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TSS Red Baron: not just big in Japan

By Mario

A landmark of the Wellington motorcycle scene, TSS Red Baron started out almost by chance. We talked to owner and managing director Stewart Rodwell to hear the story.

Is there a rider in the Wellington region who hasn't stopped by TSS Red Baron in Lower Hutt at some time? Starting out 13 years ago, a few doors down from its present premises, TSS has grown to become the largest motorcycle store south of the Bombay Hills. So it comes as a surprise to learn that Stewart wasn't intending to open a shop when he set up the business.

Stewart had always been into ‘bikes. So much so, that he didn't get a car licence until aged 22, when his career took him into car sales. But his dream was to work with motorcycles and in 2003 he took the plunge.

Random road trip

Back then, the trade in second-hand bikes imported from Japan was big. “So I had the brilliant idea to meet with a friend called Taka in Japan says Stewart. “His language skills proved useful, but the trip itself was a bit hit-and-miss.”  Stewart wanted to link up with the Red Baron network, one of the largest dealers in Japan with over 300 motorcycle stores and a growing overseas network. Red Baron met the pair but politely informed them arrangements for New Zealand were already in the pipeline. 

Somewhat randomly scouring the country for an export partner, Stewart and Taka stopped at a motorcycle store and by sheer luck found someone who could help them. The business began with two containers of motorcycles arriving in NZ, containing everything from race-rep 250s to a GSX-R 1000 and a VTR1000.

A change of plan

Back home, business didn't quite unfold as desired. The plan was to distribute ‘bikes to dealers around the country, but that proved problematic. Dealers mostly only wanted bikes on consignment, not to buy them as stock. After a sobering assessment of cash-flow, Stewart took the decision to open his own motorcycle shop. The Lower Hutt premises at 421 Cuba Street. With a teenage daughter to look after the arrangements were tough but manageable, for over 18 months, home and work were one for Stewart and his daughter.

Headwinds no obstacle

The early days were hard, but Stewart soon established a trusted reputation among the capital’s motorcyclists and business grew strongly. He took on the Hyosung franchise, becoming their top NZ dealer in 2005. In 2007, those early contacts with Red Baron bore fruit and TSS became the first independent owner of a Red Baron motorcycle shop in the world. 

Showroom floor of TSS Red Baron

Check out all the 'bikes on the TSS Red Baron showroom floor.

Right through the Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath TSS Red Baron continued to grow, taking on Yamaha then KTM. The parts and accessories side expanded massively, and Andrew Lawrence was hired to run things. “Andrew brings 35 years of experience to work,” says Stewart. “He also brings his son, Jay, who’s a real force in national road racing and hugely knowledgeable about bike gear and tyres.”

When the original shop proved too small, moving to 411-413 Cuba Street more than doubled the floor area. The current franchise line-up comprises Suzuki, KTM, MV Augusta and Royal Enfield. With plenty of parking available, the shop’s a popular destination for riders, even if it’s just to nosey around the 140-or-so bikes on the showroom floor.

Service brings its rewards

Stewart and his 15 staff share a no-excuses commitment to doing the right thing by their customers. With sales of bikes and gear continuing to grow upwards, this approach seems to be working. 

TSS Red Baron's service centre showing the counter and 'bikes in the background.

Need a service? Head to TSS Red Baron's service centre!

As Stewart sees it, the motorcycle industry in general is in a good place. “Take LAMS bikes,” he says. “There’s never been a better time to learn to ride a bike. Plus, what Ride Forever does with rider coaching is fantastic. A $20 Bronze course gives a foundation for your riding that used to take a year to learn.”

Looking after learner riders is a big focus for the TSS team, advising on the right gear and ensuring the right fit. Their tyre expertise is also highly valued. By Stewart’s estimation, they’re the biggest tyre dealer south of Hamilton. “At any one time we have between 300 and 400 tyres in stock,” he says. 

If you’re one of those rare folk who haven't visited TSS before, why not drop by? They’re open six days, Monday – Saturday, and on Sunday’s the parts and accessories floor upstairs, is open 9am-4pm.

Right now, they’re offering a special deal on Ride Forever training, so be sure to ask them about it.