Harley-Davidson (Wasilla) and Kenai Peninsula Harley-Davidson (Soldotna).

"I love my job," she said. "I cannot imagine doing anything else."

Four and a half years ago, she bought the dealerships from her dad, Barry Matteson. He was ready to retire after 40-plus years, having grown the business from a residential garage-based shop into Motorcycle Times Inc., the umbrella corporation for all three dealerships.

"I'm going to be like Barry when I grow up," Matteson said with a laugh, recounting a recent cross-country road trip her dad had planned. While she was referring to the retirement-era road trips, she's quick to admit that she and her dad are a lot alike when it comes to how they do business.

"He always has had good vision and planning. He was always tirelessly working on something. He'd come home and he was still working. I'm the same way," she said.

Growing up in Hog Heaven

"I literally grew up here," Matteson said, pointing up the stairs at House of Harley-Davidson. "We had a bed and breakfast upstairs called Hog Heaven." Her childhood bedroom was just up the stairs from the shop. She remembers racing down the stairs to visit her dad while he worked on bikes. Now, there are pre-owned motorcycles parked where their living room used to be.

In elementary school, her dad would hire her and her friends to do odd jobs, like clean the showroom floor, for a little pocket money. When she was 14, she landed her first real job. It was the busy season, so her dad hired her to work in the retail clothing department. She loved everything about it.

"From that day on, I never wanted to work anywhere else," she said. And she hasn't.

She spent every summer working full-time for her dad. A high school teacher nominated her for an elite business camp in Chicago ("because I'm super nerdy") and the weeks spent at camp solidified her decision to go into business. Through high school and college she worked her way through nearly every department—Sales, Parts, Accounting, Service—everything but wrenching on the bikes. She took over as general manager in Anchorage as soon as she earned her bachelor's degree in business. While she managed the Anchorage dealership, she also worked her way toward an MBA.

"I had no life for a while, just working and school," she said. "I would get frustrated in classes sometimes. Some people hadn't even had jobs yet, real jobs. But I also loved the fact that I had a better angle on things. I could apply what I was learning on a regular basis."

Growing up in the business has also made her intimately familiar with the market, the seasonality of her industry and, most importantly, the customers.

Understanding her customers

"I have customers that come in every day just to drink coffee here," Matteson said. "They come and hang out." And she makes sure they have year-round activities that keep people coming through the doors. In the summer, it's live music out back, near the campground they maintain for road-tripping bikers who are making their way through the state. Or it's community rides for charity with H.O.G. members. For the last 10 years, they've been holding Beauty and the Bike workshops, an introductory course to Harleys for women only. This year, they've started offering Harley 101 classes to men and women, a way to make the prestige brand accessible to newbies who just might turn into regulars. At the Kenai Peninsula and Wasilla locations, they host H-D Riding Academy courses.

"You're putting on a show every day and sometimes it's the same show to the same people every single day. But this is their escape," she added. "We had a UPS driver who came here every single day to eat his lunch." He bought two bikes from her.

Customers who buy a bike at the House of Harley-Davidson get a chance to sound the Hog Horn in celebration. In the corner of the showroom, there's a chain hanging from the 30-foot ceiling connected to a fog horn the whole neighborhood can hear.

"They pull the horn and everybody cheers," she said.

One of her challenges is maintaining that enthusiasm across locations and throughout the year.

She credits her dad with teaching her to navigate the seasonality of running a motorcycle business in a state where snow and ice make roads tough for two-wheeled travel six months out of the year. "You make hay when the sun's out," she said. They do the bulk of their business in four months. "The rest of the year, you're living off the storage."

And she knows the grass isn't really greener in other markets. "I'm in a 20 Club. A bunch of dealers get together and share financials and we talk about business. They all have to be non-competing dealers, so I definitely see the other markets. Every market has its struggles. There is no easy market."

Being in three places at once

When Matteson bought the company, it included the Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su locations. She spent a year back-and-forth between Anchorage and Wasilla acting as general manager in both locations before promoting one of her Anchorage Sales managers to the GM position in Wasilla.

"The Valley is the fastest-growing market. It's a lot of opportunity," she added.

With the Kenai Peninsula location, she inherited a longtime GM.

"Si, who runs my store down there does an awesome job. He's been doing it forever. He has it very fine-tuned … that's part of why I don't go down there as much. I have complete faith in him," she said.

That's key to running a business with three diverse locations, Matteson said. "You have to really have people you can trust."

What started as a family business still stays true to its roots, but it's broadened the definition of family. The only relative on the payroll is her nephew, Dillon, a mechanic at House of Harley-Davidson. And her dad maintains an office there. "He gets to keep the office until I pay off the loan," Matteson said. About four more years to go.

"All the employees here, we're like family," she said.

Friends and family have asked, "What would you have done if this didn't work out?"

"I have no idea," she says. She's positive this is where she's meant to be. "I am not passionate about anything else like I am about this."

Read more stories of Alaska small business success here (Denali Park Adventures), here (Port Chilkoot Distillery) and here (Ray's Place).

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.