Johnny Pag Q & A

The bike builder talks about manufacturing affordable entry level bikes

Photo © Johnny Pag

Johnny Pag is a Southern California-based bike builder who got his start in the custom world, but is now known for his affordable motorcycles that are designed in the U.S. and built in China.

While testing his Pro Street model, we sat down with Johnny to talk shop about his boutique business: how does his niche fit in the motorcycle market, how are his “Made in China” bikes received by die-hard domestic fans, and how does he plan on furthering his brand?

Here’s a transcript of our Q&A session:

How did you go from building custom bikes to mass production?
I came across a [Chinese-built] chopper-style scooter in 2002 and thought it was kinda cool... I thought it might be a good business opportunity to bring some scooters in, and sell them. The big bike stuff was doing well, but I needed some supplemental income, and that’s why I looked to the scooters.

I ran that business for a while and sold it, and while I was at the factory overseas (I do design work for my partners over there), I noticed they were working on a 250cc engine. They were putting them in police bikes and selling them to the local police departments, and I thought it would be really cool to build a full size chopper around that engine.

So about a year and a half later, after doing a couple more prototypes and testing, I brought my first shipment in and they were sold out before they got here; I knew at that point that it was a pretty cool market, something different, and that’s where it all started.

How much of your bikes are your design?

So you design everything yourself, and they build it there?
That’s exactly right.

How much back and forth is there? What can you change if you don’t like what they’re doing in China, or if you want to adjust something?
There’s a lot. I’m in China every four to six weeks.
Sometimes it’s longer than that, but for the most part I’m there quite a bit. I use Skype a lot, because you’ve got the video conference stuff, and I can use that. But sometimes you hit barriers in translation and not being there, so you have to make those trips. As far as what’s built for me, it’s all under my control.

How many people work at your factory?
My factory has 600 people in it.

What do you say to the die-hards that say stuff should be built here, in the U.S.?
Those guys [laughs]… there’s not that many of them around any more. Well, there is, but you know, I have to remind people all the time that a lot of the stuff they’re buying and using on a daily basis isn’t made in the U.S.A.

U.S.-made products are great. There’s no way I’m going to knock that. But it would be ignorant for me to turn around and say that I don’t know that my shoes are made in India, my shirt’s made in China, and my hat’s made in Korea. I mean, that’s just kind of the reality of it.

You run into those guys, and some of the bigger OEMs like Honda, Harley, you name it, they do a great job—especially Harley—with “Made in the U.S.A.” branding. People like you and me know that not every single component on there is made in the U.S.A., but a lot of people don’t. I do battle that and there are always people who are anti-outsourcing, but I just kinda take it in stride. I remind them that hey, not everything’s made in the U.S.A. and that’s just kind of the way it is. And listen, if you want me to just build you a bike, I can.

Tell me a little bit about the momentum of the company; where you’ve been, where you’re going.
I’ll tell you that you know how the market is now: it’s in the toilet. I think the industry as a whole is down over 50 percent. I’d be lying if I turned around and said the economy hasn’t affected my sales, but at the same time I’m up over 180% through an average, through this year. The reason for that is that I make affordable bikes, and that’s what everyone is going for. They want affordable motorcycles, affordable transportation. My bikes fit in both those areas. They work as “transpo” bikes—bikes that are specifically designed as a bike that’s made for transportation. 65 miles per gallon, $3,400 price tag, that’s what they’re built for. Some of the bikes that are a little more expensive with a $4,700 price tag, they're built for style and looks. You were on that bike, and like you said, people would pull up and look at you trying to figure out what it is. I bet a lot of them don’t realize the bike’s only like five grand.

Is that price out the door, does my bike have any extras?
Your bike has the aftermarket mirrors, those are like eighty bucks or something. That bike out the door is right around five thousand dollars. It just depends—different states, different taxes. The one you rode isn’t California emissions legal [yet], but we’re hoping to have our CARB [California Air Resources Board] emissions certificates in 90 days.

What are your sales goals in terms of units per year?
I deal with other international markets. My partner overseas has rights to some of my stuff. We have a great relationship, where I do a lot of the design stuff and he has certain marques that he sells to, and I’m okay with that. I’m just looking for some sort of sustained, controlled growth.

I would like to expand my dealer base in all the countries I’m working in now, keep on putting on good dealers, weeding out the dealers that aren’t so good. That’s what I’m looking to do; expand slowly and just really be controlled about it.

How many dealers do you have, and what’s the customer experience like for people who buy Johnny Pag motorcycles?
We’re partnered with 120 dealerships in the U.S. I tell ya, some of the independent shops do really, really well, because here we’re focused on customer service. That’s our biggest thing. If you have a problem with your bike, one of my sales guys is on the phone every single Friday calling every single dealer, making sure, “Hey, do you have any bikes off the road? Do you have parts? Are you waiting on anything from us?” That’s kind of our big thing, making sure we’re servicing the products... (continued on page 2)

>>Click here for a 2009 Johnny Pag Pro Street Review<<

>>Click here for a 2009 Johnny Pag Pro Street Photo Gallery<<

... We have a lot of people saying, “Can I get parts for it? What’s going to happen if it breaks down?” So I realized, there’s a lot of value in supporting the product. We look for dealers who have that same mindset, and I hate to say that some of the bigger dealers aren’t so customer service oriented. They’re really not. Some of the guys that have their names on the outside on the sign, they’re going to go the extra mile.

