September 24, 2018
Faces of Business

From mechanic to entrepreneur, Ruggiero turns motorcycle avocation into vocation

HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever
Rob Ruggiero’s Bloomfield-based, full-service motorcycle center, Speed Demon Cycles, is taking on a challenging environment in which fewer people, especially Millennials, are riding and buying motorcycles.
Rob Ruggiero rides his Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide into work every day, a 31-mile trek from East Hampton to Bloomfield.

Rob Ruggiero rides his Harley-Davidson Dyna Wide Glide motorcycle to work every morning from East Hampton to Bloomfield. It's a 31-mile trek that he enjoys and, in terms of street credibility, is good for business.

He considers himself a member of a small fraternity in Connecticut — "motorcycle lifers" — who have made motorcycles their avocation and vocation. For the last 12 years, Ruggiero has owned and operated Speed Demon Cycles, a full-service motorcycle center on Blue Hills Avenue in Bloomfield.

He has been riding a motorcycle since he was 11, when he and his motorcycle-enthusiast father fixed up a rundown 1979 yellow Yamaha YZ 100. Ruggiero, 45, has rarely had a time in his life in which he wasn't actively engaged in riding, racing or servicing motor bikes.

He loves the smell, the designs, the ingenuity needed to fix and repair them — and freedom of riding. He also loves the challenge of running a business in an industry that is in decline, and trying to stay relevant with a younger generation. U.S. motorcycle sales, which peaked in 2006 at over 1.1 million, have languished since the Great Recession below 600,000 per year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

"You have to love motorcycles to be in this business," said Ruggiero. "I love owning my own business. I love the respect you get by being a business owner. I love the neighborhood I'm in; and the other business owners (here). I can't see myself doing anything else."

His affinity for the business, he admits, is a bit disconcerting. These days, there are fewer 11-year-old kids who enjoy riding motor bikes with their peers like Ruggiero did in Cheshire, where he was raised.

After the economy tanked in late 2000s, the motorcycle business never bounced back.

"There's not enough kids riding motorcycles,'' Ruggiero said, adding that technology and digital devices provide them other options to have fun. "The motorcycle industry is now in a downturn. The whole industry is brainstorming to come up with strategies to combat this. We have to find a way to reach Millennials and younger because we're all going to be out of business if we don't."

His shop services about 1,000 motorcycles a year. Surprisingly, the towing side of his business has been steadily increasing. Speed Demon Cycles always provided a towing service to pick up motorcycles. But over the years it has been inundated with calls to tow cars to local garages, likely because the shop pops up on internet searches for "towing."

So, Ruggiero also finds himself in the car-towing business. He's not complaining. Towing cars is an added revenue stream that helps to buffer the seasonal nature of servicing motorcycles.

"We have a limited time to make money," Ruggiero said. He sees his venture as a family affair and credits his three employees, wife, two children and other family members for helping him to pursue his passion.

Learning the ropes

Growing up in Hamden and Cheshire in the 1980s and 1990s, owning a business was not a priority for this stocky New Haven-born native, who sports a bald head, full beard and tattooed forearms. After graduating from Cheshire High School in 1993, Ruggiero enlisted in the Army, where he learned discipline and leadership.

After a three-year hitch, he secured a job as a motorcycle mechanic at Brothers Harley-Davidson in New Haven. The original job description was for a bike washer, but when owner Bob Paolella noticed Ruggiero had auto-mechanic experience from a high school work-study program a new job was forged.

Over seven years he evolved from mechanic — "wrenching" as he calls it — to service manager and managing people. In 2003, Ruggiero was hired as service manager by Skip Gengras of Gengras Harley-Davidson in East Hartford. There, he learned the business aspects of how to run an operation.

The experiences at both shops gave Ruggiero the confidence to open Speed Demon Cycles in 2006.

As an entrepreneur, he continues to learn about how to best manage and interact with people. These skills are also useful in Ruggiero's work as a youth hockey coach and coach of an adult hockey team comprised of men who are physically disabled. (He proudly notes the adult team won a national championship in Chicago this year.)

In order to sustain and grow business, Ruggiero relies on a loyal and capable staff.

"I let them make decisions,'' he said. "I don't micromanage. I did a lot of that in the past. Working on motorcycles is high stress. I want my guys to be mentally healthy and like working here, where they are not stressed out by the boss.''

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of Fox 61's "The Stan Simpson Show," which airs Saturdays, 5:30 a.m. and online at Fox61.com/stan.

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