INA, Ill. (Nov. 17, 2016) - Southern Illinois is known for its hidden gems. There are times those gems are people, other times places. Sometimes they are even ideas. But, in rare cases, all three of those come together to create something that can’t help but shine for the world to see.
Rodney Cabaness helped construct such a gem when in August of 2007 he and close friend Shad Zimbro built a diamond, Black Diamond Harley-Davidson.
Cabaness and Zimbro, both Sesser natives, have made an undeniable impact on the region they call home. Through Black Diamond, food pantries are stocked, children’s backpacks have been filled and local youth are able to attend college – just to name a small sampling the business undertakes every year.
In recognition of these acts and for continuing to be a positive force in the world around him, the Rend Lake College Foundation is honored to name Cabaness as Rend Lake College Foundation 2016 Alumnus of the Year. He will be awarded the honor during the Foundation Annual Dinner on Dec. 1.
“Rodney Cabaness is the epitome of a leader. He’s achieved significant business success by never losing sight of what is most important: taking care of people. The incredible generosity that Rodney and his business have shown to our local community is remarkable. His philosophy of paying it forward and helping others has a significant impact on our students through numerous scholarship opportunities. We are very proud of Rodney’s achievements and feel he is truly deserving of this honor,” said RLCF Director Kay Zibby-Damron.
For his part, Cabaness, a 1990 graduate, appreciated RLC for the sense of direction it helped him achieve, starting out on a complex career path that put him in the position he is in today.
“I did my general studies at Rend Lake College and graduated with my associate degree. I went in there with not knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Rend Lake College offered a really good foundation for me. Someone had suggested things would come to me as time went on, so I got hooked up with the college and got started there. Things started flowing for me. I really enjoyed my time there,” Cabaness explained.
Not only did Cabaness find opportunities for growth in the classroom, he also found a professional launching point and discovered a field he was passionate about.
“While I was at RLC, I was able to find an opportunity at the United Parcel Service. I went through the ranks with them and became supervisor. Then, through my association with UPS, I became interested in industrial engineering and plant engineering. So, I transferred from RLC to SIU to continue on and get my Industrial Engineering degree,” he said.
But, as the real world often proves, just because someone thinks they know the direction their life is heading doesn’t mean fate is necessarily going to stick to the plan.
“Then, the crazy thing was, when I was with UPS, I had opportunities with them in the Industrial Engineering Department. Then, when I was about to make that leap, I was approached by someone in the car industry, and just like that, I took a little leap of faith and transitioned. I ended up in that industry for 15 years. I honestly can’t even explain why I made the switch. I fully expected to stay on with UPS. They are a great company and were really good to me. I learned a lot during my time there.”
“The good thing about all of this was it allowed me to stay in Southern Illinois. UPS has a lot of great opportunities in Southern Illinois, but the sector I was looking at transitioning into didn’t have any openings in this area that were tied to my degree. I would have left the area if I had ended up staying on that path.”
It was that career pivot that ended up eventually leading down a path where Cabaness, a man with a degree in Industrial Engineering and a career background with the United Parcel Service, took a leap of faith with a friend to buy a Harley-Davidson dealership in Marion.
“There will always be those voices that tell you it can’t happen. When we bought this place, I can’t tell you how many people thought I was crazy. There were times it felt like no one believed in it. Now, granted, that was never true, but it can sure feel like that some times. There were just a lot of people who felt like we were biting off more than we could chew. But, I really believed there was a great opportunity,” he explained.
The career path wasn’t the only thing unique about the founding of Black Diamond Harley-Davidson. From the onset, Cabaness and Zimbro sought to do something very simple but surprisingly different.
“We never focused on a specific number. That was never who we were. Our focus was to take care of each customer individually. I think it’s very telling when a CEO or president gets up in front of their company and says ‘this is our projected goal for the coming year,’ that’s almost always the result they get,” he expressed.
“Our philosophy was there were no numbers. We are going to take care of every single person that walks through that door, because they are giving us the opportunity to earn their business. That philosophy has been at the center of everything. We just came to work ready to bust our butts, and we worked tirelessly to make sure we provided the best service we could. It was really just that simple.”
That philosophy didn’t just succeed, it caused the dealership to flourish, making Black Diamond one of the largest Harley-Davidson retailers in the entire world. But, Cabaness and company didn’t stop at focusing on just the customer.
“We kept it really simple. The customer was always going to be the focus, and part of taking care of the customer is taking care of the community where our customers live. That was always just a part of the plan from the moment that we started looking at putting business together. Shad and I always believed from the onset that we would give back to the community. That’s what we started with and that’s why we are here today. I would call it a privilege to do what we are able to do in our community. Everything that we do is our privilege to be part of this amazing area and the people that call it home,” he said.
“We are just constantly trying to share our appreciation of what the community has done for us. We just received so much support. We have a commodity. We sell a lot of different things. But, I really feel like we offer a lifestyle. So, we try to create those relationships with people. We never had any idea how much support we would receive. We knew the area would be good to us, but we never dreamed it would be the meteoric rise that ended up happening. We were basically flying by the seat of our pants for the first few years just trying to figure it out as we went. We never expected the growth. We just set out to make it always about the people that walked through our door.”
To that end, Black Diamond has become well known for its charitable contributions and community events. From giving away an entire house, to donating to local food pantries, to donating land to Habitat for Humanity, the list goes on and on of the positive impact Cabaness and his team make on the area.