Those are the guys that are going to turn around and really work hard. Those are some of our better dealers that do much better.

Are a lot of the parts stateside, or do you have to import them and ship them out?
They’re all here [in Costa Mesa, CA], we have every nut and bolt here.

Is the entire lineup powered by the same engine?
Yes. It makes it easy, and that’s why we stuck with that 300 [cc engine] throughout the bikes, for keeping the parts in stock. For the most part, a lot of this stuff is interchangeable.

You’re clearly geared towards beginner riders. What do you think they want and need in a bike?
Style. That’s the biggest thing. That’s what my biggest selling point is; they’re looking at the bike and they’re like, “Wow, that’s a really nice style bike.” Like the Honda Rebel, that’s geared towards beginner riders, getting somebody in the door. Dollar for dollar, you put a Honda Rebel next to a bike like the one you got off [a Johnny Pag Pro Street], or a Spyder, or any of my bikes, you’re looking at two totally different style bikes.

So I think that’s why a lot of different people are into these things.

These bikes are really good for beginner riders as far as the weight—they’re super light, 350 pounds, it just hits a lot of different areas, the value of the bike. When guys are looking at bikes, they think “I can get this bike for five thousand bucks, have a 12 month manufacturer unlimited warrantee, it looks killer, it’s going to get me from A to B…” People like that.

Motorcycle guys, man. We like bikes, it’s what we do.

What other types of bikes do you think you might do? Do you see yourself building more bikes like the FX-3 (sport bike)?
I’m a chopper guy, that’s kind of where I’m working.

The sport bike, really what my brand is about is finding the seat for every ass. You’re a sport bike guy? Here’s your sport bike. You’re a chopper guy? Here’s your chopper. If you’re a rigid, bar hopper type guy, here’s your rigid. That’s what we’re doing.

I’m probably going to stay along the lines of the chopper stuff. The street bike stuff is great but it’s driven towards really high-end performance. You get on my bike and somebody like you will say that this bike is… well, someone like me who doesn’t go out and buzz around on sport bikes, put the two next to each other and it’s one thing, but if you’ve got a bike that’s so over-engineered and you put it next to my bike, it’s kind of like no contest, right? It’s not designed as a 12 or 13 thousand dollar race bike, but you look at the picture and you think it is. So there are some pre-conceived notions that you’ve gotta get over. That’s not the direction that I want to have.

You’ve mentioned that custom bike building enabled you to get a feel for tastes out there and what people want. What kind of evolution do you sense in terms of trends and styles?
Well, I’ll tell you that the café style bikes are back, for sure.

The kind of stuff I see when you’re at Sturgis or Daytona are the café style bikes that are making a strong comeback. Some of the trick solid body paneling type stuff, all that s***’s out. You know, I think a lot of it’s kinda been done. It’s all kinda been done. I think the majority of people aren’t looking for bikes with air cleaners that are above your head. They’re not looking for that kind of crap. I would say that café style track bikes, those bikes are coming back for sure. And that’s what I like as well, so I’m headed down that path, and I’ve got some different ideas of stuff I’ll be coming out with.

Do you ever want to build bigger displacement v-twin bikes?
A lot of my dealers ask for the bigger displacement bikes, so I always tell them I could make the bigger bikes, it’s just that they’re more money, they cost a lot to build.

With the timing and the economy, it makes it difficult to make a really solid judgment call whether it’s the right time to do this or not. With a lot of the bigger guys, I’ll say the bigger independent production motorcycle guys, they’re all hurting. For me I think it’s a great time to start the development of some of the bigger stuff, so that’s kind of where I’m at. I’m hoping to release a model or two next year, and kind of go from there and see how it works. It’s just a matter of the economy.

Are you thinking liquid-cooled v-twin? No, no, no… I’m thinking air-cooled. I’ve been working some stuff out with the guys at S&S, and I’m not really sure exactly what’s the best thing to do with that is yet. I’m just kind of throwing the idea around, it’s hard to make a good… I could come out with a couple bikes, and that’s not an issue. Making that happen is not a problem. The question is, is anyone going to buy it? Because guys like Big Bear and Big Dog, it’s not easy for them to sell motorcycles today. I don’t want to turn around and focus my energy on something that’s not going to work. I think that it will come back around, but it’s a matter of being really innovative and creating ways to keep the price point down. And price is always going to play a really big role in this market now. It’s just the way it is.

Especially if you’re known as the guy who can do it at that price point…
I think it’s going to be a great complement to the 300cc stuff, and next year we’re going to do the 350cc fuel-injected bikes, we’re going to be working that deal and it will give us a little more power.

There’s just a lot of stuff happening. The good thing about me being a smaller business is that I’m able to move and shift really quickly, whereas some of the bigger guys they can’t do that. And so that’s exactly what I’m doing. This is a really good years for us, we’ve got so much s*** happening it’s awesome. It’s just a great thing, I’m really happy to be a part of it.

>>Click here for a 2009 Johnny Pag Pro Street Review<<

>>Click here for a 2009 Johnny Pag Pro Street Photo Gallery<<