It’s rare that I am stuck for words. I’d been looking at a blank screen for hours before finally realizing that I had to simply give in to the impulse to write more about my friend, your friend, everyone’s friend – John Parham.
I considered writing about the latest twists in the burgeoning race rivalry between Harley and Indian in the latest iteration of Flat Track racing in the United States – a rivalry that stands to do much to add excitement to a moribund market.
Then there is the latest batch of first quarter fiscals released in April by Harley-Davidson and Polaris Industries – I’m never normally stuck for words when the quarterlies come around.
There’s plenty of AMD World Championship program and other show action to write about too – not least the changed geometry of the annual trade expo cycle and how well the February distributor events did.
But all fades in the face of the loss of a friend.
|Photo by Onno Wieringa of Madness Photography|
For me, and I sense for a lot of other people too, there is a sense of ‘fin de siecle’ about the passing of John Parham. In its creation, establishment, growth, metamorphosis and eventual sale, the story of the J&P Cycles business that John and wife Jill built over three decades is a story that feels like it provides a timeline of the evolution of our entire industry.
‘right place, right time, right idea’
From humble enthusiast beginnings to being in the right place with the right idea at the right time as the custom parts and accessory industry exploded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, their mail order ‘super-dealership’ reflected the changes in motorcycle tastes and technology we have seen since the 1980s, not just the changes in scale.
John and Jill’s business life also became a test case study of the impacts that changes in technology of another kind would have on all our lives. At around the time we all had our first US Robotics 9600 modems (remember them?) and the emergence of the first websites in the mid-1990s, I remember John saying that he was reading that new generations of technology were going to have a huge impact on our businesses.
For a man who was Iowa through and through, and who never had a big-time college education, people underestimated John’s capacity for curiosity and an open mind at their peril. We identified each other as fellow travelers when it came to get all enthused about new ideas and the benefits of change – I’m sure he must have driven Jill mad. I read somewhere that she decided early on that their offices had to be on opposite sides of their building just as soon as they had something that was large enough to afford the luxury of space for anything other than boxes upon boxes of parts and John’s memorabilia.
John read widely and traveled extensively to go on courses and find out how to operate, market and develop a mail order business. When technology started to change traditional print catalog mail order, it was through trial and error that he and Jill were able to become successful early adopters where e-commerce was concerned. Through the prism of my own ‘early days’ limited experience in such matters, it appeared to me that they were always experimenting with the latest thinking; always eyeing the cutting edge of many of the practices and techniques that eventually became the staples of doing business online.
However, being in an industry that was a personal passion in John’s case, and one that still remains much more of a bespoke than a commodity market to this day, it has always seemed to me that what John and Jill achieved was to develop a unique recipe that adroitly fused the often mutually incompatible demands of enthusiast led markets with large scale inventory management and e-commerce fulfilment.
The ‘front office’ look and feel of everything that J&P Cycles did (and still does thanks to having John and Jill’s son Zach at the helm) always makes the customer feel like a rider and not just a consumer. The behind the scenes service delivery is driven by state of the art technology and techniques that serves rather than shapes the mission … an Amazon specifically for bikers before there was an Amazon for all.
J&P Cycles was never algorithm first, values last – as far as its customers are concerned it was and largely still remains passion and enthusiasm first and last, and in the largest part this is testimony to John and Jill and their early days of standing for hours in freezing tents and halls, selling and trading piles of often obscure used parts.
While selling off their promotions business back in the early 1990s was a major step and a huge leap of faith, it was a necessary one, and the experience of talking directly, face to face with riders about what they needed or thought they wanted for their pride and joy was experience that carried them into the success that J&P Cycles eventually became.
I’ve written elsewhere about the first time I had the honor of meeting John, and like so many of us, there are just so many John Parham anecdotes I could share. From him hiding the booze bottle in a paper bag in typical American fashion late one night when we were on the Harwich, England to Hook-of-Holland overnight ferry, through to the ‘Baywatch’ moment we shared on that same trip when the cop that caught us speeding in Holland turned out to be a statuesque 5ft 10 inch thirty something 36-26-36 blond in spray-on leathers – throwing her leg nonchalantly over her parked police spec Beemer, shaking her hair loose as she removed her helmet and pulled her zipper down to reach in for her ticket pad.
There were the shared trips to places such as the now infamous Custom Chrome Dealer Shows in California, where John would introduce me around and tell me who was buying from whom and who was shafting whom (sometimes literally as well as figuratively); and then there was the time when John rescued my sad ass after I’d (for some dumb reason) thought it would be a good idea to embrace the ‘Daytona Bike Week’ experience by staying in a crappy old rented RV in the parking lot behind Carl’s Speed Shop, when scumbags robbed and shot the guy in the next van!
But that’s the thing – everyone has JP anecdotes and everyone only ever has great things to say about him. He was a “Universal Man” who was universally liked and admired, and if there were more guys like him in this world, Man would it be a better place!
John used to enjoy reading this column – so this one’s for you bud!