"Is ‘Wolfgang’ an average name for German guys, like ‘Mike’ in America?" When Mike D. dropped that inquisitive bombshell at lunch with our Bavarian friend Nicole, I almost choked on my schnitzel. Without a hint of exasperation, our friend and a member of W&W’s six-man purchasing team responded, "Yes, Wolfgang is very common. Three of our company’s founders have this same name!" When Mike and I finally did meet W&W founder Wolgang two days later, this motorcycle fanatic seemed anything but common. His bushy mustache, grizzled face and red beanie give a casual air to the lanky German entrepreneur who takes the business of fun very seriously.
When he co-founded W&W in 1979, Wolfgang’s aspirations were far from global. But after 30 years of steady growth and refinement, W&W has built an impressive brand with an international presence. With a warehouse in Germany, storefronts throughout Europe and Japan, sales offices in France and Spain, and loyal customers around the planet, Wolfgang and his 60 talented employees definitely have their work cut out for them.
For Nicole Schubert, our accommodating hostess during our visit to W&W headquarters in Würzburg, Germany, that workday starts 7:30 a.m., slightly later if the weather is good for jogging. "I love to run, especially in the snow and ice you guys brought on this visit!" When she isn’t working or running, Nicole likes to ride. Her "Sporty Eight" boasts a variety of W&W mods, and was one of the bikes on display at the CustomBike 2010 show featured on ChopCult earlier this month.
Nicole and five other people including her boss—another friendly guy named Wolfgang—are responsible for purchasing every product in W&W’s catalog, a job that requires everyone on board to know practically every widget and gizmo in the universe. It's an overwhelming task Nicole attacks with gusto. "There is so much cool stuff for motorcycles," the multi-lingual businesswoman exudes in perfect English with just enough accent to sound like the most serious person in the room. "I have to know about the chrome stuff too, but I really love the cool parts from fun, hardcore companies."
Those cool parts include brands like Hippy Killer, Bench*Mark, Easyriders Japan and many more. With over 25,000 SKU’s in last year’s catalog alone, it could be easy to get lost in the shuffle. Of course, W&W has systems in place to make sure this rarely happens. W&W’s warehouse is divided into two zones: big parts and small parts. Orders for big parts—frames, wheels, tires, and leaf spring forks, for example—are loaded by forklift onto full-sized containers or freight trucks for speedier processing and less physical risk to employees. Smaller items are picked and packed by hand using a combination of environmentally friendly and space-conscious shipping materials to lower cost and reduce waste.
And just who receives these orders? Until the day of our visit, nearly 100 percent of all W&W shipments were to retailers. On December 2, W&W launched one of the most comprehensive and feature-rich B2C websites in the world. WWag.com showcases every product W&W sells by brand, category and model number, and gives this information in six languages. Wolfgang Sr. explained the software that powers his company’s self-editing, multi-lingual media management, and it is a code monkey’s wet dream. Originally developed by Danish engineers for global news feeds and image database management, W&W was selected as a guinea pig for the software’s deployment to consumers. Based on the global popularity of their product line, Danish software developers deemed W&W a good fit for their test and the race was on. Assisted by eight graphic designers, copywriters and programmers on W&W’s payroll, the software company and Wolfgang’s team worked for two years to get WWag.com online. Now that it is fully operational, the new system also helps W&W’s in-house graphic designers manage copy and photos for every version of the company’s print catalogs. Think about it: American, Japanese and European motorcycle parts sold by a German retailer using Danish software. If that’s not the worldwide web, I’ll eat Wolfgang’s red beanie.
If the web is W&W’s lifeline to customers, motorcycles are the machines that keep the whole business moving. Nearly everyone we met at W&W has a daily rider or a project-in-progress, and the best of these machines go on display in a booth W&W employees build in-house and move from event to event around the continent. Sabine’s flathead, Nobbi’s panhead and Paul’s S&S knuckle-powered Cannonball were three employee-owned standouts in the W&W booth at CustomBike 2010, but none were that event's showstopper. That distinction belonged to Paul’s cone shovel with studded knobby tires and Wrecking Crew livery. Studded knobby tires? Of course. How else did you expect W&W’s R&D engineer to discover the freezing point of German beer? In 2008 Paul and the rest of the W&W Wrecking Crew traversed Canada’s fabled ice road on custom-built Harleys. Their exploits were featured in books, magazines and videos, and put W&W’s personal brand of badass on a whole new map. Puts dyno drags to shame, doesn't it?
Our tour of W&W’s inner sanctum continued in the building that houses the company's product design and graphic arts studio. Paul, Peter and Josef manage all the projects that pass through these halls with typical German precision. If the phalanx of dead Macintosh computers outside Peter’s office is any indication, the workload at W&W gets pretty crazy. Würzburgers are friendly people, however, and the local beer is mighty strong. Mike D. and Tyler from Lowbrow learned this firsthand at a company dinner held in our honor. With bellies full of München schnitzel and Herforder beer, Mike and Tyler braved Würzburg’s winter wonderland to take in the local tattoo and music scene with some new friends. That was my signal to call it a night, so I said goodbye to Nicole, Wolfgang and W&W salesman Konny and hit the rack. After getting to know the people who make Germany’s oldest homegrown chopper company sing, my lazy American mind was reeling from all the stuff I should be doing, but haven’t. Thanks for the kickstart, W&W.