By Marissa Baecker
When we hear the name Vander Zalm in Kelowna, there is no mistaking the connection to the community. It isn’t the image of the political figure, former Premier, and face behind the anti-HST campaign – Bill Vander Zalm that comes to mind but more likely the catchy logo behind the Kreater Custom Motorcycles brand.
How did the son of a multi-franchise gardening operation who grew up in business and politics land in the world of custom motorcycles?
“I started working as a young kid in the family business,” says Jeff Vander Zalm, “and grew with the business on the Coast.”
In 1982 he relocated to Kelowna opening an Art Knapp location and running Sierra Landscaping – a multi dimensional business operation. But, by 2006, Vander Zalm was ready for a change
“I had decided I had had enough of landscape and irrigation – the contract side of the business,” he says, “working with 100 employees, bobcats and trucks and everything else that went with it.”
Deciding to return to strictly a retail operation, Vander Zalm admits that he didn’t have to work as hard as he had been and maybe scaling back would allow him more leisure time. He had taken up riding a few years earlier with friends from Toronto as well as an annual vacation with his buddies to Daytona Beach during bike week.
It would be March, 2007 when an opportunity came knocking that would find him taking a new, unplanned route to the office.
“A little shop, Okangan Custom Cycle, approached me, and I looked at it,” says Vander Zalm. “I went to Daytona, discussed the opportunity with my buddies during my play time down in Florida and took over the shop April 1.”
Teaming up with one of the busiest Canadian builders, George Tchor, of Kreater Custom Motorcycles in Toronto, Vander Zalm decided to expand the brand with Kreater West.
Transitioning between industries had its challenges but Vander Zalm was ‘up for it’.
“You are still working with employees, professionals in the industry, buying and selling, all that was easy,” says Vander Zalm. “Learning the motorcycle industry and the parts and pieces was the challenge.”
The business out West began with a staff of six and a facility of 4,500 square feet over two buildings offering motorcycle service, parts and a small retail shop.
“Obviously a big portion of our business is Harley-Davidson work from first service to restoration to customization,” he continues. “We are set up for performance work, we have a Dyno and we our custom creations are mostly out of Toronto because of our talent base there.”
What began initially as a grand opening and celebration of his debut into the motorcycle industry has turned into an annual celebration of music and motorcycles as well as a fund raiser for an Okanagan charity – Kid’s Care – which is spearheaded by Power 104.7 radio in Kelowna.
The all day celebration known as Ride N’ Rock begins at Kreater in the morning and then riders depart for a Valley wide ride and poker run, returning to the shop for a fabulous barbeque with Memphis Blues Barbeque House and a live concert powered by Good Guys Audio Video Unlimited.
“Putting the two together is a no brainer,” he says. “My sister is a musician and just opened blueFrog recording studio in White Rock. I have grown up with rock n’roll and riders love rock n’roll and motorcycles.”
Each year local musicians heat up the street party to get the crowd going. Ten to Nine, The Floyd Vedan Band, The Young Uns, Jimmy Legioux and even Jeff’s sister, Juanita, has taken the stage for a few songs. Headlining acts follow.
“The first year was with The New Odds,” recalls Vander Zalm. “The second year with Trooper. The third was Kenny Shields and Streetheart. Last year was Kim Mitchell and this year it will be April Wine.”
With Jeff’s business sense, he soon realized he would outgrow his initial space and began building his own shop. By May, 2010, in time for the annual Ride n Rock, the state of the art 15,000 square foot facility was open for business. The space is broken down into 1/3 mechanics shop, 2/3 is parts, retail clothing, service counter and office space and employs up to 14 people at peak season.
“I think we are now the largest, busiest after market shop in Canada,” states Vander Zalm, “and I don’t think there is any doubt that Toronto is the busiest build shop in Canada building everything from $80K to $300K bikes.”
Kreater’s creations have been featured in motorcycle magazines and events across North America. The Jack Daniels’ motorcycle was the first custom build out West but it is the build known as Insomnia that has special meaning for Vander Zalm.
“My chopper. We built it in 05/06 in the Toronto shop. It got called Insomnia because the tins, the frame, everything was picked up from paint at 8 a.m. and we worked through to 2 p.m. the following day, six of us, putting that bike together wiring it, everything, pulling it off the bench, loading it into a trailer and then test rode it at bike week in Daytona on the beach. So the bike has a lot of meaning to me,” he says.
With the recent changes announced to the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, I had to talk politics with the politician’s son. As of June 1 the Province of B.C. will no longer allow riders to wear beanies.
“What’s next? Are they going to tell me I can’t ride in a t-shirt? Where does it end? I appreciate the angle of safety but I have mixed feelings about it. If it saves someone that is good thing but I don’t know where it stops,” he says.
Various municipalities, Kelowna included, have also taken the steps to induct noise bylaws that riders feel are specifically targeted at them.
“The issue of loud pipes. How many loud pipes have killed people? I can count three times my loud pipes saved my life. I think the cell phone issue is more important. Every time I pull up to an intersection a driver is texting. There are more important things to worry about,” he adds.
As for his position on becoming an advocate of rider’s rights, he says, “If you want to back change, you have to get involved. If you want to stop change, you have to get involved. There are certain things you can fight, but governments will do what they have to do. We vote them in.”
The annual Kreater Ride & Rock is selling out fast. The fifth annual event is happening this Saturday, May 26. Get what is left of the tickets at Kreater. The entire day of festivities is $104 or if you can’t ride, buy yourself a dinner and concert ticket for $59.95 and kick of your summer outdoors.
You can visit Kreater Custom Motorcycles online – Toronto www.kreater.com and the Kreater West website will be up shortly www.kreaterwest.com.