Business Owner Story #53 – Century Motorcycles

Business Owner Story #53 – Century Motorcycles

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Tim Rutherford is the owner of Century Motorcycles one of the oldest remaining motorcycle shops in the country. Tim is proud to be heir to a three generation business, started in 1963 by Tim’s grandfather, Chris. It was then taken over by his mother, Cynthia. Since 2008, Tim has taken over the responsibility of the shop, supplying more than 5,000 customers worldwide with answers and solutions to anything and everything to do with motorcycles. In fact, Tim explains he can do anything from fixing a flat tire to a complete restoration. And when it comes to what brand of motorcycle Tim will work on— well, he simply says he’ll work on everything from A to Z. With a tear in his eyes, Tim explains that the shop is more than a business; it is the heartbeat of his family and the community of San Pedro.

The Start

How did you start your business?
My grandfather started the business in 1963. The big market back then was the British bikes. Sure there were a few Harley’s and Indians, but the real market back then was for the classic British motorcycles, like the Vincent. The Vincent for example was considered the Rolls Royce of motorcycles. Today, they are the most classic, prestigious, expensive and rare motorcycles on earth.

Anyway, my grandfather’s friends all had BSA’s, Triumphs, Nortons, and of course Vincents. My grandfather’s friends started a motorcycle club called “The Centurions.” He opened his shop back then to help fix his friend’s bikes. That’s why he called it “Century Motorcycles.” My grandfather moved from Kansas to San Pedro. He and his daughter (my mom) grew up in the motorcycle business. So my mom and grandfather ran the motorcycle shop together, and by the time I was five years old, I was cutting my teeth in the motorcycle business in this shop.

If you look around the shop, a lot of the old motorcycles that are here on the floor were obtained in races my grandfather won. Back then they raced for “pink slips.” He would race to the top of the hill in Palos Verdes and back, and would always win. Before he knew it, his shop was full of great motorcycles that he had won racing in the streets. My grandfather’s original motorcycle is still in the front window now.
Pretty soon he got a reputation for working on motorcycles and winning races, and helping people out with their bikes, and pretty soon, this little shop became the place to come if you were into motorcycles.

How did you fund your business in the beginning?
Because I inherited the shop, I really kind of fell into the funding. But I will say that Bank of America is the bank I use when needing additional loans. We still have a lot of things to do, and they have always respected the reputation of the business.

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Running the Business

How did you learn to run your business?
I learned to run Century Motorcycles by working in the shop as a kid. My job back then was to clean up the oil on the floors, then I would clean the counters, then sweep the floors. I also remember having to stamp all the envelopes with the Century Motorcycles name for the outgoing mail. I remember everything like it was yesterday!

Of course I only worked Saturday’s because I was only five years old. Then in middle school, I had to take the bus to work after school and I was promoted to working in the back shop, cleaning, and replacing spark plugs, carburetors and stuff like that. My mom at the time was covering the counter. I favored the mechanics. When I was 12, I started racing motorcycles with my grandfather on Terminal Island on a $100 motorcycle he bought me. That was my duty. If I could race and I kept my grades up, I could work the shop.

Now after graduating High School I got married and moved away. I had another life after leaving, but in 2008 I returned to my grandfather’s shop, which was now being run by my mother. But it was idling pretty low. It didn’t have any energy and it needed some new blood. So I assembled a crew of guys to help with the resurrection. I went around the old neighborhood and found a lot of kids that were really smart, responsible and respectful of the history of Century Motorcycles. So I gathered them up, and they’ve been with me the whole way. I couldn’t have done it without them.

What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Of course nobody is perfect, but as I think early on I should have been more patient. I should have understood individual’s unique flaws and areas where they could have learned but I was too impatient to wait for them. I think I lost some good workers because I was just too impatient and made quick decisions that may have been the wrong ones. I probably could have learned a lot from them. I could have learned from them to help the shop grow faster.

What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
The smartest thing I did was to stay firmly planted in the philosophy and roots of the business. That means I stuck to what the business was designed to be: a specialty motorcycle shop that is expert at old British motorcycles. Now a big part of that is being a owner with honesty and integrity. That’s the smartest thing you can do in business. No matter how hard something comes at you and how you wish you could do otherwise, there’s only one way to do things and that’s with honesty and integrity. My grandfather would always tell me the best businessman has to sharpen his pencil and figure out a way to make a transaction honest, even if it was a losing proposition. That’s the only thing that matters.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I eat, sleep, live, love and ride motorcycles. That’s the most rewarding thing to me. I mean think about it, that’s pretty neat! Even now, I am injured from racing and I may have to have surgery but I still can’t wait to go racing again. I don’t know what it is. I just love this business. I also really love building cool motorcycles. I see the satisfaction of the customer’s when we help someone with their motorcycles. In fact, I believe this is the oldest remaining motorcycle shop in the United States. This is a third generation. Everywhere I go, somebody needs something with a motorcycle. It doesn’t matter where I go— the grocery store, the bank, on the street— this store is part of the heartbeat of San Pedro.

What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
The most challenging thing is all the red tape associated with running a business. All of the government taxes and regulations. It’s really hard keeping on top of running a small business successfully. It’s easy to get the motorcycles in here and fix them. But there are so many new laws and regulations. It gets really frustrating. For example, when the fire department comes in here it’s always $800. Now I have no problems with the firemen. They’re all good guys and they love to talk about their motorcycles while they’re doing a fire inspection, but the next day I get a bill for $800. They don’t do anything and I don’t get fined, but I just don’t understand what they’re doing. Now I don’t want to salt the interview, but I really have a hard time understanding why it’s so expensive to be in business in California.

What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
I am so surprised that after my mom passed away how many people from this community came in to this shop to give their condolences. I mean it was a really touching example of how important my grandfather’s shop was and is. One guy was homeless, pushing a shopping cart, and he dropped off a card with $10 in it. It hit me really hard. It surprises me because it reminds me that the responsibility for continuing the lineage of Century Motorcycles rests on my shoulders. And it’s not just about the business, it’s that the business has been a part of the community. That really surprises me.

What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most?
I do have an entrepreneur I admire, and he owns a family business too and you see him running around town. He’s only a little older than I am. He helps people around San Pedro, and is really good to his employees. He runs the San Pedro Fish Market, and his name is Tommy Amalfitano. He’s always at work but he’s always growing and evolving. But the thing I admire is that he is a real person. If you mention his name anywhere in town, from the bank to the parking lot, people have respect for him. I admire that and want to be like that.

What I’ve Learned

If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
I think I would have spent more time with people. You know, when people come in here they all have interesting stories. But sometimes I don’t have time to listen. Now I make the time. When somebody asks me something, I try and put down what I’m doing and spend time getting to know them and try like heck to remember their names. I usually forget their names, but will never forget their motorcycle.

What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
I wish I knew how important this shop was to my mom. I left and had a family, but I wish I had understood how valuable a family business is to carry on. I am here now, but I should have been here ten years earlier. Oh well, I’m still learning things the hard way, right?

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About the Author — Vincent Aviani has been a professional observer of life for nearly 30 years. Starting out his career as a reporter, and then as a community banking communications officer and public relations executive, Vincent has spent his career listening to personal stories and conveying the histories and wisdom within each story to his receptive audience. For the past four years, he has been running his own small business as a professional communications consultant and storyteller.

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