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Racing into a motorcycle design empire

Roland Sands
Design entrepreneur Roland Sands was a racer who turned his passion for motorcycles into a parts, accessories and custom bike empire.
(Gina Ferazzi / LA Times)

The gig: Motorcycle entrepreneur Roland Sands was a boy racer who broke a few track records riding — and broke a few bones crashing. He retired at 29 and went to work full time for his father’s motorcycle parts business. When that enterprise got sold, Sands opened Roland Sands Designs, creating custom parts, apparel and accessories. Today, at 41, Sands is one of the motorcycle industry’s most successful entrepreneurs. Having recently completed complex custom designs for BMW, Indian Motorcycle, Yamaha and others, he is also one of its most admired designers.

Racing, crashing: Sands started riding motorcycles at age 5 and began racing at 16. Sands soon established himself on the track at Antelope Valley’s Willow Springs International Raceway. It was fun to win, but racing meant crashing, and crashing meant fixing broken parts.

Keeping Roland busy: As an independent, the 19-year-old found that racing and repairing his own bikes was a full-time job — and he already had a job, working for his father Perry Sands’ motorcycle parts company, Performance Machine. Fixing things and working for his father were good training for the busy career he didn’t know lay ahead for him. "I wasn’t just racing,” Sands says. “I was going to school. I was fixing my own bikes. And I was working. I did every job in my father’s factory — everything from sweeping floors on up, anything my dad could think of to keep me out of trouble. I guess it worked. It was like, ‘You can work and race, or you can work and party.’”

Bad attitude, brand identity: Winning is everything in racing, but Sands found that attitude wasn’t very effective elsewhere. “You have to think you’re better than everyone else out there, or you can’t win. But you see how that doesn’t work so well when you’re not on the track." Sands says he learned about brand management in his racing career — by not doing it well. “I was pretty fast on the track, and I thought things were just going to happen for me,” Sands says. “I just kept expecting my phone to ring, with offers, because my racing would speak for itself. I had a complete lack of understanding about personal PR, about how to develop a brand or create a personality that people are drawn to.”

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Going solo: Sands began designing custom wheels for his father’s Performance Machine as a teenager. When he retired from racing, he became a company officer, eventually rising to director of R&D and design. When he learned in 2005 that his father was selling Performance Machine, Sands got busy. He had already created a few Roland Sands Designs products, which were sold through the Performance catalog. He accelerated the design process after going up against fellow Californian Arlen Ness in head-to-head custom motorcycle competition on the Discovery Channel’s “Biker Build Off” — and winning. He hung out his own shingle shortly after. "When we started, all we had was a logo and a few parts,” Sands remembers. “We built everything we have from that.”

The sum of the parts: Today, Sands’ RSD boasts a handsome retail outlet in Los Alamitos, where customers can browse branded jackets, gloves, caps, jeans and T-shirts, laid out on shelves next to custom air cleaners, gas caps and exhaust pipes. The company sells 7,000 hand-sewn jackets a year and 5,000 pairs of gloves, along with a catalog full of after-market performance parts for Harley-Davidsons and other motorcycle brands. In the shop behind the retail store are work bays where bikes are being customized — at $25,000 to $175,000 per build. In offices upstairs, marketing teams help coordinate events and film promotional videos and conduct photo shoots for RSD products and outside clients.

Risks and rewards: The best part of his job, Sands says, is the job itself. “I get up stoked about coming to work,” he says. “I mean, this is my dream job." The hardest part of his job? For this control junkie —  helping oversee a staff of 17 in the 7,500-square-foot RSD headquarters — it’s letting go. “This business requires an amazing amount of work, and an amazing amount of personal attention to detail — because I’m obsessed with the detail — and if it were up to me, I’d prefer to do everything, every part of the process, by myself. Since I can’t, it’s lucky I have a such a bad-ass team.”

Family man: Sands learned the business working for his father. So did his sister, Summer Hoover. Now the two siblings share responsibility for RSD; he as president, she as director and general manager. “She makes sure we stay in the black,” Sands says. Meanwhile another generation is coming up. Sands and his interior designer wife, Nicole, married four years, have a 1-year-old daughter. Sands says fatherhood is challenging and rewarding. "It’s like you spent your whole life seeing the world in black and white, and suddenly it’s in color." And if that child should grow up wanting to ride, and race? "I don’t know how I feel about that yet,” Sands says. “You know kids are going to end up doing whatever they want, no matter what their parents say. So you just hope you can help them and guide them a little, so they end up doing it safely.”

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charles.fleming@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @misterfleming


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