The reaction to my “Who’s The Fool” piece of last month has been quite extraordinary. I am pleased to say the response has been almost universally positive, except for three people.
Just by way of a recap, the piece centered on an investment advisory published by Wall Street analysis blog Motley Fool. It called on Harley’s investors to start looking at whether the time had come for the board and CEO to be replaced.
My response to this was and remains a great big fat NO. Not only is stability itself at a premium at this time, but while, at this stage, all we can do is to continue to speculate about the remaining 80-plus new models due to be unveiled in the next nine years, I do not understand how changing the planners mid-plan can bring anything other than damage, delay and disappointment.
Regardless of what those plans actually are, it took time and considerable effort to turn the vacuum of uncertainty that the Wandell era drifted into, into one of purpose. Regardless of the shape of those plans or how long they are still going to take to come to fruition, abandoning or risking destabilizing them now simply makes no sense - either from a market, dealer or investor point of view.
The dealer point of view especially. The fact that I didn’t mention the disquiet that exists with some Harley dealers in last month’s piece doesn’t mean I am unaware of it. In fact, I think it is pretty much an open secret that the usual handful of disgruntleds, that have manifested at every annual dealer convention since the beginning of time, has grown into a rather more vocal chorus of complaint recently.
“convincing piece of the middleweight action”
Those complaints vary from model range offer disquiet; through the age-old problem of new dealerships being awarded too close to existing established businesses; right out to the increasing disquiet at the experience haemorrhage being seen at Milwaukee and the growing difficulties imposed on all concerned by a really quite ghastly management culture that anyone who tries to have any kind of dealings with Harley inevitably encounters.
Whether it is too many disconnected, overlapping, conflicted and competing overstaffed and inexperienced “Cubicle Johnny” marketing egos and departments (that was my beef in 2012 concerning our AMD World Championship collaboration), the unimaginative and inflexible play-book that determines dealer policy and substitutes for real and meaningful dealer relationships, or the stop-start, on-off swinging needle that sees programs set in motion, cancelled, then revisited again – across all there is an unwillingness to take ownership, responsibility and initiative. Harley isn’t alone in this.
However, of the three dissenters from my “Who’s the Fool” piece, two were dealers, both of whom identified themselves (thank you for that) and one was an anonymous emailer, who said he or she is an industry expert and Harley insider, and who signed off as “H-D Must Change”.
The two dealers were both coming at the same issues from different directions. Namely that Harley has gotten to the point of being just too difficult, expensive and intransigent to deal with any longer (and hence the incredible and still accelerating number of dealer retirements and store sales we’ve been seeing the past 24 months) or being too greedy and (despite its theoretically successful but woefully superficial attempts at “outreach”) apparently disconnected with where the market for motorcycles is headed.
Meanwhile, my Captain Anonymous is clearly a recent ex-employee with beef and valid perspectives in equal measure. For some time, there have been rumors about a network of former Harley executives who would like to see the present CEO and board replaced by someone from the company’s past who is regarded as having more engineering and cultural sensitivity to where Harley’s strengths are and how they can be leveraged moving forward. Indeed, rumors too concerning the desire of a certain former senior marketing executive to take over the reins.
For me, the biggest issue by far has to be exactly what are the plans that are in play. I am consistently hearing that Harley may be planning to get into the Adventure Tourer market - one of the few genuinely growing sectors of the motorcycle industry.
It is entirely possible that BMW could be manufacturing GS models (and R nineT customs) in the United States within the next 36 months, and as an opportunity to finally deploy a new engine layout (please, please don’t use the M-8 or any other V-Twin) it is a dimension that would bring new footfall to existing dealerships and give Harley something convincing for the urban riding environment (80 percent of the miles ridden on dual sports models are in fact suburban and downtown miles).
However, they need more. The ‘Street’ is never going to be a convincing middleweight offer, so Harley need to be getting busy there too. With the Royal Enfield 650, the Triumph/Bajaj middleweight partnership, the Norton/Zongshen Ricardo 650 project, the Mahindra BSA plans (which is likely to be being produced at their new Detroit factory), anticipated Indian Motorcycle mid-size models (a big shout out for Swissauto at this point) and no end of other “retro” branded projects poised to offer the “New Gen/Future Gen” riders what they want at the price point they want it at, then that is the space that Harley has to be focussed on playing in.
If they are not planning an extensive and convincing piece of the low-cost lightweight and middleweight action as a part of Matt Levatich’s 100 new models in 10 years, then maybe those calling for heads to roll could have a point after all.
But I’m sure that won’t prove necessary. I’m sure Harley are not only smart enough to have seen the future coming at them from a dozen years and a thousand miles off. I am sure that, as we ‘speak’, their skunk works are chock full of options, projects, singles, twins and maybe even triples, all geared to meeting the riding and ownership expectations of the “New Genners” and all set fair to ‘pathway’ them onwards and upwards into everlasting Bar & Shield loyalty and glory.
Someone please tell me my faith that Harley is on the path to platform righteousness is well founded?