By Emily Hamann
For The Everett Herald Business Journal
So how do you go from a Microsoft executive to the owner of a Harley-Davidson dealership?
Scott Smernis just laughs.
“Everybody wants to know that,” Smernis said.
He’s the owner and dealer principal of Sound Harley-Davidson in Marysville, a dealership that he built from the ground up. Before getting the dealership, Smernis was living in Kirkland, working as a consultant and a director of program management for Microsoft.com for about 10 years.
A decade ago, he pondered a career switch.
“I had decided I wanted to do something different that was more customer focused,” he said. “Where I could have more direct involvement with the end customer.”
And he had always wanted to own his own business.
He had been riding Harleys for a few years, and was on the Harley-Davidson company website when he saw the call to apply to own a dealership.
About four months after he applied, the company got back to him.
“They were interested in opening a dealership in Marysville,” he said. “I said, ‘Sure, where’s Marysville?’ I didn’t come up that way much.”
There were 20 applicants. He was one of seven finalists invited to Milwaukee to present their business plan for the new dealership.
“Well, I didn’t have a business plan,” he said. “I spent 24/7 for the next two weeks pulling together a business plan.”
About two weeks after coming back from Milwaukee, he found out he got the dealership.
“I had no experience running a business, I had no experience building a commercial facility,” he said. “So there was a lot of ramp up, a lot of learning.”
He chose managers who had a lot of experience in the industry, like general manager Dwane Cannady, who has been working at Harley dealerships for 25 years. Cannady was a little worried about having an owner who knew nothing about dealerships, but he also said Smernis’ switch from tech to dealership owner isn’t actually that uncommon.
“They are expensive to get into,” Cannady said. “You’re not going to make a lot of money at a Harley-Davidson dealership so you’ve got to make it somewhere coming in.”
Cannady helped introduce Smernis to the world of Harley dealerships. Although, he said, some of Smernis’ experience at Microsoft transfers over.
“It boils down to people management,” he said. It’s hard to learn, he said. You just have to have it. And Smernis does.
“He basically understands the principle of giving people the tools they need to do their job, and let them do it,” he said.
Smernis lives in Florida now, on Islamorada, in the Florida Keys. Three years ago he was able to move back to his home state and still keep an eye on his dealership. He can monitor the security cameras from his phone and uses Skype for meetings with his staff.
“The technology allows me to kind of have this lifestyle,” he said. He visits the dealership in person every few weeks.
Cannady said the system works well.
“We’re in constant communication,” he said. “It’s nice to have the owner step away sometimes, recharge, come back.”
Sound Harley-Davidson opened in 2006. Since then, the dealership has been highly decorated by the Harley-Davidson company, winning seven Bar and Shield Circle of Achievement Awards in nine years.
They just won a bronze award for the 2014 year. They have also twice been selected as a top 100 dealership by Dealernews, a trade publication covering North American motor sports dealers. For 2014, Sound Harley was the only Harley-Davidson dealership in the state to make the top 100 list.
Of all the Harley dealerships in the U.S., about a hundred per year are awarded Bar and Shield awards, in levels from platinum to bronze. In giving out the awards, Harley-Davidson looks at each dealership’s operation, facilities, financials and customer service surveys.
“I’ve got a really fantastic management team,” Smernis said. “We run a really tight ship operationally and financially.” But the key component of Sound Harley-Davidson’s success, he said, is in their customer service.
“We run a very honest and reputable dealership,” he said. “We try to produce an experience.”
With each customer, they want them to go home with a good story that they tell around the dinner table, Smernis said, “a story that starts with, ‘You won’t believe what happened at Sound Harley.’”
That story could be anything, he said, whether it’s about how they got help with their parts or the maintenance team went above and beyond or an employee found a rare jacket at a dealership in Idaho and had it shipped to the store for the customer.
“Things that just don’t happen to you normally when you go into any store these days,” Smernis said.
Smernis and the rest of the team made it a priority from day one to create an environment that makes customers feel welcome, Cannady said.
“There’s an ambiance at this dealership that isn’t like any other dealership, and I get this feedback a lot from other customers,” Cannady said. “You’re going to walk into this place; you’re going to feel good about being here.”
The dealership, like many Harley-Davidson dealerships, is more than just a place to buy a motorcycle. It does daily rentals. It’s a full service repair shop, it offers riding gear and Harley-branded clothes. Parts and accessories is big for Harleys.
“Almost everybody accessorizes their Harleys,” Smernis said. “Nobody leaves their Harley stock.”
Each Harley dealership has its own chapter of the Harley Owners Group, a club that goes on rides and does charity events together.
“The thing about Harley is it’s not just the motorcycles, it’s the lifestyle,” Smernis said. “When you buy a Harley, you’re not just buying a Harley, you’re buying into a family and a community.”