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Posts Tagged ‘Buell Closure’

Matthew S. Levatich — Ex Harley-Davidson President and CEO

Harley-Davidson, Inc. announced yesterday that Matthew Levatich has stepped down as President and CEO and as a member of the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors appointed current Board member Jochen Zeitz as interim President and CEO following the abrupt resignation of Levatich.  A search committee is being formed, and the Company will utilize an external search firm to undertake the process to find a new CEO. The press release also stated that Levatich would assist with the transition through the end of March.

Levatich had a 26-year career at Harley-Davidson with the last five years as President and CEO. The abrupt departure marks 5-years of sliding sales and the value of the Milwaukee motor company has been cut in half.  It was not a cheerful week at Harley-Davidson!

The board and the CEO share responsibility for corporate performance, so it stands to reason that when a CEO fails, the board has failed as well.  I would speculate the company board is reacting to pressure from shareholders and seeks to appease investors in the short term by handing them the CEO’s head on a platter.  The investment community will want a replacement CEO who’s both promising and reassuring—and they’ll want him fast.

Jochen Zeitz — Harley-Davidson interim President and CEO

If we were to step into a time-machine and journey back to the future… from the V-Rod to the Buell Blast. Who can forget the MV Agusta dumpster fire and in the parlance of our time, there is now a green machine— LiveWire—a motorcycle short on juice, and one that few people want or can afford to buy.  Harley’s attempts to branch out has with out a doubt shown mixed results, at best.  In fact, some observers wonder if the company is “asleep at the switch.”

It would seem that “seeing the problem is easier than fixing it!”  Levatich’s mantra that Harley-Davidson doesn’t build motorcycles, it builds riders, always seemed a bit odd.  That’s like saying, “It’s not about horsepower, but more ideas per horsepower.”  Or “we don’t build motorcycles, we’re a lifestyle merchant company.” It’s that line of reasoning which is nice for marketing collateral, but when you actually dissect its meaning, it’s a  “wait, huh?” moment.

Harley-Davidson Five-Year Sales Slump

Levatich was promoted when Harley announced in February 2015 that he would succeed Keith E. Wandell as President and CEO of Harley-Davidson, Inc. upon Wandell’s retirement on May 1st.

You might even recall that back in August 2008, Matt Levatich, who at that time was vice president and general manager of parts and accessories and custom vehicle operations (CVO), was named managing director of its newly acquired premium Italian motorcycle company MV Agusta Group.  I blogged about this $108 million acquisition being a train wreck (Go Italian) back in 2008.  That deal was heavily promoted as a major part of Harley’s bid to increase its presence in Europe, where it had seen sales grow in the double digits the previous three years, offsetting weaker performance in the US.  The $108 million included $69 million paid to erase MV’s debts and included the Cagiva brand.

Just 14 months later, the Milwaukee “jetsetters” revealed during the Q3’09 financial results, the motor company would divest from the Italian national symbol of motorcycling and the real gut punch was—they would discontinue the Buell® product line.  I don’t recall seeing a lot of MV Agusta T-shirts, coffee and dog collars so, I guess it wasn’t a good fit.  Unfortunately, Levatich will go down in the motorcycle history books as the man that shut down Buell.  Granted the previous CEO, Keith E. Wandell, started unwinding the process caught up in the axel, but Levatich concluded the 16-years of collaboration.  It never added up as a smart business decision and every time I go back and research the articles and press releases it sounds more like someone had a vendetta they wanted to settle.

It’s my view that the blame for Harley-Davidson’s poor results lies squarely with the board of directors!

Poor performing companies don’t get that way because of any single decision or for that matter any single leader. Patterns of historical decisions, strategic neglect, and misallocation of resources all contribute to the deterioration in performance; some contributing factors may even lie outside the company’s control—looking at you tariffs!

Typically a CEO is dismissed not because the board has thoughtfully and deliberately concluded that it’s time for a change at the top, but because investors, concerned about poor performance, demand a change.

Let’s hope Mr. Zeitz and the board of directors have a blueprint for success.

UPDATED: March 1, 2020 — added sales chart and text on length of Levatich career.

UPDATED: March 4, 2020 — According to the company’s 8-K regulatory filing on Monday, March 2nd, Levatich will receive a severance in line with the company executive severance plan.  The company’s 2019 proxy statement states; top company officers will receive a cash severance of 24 months of base salary and 18 months continuation of certain employee benefits, such as life insurance, medical, dental, vision, as well as outplacement and financial planning benefits, if employment is terminated for reasons other than for cause.  The Milwaukee motor company had 12 previous quarters of sales decline, and Levatich’s severance payment will be $2,152,500.  Assuming a 2018 base salary of $1,076,250.

Photos courtesy of Harley-Davidson.  Sales chart courtesy of Bloomberg news.

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Keith Urban

Keith Urban

Whoa!  My two previous posts on the current state of the Harley-Davidson state was clearly like a sad country song in an old rundown coffee shop, yup one of those “bummer zones” so, we need a change of scenery.

