This profile was published in Kansas Alumni magazine.
Coleman now big dog in custom motorcycles
In the mid-1970s, Sheldon Coleman whizzed around Mount Oread on a small-engine dirt bike; the little cycle was his sole transportation for his first two years in Lawrence, and he never lost his passion for riding.
Today Coleman, b’75, sells art with an engine – specialized motorcycles that take as long to paint as they do to build. He is founder and CEO of Big Dog Motorcycles, which manufactures heavyweight cruisers with model names like Wolf, Mastiff, Husky and Pitbull.
This isn’t Coleman’s first foray into recreational products. Coleman was chairman and CEO of The Coleman Co., the Wichita-based outdoor products giant founded by his grandfather. In 1981, after earning a master’s degree in corporate finance and real estate from Cal State-Fullerton, Coleman joined the family business. By the time he became chairman and CEO in 1988, the company had 21 plants, 6,000 employees and $700 million in sales. But in 1989, after 89 years with a Coleman at the helm, the company was taken over by outside investors.
With more spare time, Coleman spent more hours touring on his three Harley-Davidsons.
“I was dissatisfied with the bikes that I was riding,” said Coleman, a 49-year-old father of five. “They just weren’t quite what I wanted, so in 1994 I hired a mechanic and kept trying to transform the motorcycles into something I wanted to ride.”
He was searching for a combination of style, comfort and performance. He found it, and when others heard about the motorcycle they wanted one for themselves. He had so many requests that he decided to create a new company. For its first three years, Big Dog built motorcycles that looked like Harleys because they were assembled with after-market parts made to retrofit and improve the performance of a Harley. Big Dog continued to do more of its own design work, though, and eventually created a completely different look.
The company sold 20 bikes in its first year. This year, Big Dog expects to build about 200 motorcycles each month with 150 employees at its headquarters in downtown Wichita. The product line now includes seven models, which are sold consumer direct and through a nationwide network of 70 dealers.
“People can put a lot of money very quickly into a Harley that comes right off the showroom floor to try to enhance the performance and the looks,” Coleman said. “We’ve given consumers the option of starting out with more power, better brakes and individualized paint work.”
Coleman plays an active role in operating Big Dog, but he also manages the family’s investments, and in 2001 he launched Flagstone Investments, a personal asset management company. And he still finds time for riding motorcycles.
So which Big Dog model does he ride?
“I ride them all,” he said with a huge grin.