Harley-Davidson finds growing audience among millennial women in Wyoming
As a kid growing up in Gillette, one of Anna Chapman’s favorite memories was riding on the back of her dad Ryan’s Harley-Davidson (with her mother Rikki, too). And where her older sister and brother failed to catch the bug for the open road, for Anna it became an addiction.
Now, at 17, she’s planning to make a career out of it.
Taking a break for lunch last Friday from her internship at Deluxe Harley-Davidson in Gillette, Chapman popped outside to shoot the breeze with her dad, who showed up after his night shift to take his daughter to lunch. She’d spent the morning learning how to do an oil change, watching over the shoulder of co-worker Cody Jonnassen as he showed her the ropes.
As a teen, she’s one of the youngest interns that dealership owner Maria Ruiz has ever brought on, but after talking to Anna’s parents, who she knows through the local motorcycle scene, Ruiz decided to give the kid a try. Turned out to be one of the best staffing decisions she’s ever made, Ruiz said, given that Anna defies all negative millennial stereotypes and is one of the hardest-working young staffers she’s ever had.
With thick black eyeliner, arms covered in bright ink and a purple tinge in her hair, Chapman is representative of a whole new breed of modern female riders. Ruiz, who was also a bit of a trailblazer herself when it comes to females breaking into the motorcycle industry, has spent the past four decades-plus working in the business. Like Ruiz, she fell in love with the look and feel of a Harley-Davidson when she was a young girl. In Chapman’s case, she spent many Saturday’s riding on the fender behind her father.
Her dad, who just so happens to be from Sturgis, South Dakota, home to the largest annual motorcycle gathering in both the country and world as well as a motorcycle museum and hall of fame, joked that it’s in his daughter’s blood to be a rider.
Ruiz, who was also a bit of a trailblazer herself when it comes to females breaking into the motorcycle industry, has spent the past four decades-plus working in the business, and said she also feels compelled to help young women like Chapman develop a solid work ethic.
And she gets it. Because like Chapman, from an early she was hooked. Ruiz can still remember the first time she heard the tell-tale guttural roar of a Harley-Davidson motor. It hit her right in the heart, she said with a wistful smile, hands crossed over her chest.
Where Ruiz was once an outlier when it came to motorcycles, now females as one of the iconic motorcycle company’s fastest growing demographic as more and more women – in Wyoming and beyond – are getting hooked.
Back in her day in the late 60s, however, Ruiz was one of only a few females who not only loved motorcycles but also worked in the industry, starting out as a grunt in a bike shop before purchasing her own dealership in 1986 in Yuba City, California.
“I’d say it was between 2–5% women back then,” she said. “There weren’t many of us.”
Sitting on a couch under a large portrait of her husband Chuck on the second story of the couple’s sprawling Harley-Davidson dealership off I-90 in south Gillette, Ruiz said the thrill of these iconic motorcycles have yet to fade for her all these decades later.
A good-looking guy with long gray hair and matching beard smiled down from the photo. Up until he passed away just over three years ago, the couple had run the dealership together.
Chuck’s interest had initially fueled hers along, though she said she hadn’t needed much coaxing given her background. The pair opened their first dealership in Wyoming, Deluxe Harley-Davidson, in Casper in 1992, followed by a much smaller dealership in downtown Gillette in 1993, before expanding operations to their current location off S. Garner Lake Road and Interstate 90 in 2000.
They recently sold the Casper dealership and opened a much smaller operation in Sundance.
Today, woman have become a growing demographic for their stores, accounting for about 19% of all motorcycle sales, or one in every five buyers, according to a 2018 survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). That figure doubled over the decade when a 2009 MIC survey counted females as one of 10 motorcycle owners. Of this rapidly ballooning female demographic, a growing number fall between the 18-30 millennial range, according to the same data.
In northeastern Wyoming, Ruiz estimated that this figure is actually much higher. She said that women now account for about 25-30% of their overall sales.
