Choice choppers

Washington County men craft custom motorcycles

Washington County men craft custom motorcycles

March 25, 2007|by JULIE E. GREENE

FREDERICK, Md. - Many Hagerstown-area residents would probably recognize Rick Hill's face or name from his leadership in getting Mike Callas Stadium built at North Hagerstown High School.

What many don't know is, in addition to supporting his children's high school and rooting for Hub sports, Hill has rubbed elbows with Donald Trump and John Daly and he has been featured on golfer Natalie Gulbis' reality TV show.

He wasn't alone.

Hill, who owns custom-bike builder Metropolitan Choppers south of Frederick, was often accompanied on these trips by his shop manager and chief bike builder, Smithsburg resident Dan Kessinger, aka "Big Dan."

"It's just been a ride, the places that we've gone and people we've seen," said Hill, 45.

"Rick's a wonderful guy," said John Williamson, whom Hill joined to co-chair the stadium committee. "He's a very understated guy. You wouldn't know that he's got a motorcycle business and Metropolitan Steel."


Williamson said he's not surprised by Hill's success because he's a good leader, gets results and gets along well with others.

"He's very down-to-earth and unassuming," Williamson said.

It was a down-to-earth moment with his son that led Hill to venture into custom motorcycles.

Watching a Labor Day 2003 marathon of "Orange County Choppers," Hill asked his then 13-year-old son, Jimmy, if he wanted to try building a chopper.

Some employees at Hill's steel fabrication and erection business south of Frederick helped during their off hours, and nine months later their project turned into a custom-chopper building business that has drawn national personalities as customers.

The unveiling of that first bike, the Torch bike, at a company picnic drew a lot of media attention, which led to Hill being asked to create a custom bike for Daly who was playing at the Kemper Open in Potomac, Md.

Metropolitan Choppers also has built motorcycles for golfer Natalie Gulbis, G. Gordon Liddy, "Fear Factor," Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Las Vegas and for the Donald Trump Prostate Foundation Tennis Pro-Am.

The elaborately constructed theme choppers with features such as a cedar-lined humidor attached to the fuel tank or a huge removable golf ball in the rear wheel have ranged in price from $65,000 to fetching $110,000 at the Trump auction.

Not everyone can afford a completely custom-built bike, so, at customers' requests, the company started making custom adjustments to existing bikes last fall. A motorcycle makeover could cost $2,900 to $20,000, Hill said.

Showing up at a bike meet with the same bike as others is like women showing up in the same dress, Hill said.

"Right now riders want individuality. They want something that says 'Me.'" he said.

The duo's latest ventures are a kiosk of Metropolitan Chopper merchandise at Francis Scott Key Mall and a Sunday morning radio show on WFMD 930 AM. For 30 minutes, they talk shop and bring in guests such as "Fear Factor" executive producer Matt Kunitz.

Hill isn't turning away from national publicity projects. He mentioned a number of partners - including Pepsi, ESPN Radio and the Naval Academy - with whom he's in negotiations to create custom choppers as prizes or items to be auctioned for charity. There's also the possibility of partnering with Trump again for a reality show about The Donald learning to ride a motorcycle.

Both Hill and Kessinger grew up with motorcycles and still ride them.

Kessinger's dad was into motorcycles and served as a security bike officer in smalltown Indiana in the late '60s. Dan Kessinger would fix the neighborhood kids' bicycles and help his dad work on his Yamaha and Honda.

When his Harley Davidson Softail broke down, he couldn't afford to take it to a shop, so he "wrenched on it" himself. With welding skills from high school and a friend's milling equipment and saws, Kessinger started tearing bikes apart and remodeling them for friends.

"I can't have something just stock," said Kessinger, 37.

Hill began riding a minibike at age 5 and competed in motorcross at age 8 in Montgomery County, Md., were he grew up.

He began working at his father's company, which fabricates and erects steel, when he was 15 years old. One of his first jobs was helping to build White Flint Mall in North Bethesda, Md.

After graduating from Frostburg State University with a business degree, he went back to work for his dad, Jim Hill.

Hill said he went back for $8 an hour, telling his dad that if he couldn't double his salary in sales his first year, he'd accept a job offer elsewhere.

The younger Hill succeeded, taking over the company in 1996.

The steel company went from having four employees and $90,000 in annual sales in 1983 - the year before he rejoined the company - to having 55 employees and more than $12 million in sales in 2006, Hill said.

The Hill family has shared their good fortune. Rick and his wife, Kelli, a Paramount Elementary School kindergarten teacher, made a significant donation to the stadium project.

Recently Hill learned he's to be honored as Frostburg's alumnus of the year.

"It's been a journey. ... Every day I go to work I could be getting a call that could change my life," Hill said.

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