All the charity projects done by Black Diamond are selected on a needs basis. Cabaness explained that the dealership is always looking to see where they can make the biggest impact in the community. He said last year Black Diamond received up to seven donation requests every day. So, every decision is made carefully.
“We do the best we can to try and facilitate as many requests as we can,” Cabaness said. “It became apparent that we were going to have to start doing some picking and choosing about where the money went, and it kills me to this day. I don’t want to turn anyone away. But, we had to focus on things that we felt were going to do that most good for our region.”
As an example, Cabaness offered a story about how the dealership got so many requests from individuals and teams to sponsor them for the upcoming baseball season, Black Diamond decided to just help sponsor the entire league with an event at the Warehouse.
One of the biggest acts of outreach that Cabaness’s dealership does is offer a number of scholarships to local students. Every year 12 area youth are able to attend Rend Lake College because of Black Diamond’s generosity.
“There are a lot of people out there that might just need that extra leg up. Offering scholarships is just a great way to make sure our kids have the tools they need to succeed. What we really wanted to do when we set it up was to try catch some of those students that were right in the middle,” Cabaness said.
“It’s really meant to be a way to help catch that one person that has the potential to slip through the cracks or might just need that little boost. Sometimes it is just need based. Maybe there wasn’t another scholarship available for that student, and this is the one that can help them. That’s the great thing about it. We just want it to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s our hope that it gets paid forward, that someone will come through, become successful and feel the same way about giving back as we do.”
Black Diamond doesn’t just do charity work for the area. Nearly every week some type of event is being hosted to provide entertainment for those in Southern Illinois. The dealership’s concert series has brought in artists like Bret Michaels and Vince Neil. They host mixed martial arts contests, professional wrestling events and even dog shows. The list goes on and on, and the business is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage the community.
“We are really passionate about the area, and it’s a lot of fun. We spend seven days a week, sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day here but it’s passion-driven. I’ve never got up in the morning and not wanted to come to work. To this day, that still perpetuates,” Cabaness expressed.
That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road. Cabaness described the dealership as an evolution, an opportunity that has be a constant learning experience. At one point, he expressed that the team got caught up in their own success. They started to question if they were open too early and too late and if they were working too many hours.
“All that led us to start making some decisions that were for us. That ended up being a really short-lived stint in our lives. We realized that we had to take a backseat to what the customers want. We lost sight of that a little. I think we got caught up in the hype. What we noticed when that happened was we put the focus on Black Diamond, and that’s not who we are or what we wanted to be about. So, we wanted to change that. We needed to change that. We had to reground ourselves and realize that rankings and accolades weren’t why we were doing this. So, we just quit talking about it. People still ask us about it, if we are still number one. In all honesty, I have no idea. We don’t pay attention anymore.”
So, how do you ensure that every single customer that walks through the door is treated with the utmost care an attention? Cabaness says it’s simple – take care of your employees.
The business started with 14 employees, and Cabaness said they deserve just as much credit has he does for all the success that Black Diamond has experienced over the years. Now, the Black Diamond ranks have swollen to 70 team members.
“Our employees are part of the family here. Their prosperity and happiness are a huge part of what we do too,” Cabaness expressed.
In order to get dealership employees to fully buy into Black Diamond’s philosophy, the business launched an employee donation program. Every year, Cabaness and management sets aside a fund for each and every employee with the sole purpose of making an impact in the community around them.
“It’s so important that our employees see the benefit of what these contributions do. Shad and I get to see these great stories all the time. Take backpack day for example. We get to talk to that parent who tells us exactly what kind of impact this has on her student’s life. Or if the kid comes up, you get to just see the joy on their face. That’s powerful. So, it was important for us that our employees get to see what we see. They are working their tails off every day to help make all this possible, so we wanted them to see and feel the things we were seeing and feeling,” he said.
“So, every employee gets to designate where their money goes. All we ask is that those funds make a difference, and we’ve seen so much joy come out of it. It might have been a family that needed help or a cancer society or a number of other different causes. It really was a joy to see all the different people it helped and the impact it had on the employees themselves. The passion they gained when they became part of it was really neat to see.”
To date, Black Diamond Harley-Davidson has sold almost 12,000 motorcycles and regularly ranks near the top of all 700 Harley-Davidson dealerships in the nation. They have sold a motorcycle in almost all 50 states and have received numerous awards and recognitions for their community-first approach.
Cabaness closed by offering his advice to the youth of the area.
“We can be such a victim of our philosophies sometimes. The sky really is the limit. I don’t think we suffer from any geographic limitations. I think our limitations are more psychological. I would just say to anybody, don’t use Southern Illinois as an excuse. Don’t use it as a reason not to do your best. Here’s the thing, dreams don’t come true without a whole lot of hard work. Nothing is ever going to just happen. But, by doing your best you put yourself to be in a position to make things happen. I believe that we all have God-given talent. It’s just up to us to decide how to use it. There are so many examples of peers that are around here that do amazing things. This area has a lot to offer. You might have to look for it sometimes, but I promise that it’s here.”
Cabaness will be honored at the RLCF 2016 Annual Dinner on Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Mt. Vernon Holiday Inn. The Dinner is open to the public. Tickets are $40 per person or $400 for a table of 10. Cocktails will begin at 6 p.m. with the dinner starting at 6:30 p.m. Tickets to the dinner must be purchased in advance. Interested individuals are asked to RSVP by Monday, Nov. 21st by contacting the Foundation at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1324, or by sending an e-mail to [email protected]. Proceeds from the dinner go to the RLCF Scholarship Fund.