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When Keinosuke “Keino” Sasaki enrolled at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) in Phoenix, motorcycles weren't the only thing he was going to learn about. He also needed to master English.
His enrollment at the school was his first time leaving his home country. The Fukuoka, Japan, resident had gotten his history degree in college, originally intending to be a teacher. But his passion for motorcycles was hard to ignore. After a friend showed him an ad for a vocational school called MMI in a motorcycle magazine, Keino realized there was a place where he could study what he loved. And that meant moving to the States.
He first landed in San Diego, California, where he took English as a Second Language classes. After three months, he headed to Phoenix to start orientation at MMI and begin school. It definitely presented some challenges.
“My first thought was, 'What the hell did I get myself into?'” says Keino, 45, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “I had no idea what anyone was saying. Everyone was a fast talker to me. I had to constantly look around to see what people were doing. I wasn't quite sure how to make it, but the passion was there.”
Every day, Keino would record each class, take copious notes and ask instructors questions after class. He says he had never studied as hard in his life as he did at MMI, where he was constantly reading and asking questions. Within a few months, he made friends and got used to the grind.
That was back in 1998, a time when internet resources were scarce. Keino's hard work has paid off, and today he is a New York business owner, creating custom motorcycles and doing fabrication as the owner of Keino Cycles.
As a kid growing up in Japan, Keino developed an interest in bikes from his dad. His father was a chef who used a motorcycle for his daily commute. Around the age of 13, Keino's father purchased a Yamaha TY125 for Keino and his brother. They couldn't ride the bike on public streets, but they'd buzz around on it around their home.
When Keino was 16 years old, he got his license. All the while, his dad was a hobbyist who would fix stuff up in his work studio, including an abandoned scooter he found. Keino learned not just how to ride a motorized bike, but how to work on one, as well.
While he studied at Fukuoka University, Keino also started hanging out at a bike shop and became a custom bike apprentice. He started to have second thoughts about being a teacher.
“Working on a motorcycle was more of a passion,” Keino says. “If I had to choose something I could do for the rest of my life, it felt like I should choose something I would enjoy every day. That's what I was going after.”
He finished college and worked at a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant as a line worker to save money for MMI. When he discovered MMI, he felt the school wasn't just a vehicle to pursue work he loved. Attending MMI was also an opportunity to leave the place he had lived in for so long, which provided excitement.
Once Keino lived in the States and saw the potential to evolve his life in the U.S., he was committed to making a life in America. MMI's Employment Assistance representatives helped Keino build a résumé and send it out, primarily to West Coast employers because of the motorcycle scene and abundance of shops there. Most didn't get back to him, though, but a dealership in New York City was interested. At the time, Keino didn't even know where New York was located.
Keino mistook an interview offer for an offer of employment. He packed up everything he had and drove across the country intending to start work. Luckily for Keino, the dealership did indeed hire him as a repair technician.
Keino went on to work at a custom bike shop in Manhattan, which he later became a primary partner of after it moved to Brooklyn.
In 2008, he founded his own business and set up a small shop. While he has an apprentice who works with him a couple times a week, Keino relishes being his own boss at his appointment-only Brooklyn shop. He enjoys setting his own schedule and working only on projects he wants to work on.
“I always wanted to have my own shop, and at some point I felt the confidence I could pull this off,” Keino says. “I wanted to build bikes and run the shop the way I wanted to run it.”
New York's motorcycle scene is definitely different from the West Coast. Keino says in the winter, especially when it snows, there are less riders.
During colder seasons, he works on custom bikes and fabrications. Recently, he worked on six projects at once, making progress on each one little by little. Keino works with clients throughout New York and within driving distance. He also has had clients from as far away as California, France and Spain.
In warmer months, he does repairs, but he favors helping customers who seek him out. As opposed to random people walking into his shop and asking him how much a service is, Keino says clients who come to him knowing the high-quality level of work he provides are the type he wants to do work for.
“My bottom line is, I tell people, 'Let me do my best job,'” Keino says. “It may not be cheap, and it may not be easy, but if anyone gives you a price right off the bat without taking a look at it and not diagnosing it, that's not good.”
Keino says studying at MMI helped him develop a diagnostic mentality that goes beyond one that's just about getting a bike fixed.
“What I feel I learned that sticks around from MMI days is more of an academic approach to understand what's going on,” Keino says. “It's figuring out why this happened, and how do you not make it happen again.”
Keino hasn't let go of his teacher training, either. He holds several workshops throughout the year on subjects like sheet metal shaping. The classes are small, not just because of the size of his shop, but so that each student gets plenty of hands-on experience and feedback.
Keino says his ultimate goal is to continue doing what he's doing. While the East Coast wasn't the location he originally intended to work, the abundance of competition, especially in California, makes him content to focus on the niche he has built back east.
“I spent 25 years to come this far,” Keino says. “I wanted to wake up in the morning and be ready to come into my little shop. This is my dungeon, this is my sanctuary, this is my shop that makes me happy doing what I do, besides my home with my wife and daughter. It's my ultimate goal to keep this and do this ultimately until the day I die. I want to keep this shop.”
Keino says he does want to eventually move his shop to a quieter environment in the suburbs, like in Pennsylvania, within a few years.
“I love this trade, I love this job, and I can't picture myself doing anything else, so I have to figure out how to do this the rest of my life,” Keino says. “Plans change and markets change and society changes and the environment changes, so I have to adapt my business to survive.”
Part of being ready for whatever comes next is embracing a love for learning. Keino says without school he probably wouldn't have come as far as he has today, and his desire for education never stops.
“Don't stop learning,” Keino says. “Learning is the key. You have to be curious about new things. That's how you increase your knowledge and become who you are. I'm still learning.”
Learn more about Motorcycle Mechanics Institute here.
Lance Smeal is a graduate of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. He's also an entrepreneur and the owner of L-N-C Cycle Repair in Cottonwood, Arizona. This is his story.
Elliott Deane is a dynamic leader, an entrepreneur, and a Motorcycle Mechanics Institute graduate. This is his advice for aspiring business owners.
Keino Sasaki owns Keino Cycles custom motorcycles in New York. He's also a graduate of Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Read about his journey.
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