Apr 12, 2016

The Harris family rode into the golf car business on two wheels.

They've grown within it by concentrating on the foundation of any smart business: customer service.

"We work hard at it," said Scott Harris, director of operations of Harris Golf Cars, in the business since his father Terry co-founded it in 1979. "You've got to provide good, solid customer service."

The idea is no secret. Following through is the key.

That happens.

"When we need something or have a question, there is no delay," Cog Hill owner Frank Jemsek said in a testimonial. "It gets done!"

Terry Harris was a high school teacher coaching golf, football and basketball in eastern Iowa, and selling motorcycles on the side for Lenny and Vern Sindt, owners of Dubuque's Yamaha-Kawasaki-Honda motorcycle dealership, when they posed a question. Yamaha was expanding beyond motorcycles into the golf car business, and would Harris want to be part of it as a partner?

"My first thought was, I knew in motorcycles, Yamaha and Honda had by far the best quality," Terry Harris recalled. "I had a Yamaha motorcycle, a snowmobile, a stereo and an electric keyboard. Everything they touched was quality."

Thus, the answer was yes.

Harris Golf CarsTerry Harris jumped in completely, Sindt-Harris Golf Cars was born, covering eastern Iowa. In the late 1990s, Harris bought the Sindts out, with the Sindts remaining a local dealer of Yamaha's full line of products, including golf cars.

The newly-named Harris Golf Cars, in little Peosta, Iowa, just west of Dubuque, was still responsible only for about 90 courses in eastern Iowa, but in 1999, that changed. Yamaha asked Harris to come into the Chicago area, replacing Boylan, which remains the firm's Michigan-Indiana-Florida distributor.

"I was expecting them to say, 'Would you like to take over western Iowa.' " Scott Harris recalled. "Instead, they asked, 'Would you consider coming into Chicagoland?' In 30 seconds, I said yes. Yamaha wanted to increase market share. When we took it over, it was seven percent, and a lot of that was the Jemseks. We're up to 34 percent now. That's been a big achievement, a lot of hard work."

Harris Golf Cars' relationship with the Illinois PGA began about then as well. The company was once again the sponsor of the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship at Kemper Lakes Golf Club.

"I think the Illinois PGA members do appreciate our sponsorship," Scott Harris said. "Our business is about relationships. What do we do well? It's build relationships. When somebody has their golf cars at our place, it's like family, and we treat 'em like family.

"It's getting out there and shaking hands with people."

Like father, like son.

"It's word of mouth and relationships," Terry Harris said of the firm's success. "It's the idea of accommodating the customer. I don't believe in pressure selling."

He believes the soft sell, backed by service, is the most effective.

Harris also sponsors tournaments in the Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska sections, as well as events involving the Chicago chapter of the Club Managers Association, superintendents associations in their four-state region.

"I'll be at Section events, and if you've got a relationship with someone, and he needs six more golf cars, that guy's going to come up to you," Terry Harris said. "You don't have to attack him and ask."

Harris also has promotional deals with the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks. The latter teams use Harris cars to ferry equipment from the locker rooms to the loading docks on a near-nightly basis in season. But the section tournaments are the most likely to result in new or expanded business with a public course or private club.

"You've got to get your name out there," Scott Harris said.

He was there at the beginning, a teenager delivering and picking up cars, and returned to the business after college and a like-father-like-son teaching and coaching stint himself. Now, he's essentially the general manager of a team of salesmen and technicians. And it's a big team, with 41 employees. In recent years, Harris has added central and southern Wisconsin, the rest of Iowa and eastern Nebraska to its distribution territory. That accounts for about 6,500 leased cars per year, plus individual sales through dealers.

"You still get people who purchase, but there are a lot who lease," Scott Harris said.

Either way, each deal represents the potential for further business down the line. Occasionally, a rental for a weekend tournament also turns into permanent business. Harris can supply dozens of Yamaha cars, either gas or electric, for such use, and often does to courses with fleets from other manufacturers.

"We're getting customers who need 300 tournament cars, and then they come to us on a permanent basis," Scott Harris said. "At the end of the day, you hope the customer appreciates what you do."

The appreciation is there. Some 37 years after the doors opened, Harris Golf Cars is Yamaha's largest distributor in the United States. A few years ago, the expansion of its territory causing the Peosta office to nearly burst at the seams, Harris moved headquarters to a new building in Dubuque. There are also three satellite offices, including one in west suburban Sugar Grove, from which the area's sales and maintenance staff works.

The mechanics likely appreciate Yamaha's attention to both detail and to quality. Terry Harris remembered a sales meeting with distributors and dealers from across the country when one dealer stood up and told Yamaha's golf car brass, "We need a cheap golf car." The president of the division quickly said, "If you want a cheap golf car, you build one somewhere else."

Terry Harris also recalled a Yamaha decision that built customer loyalty. It seemed that the plastic bodies they introduced in the mid-1980s weren't as durable as they were billed to be. Yamaha replaced the front and back of every car with new pieces, and made other changes as well.

"It looks like a new golf car," Terry Harris said when he saw the refinished product.

Such actions by a manufacturer make a seller's job that much easier. Harris has both boosted Yamaha's market share via their own efforts and ridden Yamaha's wave of innovations, including the recent move to fuel-injection for gas-powered cars.

Scott Harris chuckled when asked if his firm would eventually distribute Yamaha golf cars across the country.

"The bigger you get the more problems you have," Harris said.

Problems with a Yamaha Harris golf car are few and far between. And that's just right with him.