When Josh Nolten and Dave Myers became friends at Park Forest Junior High, mainly because their last names and thus their lockers were so dang close together, they never imagined that one day they’d be partnering to own the #1 BMW motorcycle dealership in the Mid-Atlantic region. And maybe it’s a good thing that they didn’t know the end of the story. A lot of sweat and broken dreams had to happen before their current partnership at Kissell Motorsports — that’s gone from $4M to $15M in sales in just four years — rose like a phoenix inside an old Ford dealership on the outskirts of Tyrone.
“How far back do you want to go?” Josh asks when I tell him I want to know how this all started. This being Kissell Motorsports, a bustling, sleek motorcycle destination chock full of BMW, Aprilia, Zero, Beta and Moto Guzzi motorcycles.
Going "far back" turns out to be pretty far. Josh’s family moved to the State College area when he was a kid and his father started Park Forest Baptist Church back in the 1980s. He went to middle school, then State High, where he and Dave were part of a tight-knit friend group. He graduated from Penn State with a degree in exercise and sport science and started to work as a personal trainer and eventually general manager at East Coast Health & Fitness in State College. He liked his job and the people he trained, but he always wanted to be a business owner. When taking over ownership of the health club fell through, he and his wife, a hospitality professional, decided to move to Florida to own and operate a family fine-dining restaurant in Jupiter, Florida, in 2004.
The couple took over operations from Josh’s father-in-law, increasing revenue along with expenses until the 2008 recession hit … and everything changed. “Southern Florida was ground zero for the fallout,” Josh says.
He called what happened next “cosmic mismanagement mixed with an economic collapse.” He says, “We lost everything we owned.”
In attempting to sell what remained of their failed restaurant, his father-in-law sued them, adding family hurt to the staggering list of loss. His wife, by now pregnant with their fourth baby, moved back to State College with the girls, living with Josh’s parents and waiting tables at Champs to earn money for groceries.
After wrapping up loose ends in Florida, Josh joined his family and took the first job he could find. “Craig Kissell was a friend and member of the health club where I had worked and he told me that he had a job for me if I ever came back to Happy Valley. I needed to get to work.” And so, for $14 an hour, he did. “I’m forever grateful for the opportunity that Craig Kissell gave me.”
After years in customer-facing jobs, first in fitness and then in hospitality, Josh was shocked by the customer service he observed in the motorcycle industry. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “There was always a deadbeat on the other end of the phone. Customers told us story after story of how bad it was to find motorcycle parts or a good deal on their next bike. It was hard to find someone who actually cared.”
Josh set out to change that. Within a few months, he was promoted to service manager. “I had zero experience in motorcycle industry management, but I knew how to treat people, customers and employees alike,” he says. A few years after that, he moved to sales, increasing new retails from 50 per year to 80 and, by year three, over 100, convincing the rest of the team that if they could increase the volume, they could make deeper discounts on individual sales. Fast forward to 2021 and Kissell Motorsports finished the year No. 1 in the Mid-Atlantic region, retailing 233 new BMW motorcycles.
“It was just a matter of being fair and treating others how you want to be treated, and that starts a snowball effect. Pretty soon, people were telling their buddies: Don’t mess around with anyone else. Go to Kissell’s," Josh says.
By 2017, Craig Kissell was ready to sell the company that he’d started in 2001, and Josh was more than ready to buy it.
But how could Josh buy the company, with all of the financial wreckage in his rearview mirror? He remembered that his high school friend Dave was now CEO of his family business, CS Myers & Son, as well as an angel investor. Beyond his financial chops, he knew who Dave was inside: someone with a hard work ethic, common sense and strong analytical skills. “Bottom line, this was someone I could go into business with,” Josh says.
“I decided to throw it by Dave,” he says, “and see what he thought.”
“It was a phenomenal opportunity,” Dave says. “Was there a risk? Yes, business always has risk. But I knew what kind of person Josh was and I knew that we could trust each other.”
The next issue — where to base Kissell Motorsports — was remedied almost as easily. Josh’s dad saw an abandoned Ford dealership in the outskirts of Tyrone that was up for auction at the rock bottom price of $1,500.
Over the next several months, Josh’s father James, a fit 67-year-old at the time, gathered a team and started to feverishly turn the broken-down building into the best motorcycle shop anywhere, bootstrapping all of the work himself.
“My dad put together a small crew of misfits, some of whom had just been released from prison and spent the next year and a half turning this abandoned building that had birds flying through it into a really great place,” explains Josh.
