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Tuesday 9 June 2020

Comment by Editor-in-Chief, Robin Bradley

More Roads to Oblivion?

To be fair, Harley-Davidson, and newly minted permanent CEO Jochen Zeitz in particular, are between the proverbial rock and a hard place - damned if they try new things and fail, damned if they don't at least try.

One could go on endlessly about the mistakes that have been made, the dead ends the company has driven down, the complete failure to accurately interpret where the motorcycle industry is in macroeconomic, demographic and strategic terms, and no doubt many will in the coming months and years - I dare say me included.
However, as of right now 'that way madness doth lie'. It is generally held that in order to understand where you are, or where you are going, you need to understand your past, and while institutional memory has become the stuff of dreams at Harley-Davidson, there will be plenty of people who will 'help' Zeitz and his emerging new team of realists to understand what can be carried forward and what needs to be jettisoned, what they got right and what they got obviously and catastrophically wrong.
For me, the primary sin has been the sheer arrogance and insularity of a 'not made here' management culture that assumed only they could possibly have the understanding to have the solutions, and a delusional faith in marketeers who, frankly, couldn't sell their way out of a paper bag and had absolutely zero grasp whatsoever of the molecular structure of the Harley brand.
But hey, as I say, plenty of time to rake over those coals in the months and years ahead. For now, the important thing is to understand just exactly what complexion the Zeitz 'Rewire' will have and what directions it will take Harley in.
There are several positives in the new CEO's public remarks so far, the admission that the management culture has been disastrous among them. However, it is the fact that, at long last, there is someone who understands that the past dictates the present and shapes the future that is most important to my mind, and that is most clearly manifest in Zeitz' decision to establish what will no doubt be an ad hoc, informal 'Roundtable' of past managers and executives whose views, observations and thoughts will, one hopes, help him to make sure that his 'Rewire' has genuinely viable routes to a brighter future and doesn't turn out to be just another Road to Oblivion.

'I like the cut of his jib'

It is a strong man who is prepared to understand his limitations. If Zeitz is serious about the new roadmap being a distillation of views of Harley's great and the good from years past, if he genuinely is going to establish a new culture, one that really does 'geddit' and one that really does represent a step change, it would be an all important first step.
Add to that the streamlining of sales and marketing management, and the acceptance that, while throwing the emphasis on rider training was great for the industry, in fact it has laid bare just how short of convincing Harley's offer has been, and there does appear to be the start of a refreshing breeze of realism blowing through Juneau Avenue.
Zeitz needs to make sure that he builds momentum, carries that forward, amplifies the renewal of culture (amplification of brand can take care of itself if the fundamentals are sound) and sets a management structure in place that never again allows the Motor Co to drift so far away from its roots and become so deaf to its core market opportunity.
Wisely, it sounds as if Harley is still going to go ahead, at some stage, with the 'PanAmerica' adventure tourer and 'Bronx' streetfighter - while both at present appear to have well documented design and strategic flaws, at this stage Harley is better to carry forward the investment so far into some kind of start point and then learn and refine from there, rather than being left to wonder 'what if' for decades to come in a repeat of 'Project Nova'.
Don't get me wrong, a V4 and an attempt to carve a position in what is left of the Superbike market is absolutely NOT the way to go - that would be a one-way ticket to oblivion at this stage of the market's evolution.
But there is nothing but shame on Harley for failing to take ownership of the then burgeoning Streetfighter market when it started to emerge in the early 1990s - even if in the Harley/American context it had manifested as more of a Roadster platform.
Equally, there is nothing but the purest of back-to-roots about reconnecting with what was, after all, the first and original manifestation of a true American motorcycle culture with what is now also called the 'Dual Sport' market. Back in the day, 'Beach Bars' as we know them now and Hill Climbing (the original American motorcycle sport) emerged simply because there was no pavement, only rutted cart tracks. Cruisers could only become a 'thing' once development of the highway network was well underway.
That Harley (and the American motorcycle industry in general) allowed BMW to take ownership of what, internationally, is better understood as the 'Adventure Tourer' market has been, frankly, a dereliction of duty.
As someone was famously quoted as saying at the time of Sputnik, "America has been asleep at the wheel". Whereas America has the wide open spaces as well as the congested urban environments, I might be wrong, but the last time I was driving around Bavaria, I wasn't seeing a lot of Atacama Desert.
Conversely, with more than 75 percent of the miles done on ADV models being urban or suburban, the United States is native habitat for the contemporary iterations of robust riding platforms - especially given the state of the roads in American cities these days.
While I suspect that Mr. Zeitz would be the first to accept that there are a lot of differences between a turn-around project at a major sporting goods brand such as PUMA and major upscale fashion brands such as Gucci and YSL, I suspect that he could also, quite rightly, point to a whole slew of similarities as well.
From channel issues to brand value perceptions, from ever thinning capital resources to ever improving and developing rivals, maybe now is the right time for an entirely fresh mindset.
By ensuring that he has a source and channel for prior perspectives from former senior executives, remaining mindful of the need to take investors along for the ride, as well as finding new products for new customers and fostering consumer loyalty, Zeitz largely finds himself in familiar territory - in  a landscape that prior managements at Harley-Davidson had no sensitivity for.
Personally, I have never met Mr. Zeitz - but I am already liking the cut of his jib!