Speaking of, have you been to Nashville?  If you haven’t been to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum you’re the worse for it.  Yeah, you may think you don’t care about boot-kickers, but you’re missing out on the history of America.  From slavery to the Dust Bowl to Elvis and the tragedy of the Williams family.  To go to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is to become a fan.  And to insure that it lives on, Vince Gill proposed a “All For The Hall” event where every artist cough up one night of revenue for the Hall.

Keith Urban is one who took him up on it and at the Sommet Center (the Staples Center of Nashville), he hosted some of country music’s finest as they raised money for the Hall.   Keith and his band played one my favorites, “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me“:

“I got no money in my pockets
I got a hole in my jeans
I had a job and I lost it
But it won’t get to me”

That’s the power of music.  It crowds out all the negative and replaces the bad thoughts with joy and inspiration.  And when you watch Keith Urban ride his Harley and hear him wail on his guitar, you’ll smile with a good feeling.  I don’t know about you, but after yesterday’s jaw-dropping news from H-D and the layoffs at Buell I needed some “sunshine blown up my skirt.”

Life.  It’s full of hopes and dreams.  And victories and losses.  What gets you through is your friends, family and the music.

Photo courtesy of Keith Urban.

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HD_MCThis is the question I’ve been pondering over after having an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with “No Barriers” founder Neal Petersen.

To save you some time the short version of Neal’s story is — He is a black South African who grew up poor and disabled during apartheid yet achieved his dream of racing/sailing solo around the world.  He now does motivational speaking and is involved in peace talks in multiple countries across the world.  During Mr. Petersen’s speech he routinely ask the audience; “Does what I do on a daily basis at work have a positive impact?”

This resonated with me and while I personally reflect on this I can’t help, but ask the question of Harley-Davidson’s CEO, Keith Wandell.

Today, Harley-Davidson reported out the Q3’09 quarterly results and announced a massive 21.3% decline in revenue for the 3rd quarter and an 84.1% decline in net income from a year ago quarter.  Apparel and general merchandise represents 23% of H-D revenue to date.  Then the news got interesting.  They announced that 14 dealers have closed year-to-date and set the expectation that 15-30 additional dealers will close in the next 6 months as the company reduces inventories to match sales.  They discussed the HDFS bad loan/delinquencies and financial progress.  The Harley-Davidson brand value (note: its moved down from 43 to 71 position) and the more important announcement was to shutter the Buell product line as well as divest its MV Agusta unit.  A busy day of spin as Mr. Wandell went on to discuss the going forward 4-piller strategy of: growth; continuous improvement; leadership development and sustainability.

On the Buell front I can’t say that I’m not surprised because it was reported a couple weeks ago in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Erik Buell didn’t renew his employment contract with the motor company and there were a number of rumors circulating as to what that might mean.  I want to personally thank Erick Buell and the Buell employees.  I believe what they did on a daily basis at work had a positive impact.  They should be proud of what they accomplished.  They are an American innovation poster-child and represent what passionate and inspired people can do through engineering and manufacturing some of the best-handling bikes in the world.  But, in biker speak… it’s WTF?  An American designed and manufactured motorcycle that out performed Asian manufactures all year in the AMA Pro Roadracing circuit and Mr. Wandell dumps it?  This is forward thinking?  2009 marked the first year H-D had a non-motorcycle enthusiast running the company and I have to ask if he really got out there to see what all that (Harley) race stuff was about and how it enhanced the brand?

Since I was rather harsh in a blog post last year about the $108 million MV Agusta deal and describing it as a train wreck, I agree with the decision to abandon it.  Sure this happened under ex-CEO James Ziemer shift who retired shortly after cutting the deal, but the board members clearly approved Mr. Ziemer’s compensation package who walked away with only $5.6M compensation, up 26.5% from 2007.   And in part the compensation was based on the boards admiration of the MV Agusta deal, right?  The board members should be put on notice as there are now another 180 employees set to hit unemployment due to the management of the company and we all know they had line of sight just 12 months ago to the economic issues.

The shocker in the financial call was the statement of investing more in emerging markets up to and including local market design and manufacturing!  Is this a precursor to moving manufacturing off-shore?  A lot of talk about taking Hogs to China and India, but nothing about how well the strategy has worked to woo women, African-Americans and Latinos.  The value of the brand was weaved into the growth strategy, but nothing about why it dropped 43% in 2009.  They’ve talked for two quarters about reducing inventory yet made little progress.  And loans made to iffy borrowers aren’t just taking down housing.

The push by H-D corporate for dealers to build increasingly larger and high-end-glamorous retail outlets meant more dealer debt and subsequent failures.   Chapter 11’s continue to stack up across the northwest.  Three locations of Shumate H-D with one in Kennewick (owner hub), another in Spokane and a satellite location in Lewiston, ID.  I blogged earlier this week about Dave Tuomisto’s, $16M and 6-acre mega-expansion at Timpanogo, UT which went under.  It’s not clear when or if any of these dealers will reemerge and the real downside will be H.O.G. groups folding, lengthy drives for service or to hang and drop in which overall effects customer service and having a healthy Harley community.

Harley is in major trouble.  The spin, baby, spin from Mr. Wandell is not good enough, my friend.

Photo courtesy of H-D.  Financial call transcript courtesy of SeekingAlpha.  Disclosure: I have no investment in HDI

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