The symbolism of rising from broken concrete and rusted metal into something new and really great isn’t lost on Josh and Dave. They saw the opening of the new showroom as a chance to set themselves apart from other motorsports sales in a big way.
“It’s all about customer service and being fair,” Josh says. “I beat that drum. We don’t ever want to lose a customer over the price of a tire. I’d rather increase volume by sacrificing some margin. Yes, it’s more work — a lot more work — but by taking this approach, customers feel appreciated. This leads to many happy customers, and happy customers want to buy downstream services like financing and accessories after they buy their bike.”
Not only did Josh and Dave decide to cut margins, but they also filled their showroom with the largest in stock BMW inventory in the region, sometimes making Kissell the only showroom on the East Coast that stocks all available colors of a coveted bike like the BMW K 1600 GTL. (I’ll take it in Gravity Blue Metallic, if anyone’s asking)
“A lot of motorcycle dealers are stuck in old school thinking,” Dave says. “Higher margins to cover themselves. But we are doing everything on volume, and we’re carrying a lot of inventory. It took a risk, but it’s paid off. You can’t sell what you don’t have.”
Their relentless push to put customers first has not only paid off monetarily, pushing the company’s sales from $4M to $15M in four years but it’s also created a passionate riding community. “People were writing very positive Google reviews, telling their friends not to mess with anyone else. Word of mouth is the best advertising!” Josh says. “People have other options, and that’s never lost on us.”
Their passion for the biking community has also led to the creation of a signature event for adventure bike and dual sport riders.
“I thought that it would be really cool to have an annual adventure bike rally, but I had no idea how to organize it,” Josh says. In 2016, he cobbled together a few days of activities, organizing a ride over hundreds of miles of Happy Valley trails, accommodations and meals. Ten riders showed up. The next year was a little easier to organize, and those ten riders brought along 50 of their friends. Year three saw 92.
The 2022 Soggy Bottom Motofest, which features four GPS-led rides, catered meals, hot water showers, live music, guest presenters, access to an onsite supercross track, an event t-shirt and more over three days sold out in just 10 days, with over 300 registered riders.
“It’s become a signature event for this dealership, which was what I had in mind from the beginning,” Josh says simply. “And we may not sell a single bike during the event, but it builds relationships, and that’s what counts ... We don’t advertise with billboards or radio because our reach extends well beyond Central Pennsylvania. We invest in relationships with people. And that’s what pays off.”
Beyond being a way to build community and cultivate sales for their own team, the Soggy Bottom Motofest is a critical component and feeder system for the Mid-Atlantic Back-country Discovery Route (MA-BDR) that runs through Virginia and Pennsylvania (through Centre County) , part of 11 such routes in the country.
One of the community riders is Dan Leri, director of Penn State’s Innovation Park. For many years, he has commuted 70 miles a day all year-round, in all temperatures and weather, from his farm in Spruce Creek. On the few days the road surface is not safe, he negotiates the loan of the only family car for the day. He sees motorcycling as both a spiritual experience and daily transportation. He believes Kissell Motorsports, along with Happy Valley’s other sport shops and amenities, are vital to the richness of our community’s recreational assets.
“I’m guaranteed joy every day of my life when I’m moving through God’s great creation on the seat of a motorcycle,” Dan says. “We’re living in a day and age where there has never been more quality, low-maintenance offerings for riders: bikes, e-bikes, e-motorcycles, low displacement motorcycles. Here's a great blog article about it. Josh and other shops in the area do a wonderful job of introducing folks to the world on two wheels.”
Josh agrees. “Motorcycling gets your mind off of the course that it was on. It’s filled with adrenaline and thrill. You experience so much when you are connected to the road — you can smell cut grass, and feel cold air rolling off Spring Creek.”
“We sell the mental benefits of enjoying life,” he says. “We sell fun.”
Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com.
On March 19, there is a rider community event at Kissell Motorsports which will showcase the latest Backroad Discovery Route (BDR) documentary, along with demo rides and a chili cookoff.
Ride a mini bike, scooter or travel the globe on a motorcycle? Local group MotoHang is an eclectic gathering of motorcycle and scooter riders of all shapes, sizes, interests and passions. You can also join their mailing list for events by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The BMW Motorcycle Owners of America (BMWMOA) is a 38,000 member-strong group that focuses on building community for riders of all brands of motorcycles. Their foundation offers scholarships so riders can learn and increase their riding skills.