Harley-Davidson has put a lot of money toward retooling its marketing efforts away from the male baby boomers, once their biggest buyer who are now aging out. Ruiz opened up one of the company’s glossy magazines and a print marketing brochure with hipply, clad women and guys in mirrored aviators, perfectly highlighted hair blowing behind them in the wind as if they just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad campaign. The company is no slouch when it comes to investing in their marketing efforts, Ruiz noted, and knows how to attract a new generation of loyal riders.
“Harley-Davidson puts a great deal of effort into attracting young, adventurous types with expendable income to burn like motocross riders, snowboarders and other outdoor enthusiasts,” Ruiz said. In January 2019, for the first time, Harley-Davidson introduced its own trademark Snow Hill Climb event with customized bikes and sponsored riders.
The company has also tweaked its product line over the decades, she said, branching out from its classic touring bike design into slick, new product lines like Sportsters and Softails to fit both women and more petite men, complete with a laundry list of add-on options and plenty of bling.
This year, they’ve even released a new electric line aptly positioned to appeal to the new, eco-friendlier demographic looking for “Zen at 60 miles per hour.”
Not to mention, Harley-Davidson’s three-wheeled Trike line is also taking off among women, according to Josh Pfeifle, general manager at Deluxe Harley-Davidson.
Nonetheless, the touring bike still remains their biggest seller. With a full inventory of both new and used bikes ranging in price from $6,000 up to $30,000, Pfeifle said he thinks this iconic design probably has more to do with their location, off of a major interstate at least 120 miles away from the bigger cities.
Some women go for the touring bikes, too, he noted, though typically the smaller, easier to handle bikes or trikes tend to be more popular choices.
Ruiz, herself, rides a silver Softail, which sits underneath their marquee sign in parking lot out front. The Softail is the perfect size for her, the petite, wiry dealership owner said. She likes its sporty construct, though back in the day, she put in thousands of miles on the back of her husband’s touring bike.
Part of their strong sales, too, Ruiz noted, has a lot to do with geography. In this particular neck of the woods, lots of women work side-by-side with their husbands on ranches or drive heavy equipment at a coal mine or can be found at any other once-dominated male job. Women, she also pointed out, represent a audience, which along with men, are big on motor sports in this part of the country.
“It’s a natural fit for women,” she said, many of whom prefer to ride solo, though it’s a still a popular pastime for couples. Today, there’s also many female-only motorcycle groups locally and across Wyoming who host their own events or get together and ride.
And though the coronavirus definitely put a damper on their sales in recent months when they were forced to close, offering only curb-side service, Ruiz said their sales are definitely picking back up.
Ruiz, too, makes a point to employ women, both in the back shop and out on the floor. On this busy Saturday morning in June, two female employees at the front register were busy ringing up a female customer with an armful of Harley-Davidson apparel.
She also makes a point to spur on other young women like herself who have a natural infinity for these bikes and motorcycle riding in general like Chapman, who will spend the summer in their internship program before heading off to motorcycle mechanic school this fall.
“That’s how young people learn,” she said with shrug.
For her part, Chapman said she can’t imagine doing anything else. After toying for a “hot minute” about her dream of becoming a tattoo artist, Chapman decided to instead apply for a roughly one-year motorcycle mechanic certificate program at her mom’s suggestion, which up until that point, hadn’t dawned on her as a possible option. She was thrilled at the idea, and this fall, the 17-year-old will be heading off solo to the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
“It made sense,” Chapman said, with a shrug. “It’s what I love.”
She likes the way motorcycle engines work, she said, and is eager to learn how to fix them, which will come in handy, as she noted, especially given her ride Saturday with her dad when her starter bike – a Yamaha – kept breaking down on the ride home.
Despite the growing demographic of female riders, Chapman doesn’t have any other friends who share her interest, though she’s found company among a local female motorcycle group.
Chapman, who is also petite, has her eye on one of the smaller, sportier Harley-Davidsons, though right now, she’s still learning how to ride, because admittedly, she still turns her bike over, meaning that sometimes when she stops, the bike falls over on its side.
“I’ll get a Harley one of these days,” she said with a smile, probably after she finishes the certificate program. And though she has the option in school to learn to work on other motorcycle brands, she has no interest in deviating from Harley-Davidson. Like Ruize, she’s loyal to the brand.