Eagle Rider's slogan is "We rent dreams.”, and a quick glance around their Los Angeles headquarters soon makes clear what kind of desires they're purveying.
There are racks stacked with bandannas, leather jackets, cut-off denims and other "outlaw wear." Route 66 signs jostle for space alongside vintage gas pumps and mammoth Stars and Stripes. Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf alternate on the sound system.
And then there are the bikes. Through a side door, you'll find an Aladdin's cave of gleaming Harley-Davidsons of every stripe — the Fat Boy, the Low Rider, the Electra Glide (in blue, no less). Eagle Rider offers you the chance to unlock your inner Easy Rider and roar out of your workaday life down the highway to, if not Hell, then at least Death Valley or Palm Beach. "We give people a chance to live the American myth," says Eagle Rider co-founder Chris Mclntyre. "The image of the Harley and the open road is out there in the collective consciousness. We make it real."
Eagle Rider's success is a testament to the potency of that myth. Mclntyre started the company with business partner Jeff Brown 13 years ago; at that time, they had four bikes (including their own) and were operating out of a garage in San Pedro. Today, they're the world's largest motorcycle-rental company, offering tours out of 40 rental outlets across America and Europe, with a fleet of 3,000 bikes and around 50,000 rentals a year. With an average daily rate of $75, they're now expanding beyond Harleys — not only to BMWs and Hondas, but also to jet skis, quad bikes and snow mobiles.
Mclntyre and Brown are uniquely placed to share in the wish fulfillment they're offering. The idea for Eagle Rider came out of an aborted trip to Europe in 1992; the pair, both bike fanatics since childhood, and complementary business personalities — "Chris is more of a promotional person, while I prefer the anonymous administration role," says Brown, wryly — had planned to take sabbaticals from their jobs as AT&T executives to travel around the Continent on Harleys. "Neither of us had bikes at that point, so we tried to rent them," recalls Brown. "We looked in the phone book, and there was nothing. We'd ask around, and people would end up asking us where they could rent Harleys in the U.S. So a light bulb went off in our heads. We saw a void in the market."
The pair jumped ship from corporate America — "we were so waiting for the right opportunity to do that," says Mclntyre with a grin — and made their first "test rental" a year later, to a quartet of Austrians. "They went off on a 16-day trip through Bryce Canyon," says Mclntyre, "and I remember wondering if we'd ever see them again. But when they came back, we could see they'd changed. One guy had tears in his eyes; he said that ever since he was a boy and he'd seen a poster of Elvis sitting on a Harley, it had symbolized the American dream for him. He was so moved. And we were getting goose bumps. We thought, 'Wow, we're really onto something here.'"
Even so, progress was slow, thanks to a little matter called liability insurance. It took two years before a contact in the mobile-home-rental business agreed to cover them — "we would have weekly meetings just for the sake of meeting, even though there was no progress, just to keep up our spirits," recalls Brown — and they built their initial fleet by buying in bulk on credit from several Harley dealerships, as well as offering Harley enthusiasts the chance to buy new bikes and loan them to Eagle Rider for rent. "They got their money back in a couple of years," says Mclntyre. "So we quickly grew to 50 bikes. That's when we opened the Los Angeles headquarters." Gesturing expansively, he adds, "As you can see, things grew pretty rapidly from there."
Today, Eagle Rider L.A. takes up a city-block-sized series of units. Bikes are lovingly serviced and buffed in one; the company's guided tours (with optional additions such as luggage-support vehicles and spare bikes) with titles like California Dreamin' (from $1,550 for 4-6 days) and Rocky Mountain High (from $3,200 for up to 15 days) are arranged in another. It's one of four company-owned stores; the rest — from Billings, Montana to Malaga, Spain — are franchises. Mclntyre is keen to ensure that the ethos of the company is maintained as it grows, "We're purists in a lot of ways. We want to create a global company that still has a family feel."
Eagle Rider now employs about 400 people (including franchisees), and while Mclntyre and Brown are coy about profits, they concede that they're "pretty healthy." Such success hasn't gone unnoticed by the vacation-industry conglomerates, but Eagle Rider's founders aren't overly keen to re-embrace corporate America just yet. "The beauty of a small business is that you can be nimble," says Brown. "Bureaucracy makes it difficult for huge corporations to act quickly or be flexible. And you can become dead men walking in corporate America with a lack of passion. We're incredibly passionate about what we do."
So passionate that, despite the fact they're now both family men, they can still be found out in the canyons on their own Harleys whenever they can get away, "We don't get out so often these days, though," laments Brown.
"But, when we do, it's all the sweeter," puts in Mclntyre.
"And you say 'Oh yeah: This is the reason why people come to us,'" says Brown, beaming. "Because it's so much fun."
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