Thursday, October 2, 2008

Classic hard work led Kevin Mahoney to steer Royal Enfield to success in America

Kevin Mahoney on the Bonneville Bullet streamliner. His reporting from the Salt Flats kept readers informed of Royal Enfield record attempt.

First of two parts
Kevin Mahoney, the hard working man behind Royal Enfield motorcycles in America, made his own luck. With the same energy and risk-taking it took to create U.S. importer Classic Motorworks he might have gotten richer in some other line. Yet he says he wouldn't change a thing.

I bugged Kevin to tell me his life story. Graciously, he consented. Here it is, in his own words;

"OK here goes. Born in Minneapolis. Dad was an engineer with IBM so we moved all over the Midwest. Settled in Rochester, Minn., where there is a large IBM factory, in 1960. Proudly graduated at the very bottom of my class in 1969. The only things I took in high school that were worth my time were typing and auto shop. I had to beg to get in as I was a 'townie' and only the ag kids from the country ventured into the basement for vocational classes. I was top of my class there.

"Worked in Yellowstone National Park for six seasons, first as the guy who loaded the ice machines, mostly as a waiter and then running kitchens in the park's hospitals. Some of the best years of my life. I still go back every chance I get. At some point I hope to work there again.

"Got a job in at the Mayo Clinic at a psychiatric ward for teenagers. A year later the doctor that ran the place struck out on his own and procured an 80-acre former boarding school in Faribault, Minn. Any of us there that wanted to were invited to move there, which I did. I was 18 or 19 at the time.

"After a couple of years I decided that I needed to finish college if I wanted to get a real job. Applied to the University of Minnesota and got accepted. I can’t explain this, but it never occurred to me how I was going to pay for it. When I got the bill I realized that I couldn’t’ afford it.

"The one real marketable skill I had was as a waiter. I also realized that junior college was free for residents of California and state college was almost free. I decided that if I moved to San Francisco I stood the best chance to find a good job as a waiter and perhaps could put myself through school.

"With no more than this plan in mind that is exactly what I did. Ended up with $15 in my pocket and as 'fresh off the boat' as any immigrant. To say I was naive was a gross understatement. Ended up in a flop house on 16th and Valencia in the Mission district and had to sell plasma to eat. I then found a job pumping gas.

"After being extremely persistent I was offered a job as a busboy at the Engineers Club in the financial district. I borrowed some black shoes and a white shirt from a friend and went to work. That got me into the Waiters Union (which at that time was the only way to get a job as a waiter or busboy). Moved up to the Haight-Ashbury district and shared a place with some friends. To say it was an interesting time and place doesn’t even begin to explain it.

"After a year I entered City College of San Francisco, which was basically free if you could survive. The dispatcher at the union took a liking to me (because I always showed up and was never drunk I think) and made sure I got three-four gigs a week. I was still having to buy used shoes and other waiter clothes but I was moving forward. I used to think that if I ever saw the day that I would have a pair of socks for every day of the week I would be rich. I can also tell you that no matter how good a shape they were in, used shoes always hurt and never fit right.

"I was always a gear head and took the route in school of becoming a shop teacher. Even as a child I used to go to the city dump and pick up mechanical and electronic devices, bring them home, figure out how they worked and then fix them so I came by it honestly. I graduated from City College and then got accepted at San Francisco State.

"In the meantime I got a summer job with the DiMaggio family at their restaurant in San Francisco. (Joe was an ass -- a big ass -- but the rest of his family were really good to me.) This was grueling, extremely difficult work, but the money was great. When the season would slow down they would keep me on longer than they needed to just to help me get through school.

"I enjoyed school but it was tough. I had to ride buses and street cars for five-six hours a day when I had to work and at least two hours a day on days I didn’t work. Holidays for me were double time so I never got to celebrate them with my friends.

"In the early 1970s San Francisco was a gold mine for a single guy that wasn’t gay, but for the most part I was too busy to take advantage of it. I enjoyed working in the hotels and got to meet a lot of famous people: presidents, world leaders. I found it interesting how politicians acted when they thought no one was looking.

"I first got a part-time job teaching auto shop in San Bruno, Cal. and then a full-time job at Terra Linda High in Marin County (where the poor kids' dads were airline pilots). I also worked at night and on weekends for the DiMaggios and later in the Turf Club at Bay Meadows, the horse track.

"I was rolling in money, or so I thought. I had a 1949 Ford pick-up with a great flathead in it that I had rebuilt and life was good. Unfortunately, new teachers got laid off every term and then hopefully re-hired. About that time the Las Vegas school district came to town recruiting teachers. On a whim I applied and got a job

"Of all of the things in my life the only thing I have ever questioned was leaving San Francisco. Every day I would see something that I thought was the weirdest thing I had ever seen and then turn the corner and see something ever better. It was great for a kid from Minnesota.

"I kept my weekend jobs in San Francisco and would fly to Vegas on Friday and back Sunday night. I only made enough for air fares, but I had the best of both worlds. After a while I got a second job at night school in Vegas and then a weekend job at a restaurant and my commuting ended.

"One thing Las Vegas was not short of in those days was money for the schools. I had a wonderful auto shop at Las Vegas High. I had a great girlfriend who was a showgirl at the Stardust, and life was good.

"Somewhere in this time period I decided that I would really like to become an airline pilot. So I started scrimping and took flight lessons. I got my private license and then started on my instrument rating and commercial license. It was very expensive but I was nickel-and-dimeing my way through.

"After about three years I got a call out of the blue from the doctor who had opened the psychiatric hospital in Minnesota that I used to work for, offering me a very good job in management. The money was great and it would help fund my continued pilot training. Reluctantly I took the job and moved back to Minnesota, which was the last place I wanted to be.
"That turned into about 28 years. Things went exceedingly well at the hospital and before too long I was running several departments and making more money than I could ever make as a first officer with an airline. This was the first time in years that I only held one job and I was able to put in the hours to help me succeed.

"Over a period of years I got my Master's in Business, became the administrator of the hospital and then the owner. In the meantime I married a woman I met in Yellowstone and had two great kids.

"I stayed at the hospital about 20 years. The first 10 were wonderful and then the government got into the act. I watched the entire psychiatric care industry get decimated by our own government and the insurance industry. The last several years were very depressing as all we did was fill out forms that meant nothing and chase people to get paid. We were no longer allowed to give kids the care that they really needed, which was even more depressing.

"About this time I got a mailing from the then importer of the Royal Enfield, Martin Scott. It was addressed 'Dear Dealer.' I have no idea to this day how my name got on his list. He was offering 'for a limited time only' an opportunity to buy some remaining 1998 Enfields at dealer pricing. I found it interesting but put it aside."

Read about how Kevin came to run Classic Motorworks in Part II.

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