Depth of Tread

By Susan Swan

For more than two decades, for fear of rubbing up against the shiny but colder side of Harley-Davidson, scant few column inches of mine have been spent on individual dealerships. It was intentional, just like never dabbling in marketing or sales.

I’m about to muddy those waters. And this is on you, kind reader. Allow me to explain.

Depth of Tread is a column about good, honest, striving examples among fellow riders. These are people anyone would be inspired by. Any age, gender or job; just so long as they ride.

The feature began nearly a year ago, a time when many of us were feeling a little nauseated in the shifting socio-political landscape that is America. A landscape, as a song of mine tells it, where we’re, “Watching the world forgive the mischief—Seeing the big shots on TV—Who holds the power, who banks on armies? Gecko was right; go for the greed.”

And so, with little good news finding our ear, Thunder Press launched Depth of Tread. We thought as readers learned of these examples, they’d be inspired, even buoyed by it and their focus might be redirected to the inspiring people quietly populating their own lives. Readers would nominate someone for a future article from those ranks, requiring only the subject’s okay and forwarding contact information to: susan@tohonor.org  

Simple, right?

It didn’t happen. So this month the nomination is on me, by breaking my own damn rule. Next time, however, it’s up to you!

John Lyon

John Lyon wasn’t intending to go into his mother’s family business. A good kid raised in Northridge, Vermont, his story would be shaped by the estate planning of a local pharmacist who afforded Lyon scholarship to a military college. There he learned about self-discipline, chain of command and the importance of both established process and sound leadership. Graduating with a B.A. in criminal justice in 1999, he went on to Quinnipiac University and in 2001 took the Vermont bar exam, joining a practice in Barre (pronounced Barry), Vermont, shortly after.

John Lyon had exceptional mentors in his parents, Ann, 71, and Bill Lyon, 72. Both were community-minded; Ann working for the state and operating a ceramics business, Bill working in granite quarries and for the Vermont Public Works Department in Northridge. In Bill’s off-hours he operated a construction business, a septic tank maintenance service and for 20 years was chief of the Northridge volunteer fire department. John tagged along with his father on weekends, and when old enough, he served under his dad as a volunteer firefighter.

John’s mother Ann and her twin brother Alan also came from hard-working parents: Barbara (Corey) and Harry Wilkins. Just before returning from serving in WWII, still stationed in Guam, Harry applied for the right to sell Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In 1947, operating out of his mother’s garage initially, Wilkins Harley-Davidson was born.

Sales were slight for many years so to make ends meet, the young married couple juggled shifts and eventually childcare, taking on side jobs, waiting tables at night and working for Barbara’s family’s dry cleaning business, also in Barre.

By the ‘60s, things began to look up. The twins were in school so parents Harry and Barbara could better devote themselves to the business. Once son Alan and daughter Ann were older, their parents hoped the twins would fill-in, allowing the founders to step away as the occasional need arose.

That need came in 2000.

Ann’s twin brother Alan was stricken with leukemia. The night he shared the news, their father Harry had a heart attack and died. The widowed Barbara Wilkins and her daughter Ann would have to step up amid their grief. In 2002 Alan died.

Ann’s son John was practicing law in Barre in 2004. A client of the firm, coincidentally the CPA for Wilkins H-D, was also the mayor of Barre. He gave John advice that John sat on for just 30 days. After considerable time observing the atmosphere at Wilkins, the mayor had come to realize two things. 1) Wilkins customers were always happy, and 2) John’s skills would be put to better use there with his family. “Besides,” the mayor told John, “Nobody really likes lawyers.”

In the 15 years since leaving the law practice, John Lyon, 42, has come to love what he does. Wilkins has allowed him to honor the work ethic of his parents and grandparents and to apply the military school training and observations he’s made about leadership. He is impeccable with his word, highly accessible and accountable to Wilkins customers, and the team he’s built at the shop exemplifies mutual trust, respect and adherence to processes.

His grandmother Barbara, 88, works at the dealership three days a week, and his mother Ann, 71, works full time. Asked how it was learning to work with two such strong women, John recalled that early on his mom told him, “I didn’t realize you were going to be this bossy.”

Competing with other dealerships enjoying far larger populations, for Wilkins it comes down to taking care of every customer, something that’s resulted in 11 consecutive years of the Motor Company bestowing a Bar & Shield award.

There have been many renovations and expansions over Wilkins tenure. But an expansion planned for April is one the entire family is anticipating.

John and his wife Jennifer are expecting their first child.

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