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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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Harley-Davidson Two-Cycle Engine

When you think about Harley-Davidson motorcycles, it’s most often about the V-Twin engines, the retro-styling and the inescapable sound.

Many forget that the motor company manufactured a lightweight two-stroke engine and runabout motorcycle for 15-years.

In 1947 as a 1948 model, if you purchased an entry level runabout motorcycle it came with a two-stroke 125 cc single piston motor.  There were two motorcycles engines built — the Model 125 or S-125 (eventually called the ST-125).  The Model 165 or ST-165 replaced the ST-125 in 1953 when the engine size was increased to 165 cc. The ST models were the motor companies idea of how America motorcycle riding should be accomplished after WWII.

The Hummer

So how did Harley-Davidson develop or get the 2-stroke design?

The name “DKW” comes from a two-stroke engine built in 1919 by the Danish engineer Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen, in Saxony, Germany. It was a small engine, which Rasmussen called Das Kliene Wunder (the little marvel) that gave DWK its start in the motorcycle industry.

As WWII drew to a close in 1945, DKW’s factories had either been damaged or occupied by the Red Army. The Soviets took DKW plans, tools, and personnel back to Moscow where copies of the 125 were soon produced. The Soviet version of the 125 was first released in 1946 as the Moskva M1A and later as the K-125.

AMF Merger – 1969

As part of Germany’s war reparations, Harley-Davidson acquired the rights to the German DKW three-speed, two-stroke 125 cc Single.  Harley product shipments began in 1948 and thousands were manufactured in various incarnation until production ceased in 1966.

An updated model called the Hummer was added to Harley’s lineup in 1955, and subsequently all Harley single-cylinder two-strokes built between 1948 and 1966 incorrectly have come to be known as Hummers. The Hummer was named after Dean Hummer, a Harley-Davidson dealer in Omaha, Nebraska who led national Harley two-stroke sales.  The Hummer was very basic — it had magneto ignition and was sold without battery, electric horn, turn signals, or a brake light.

The Topper Scooter

In 1960, Harley-Davidson consolidated the Model 165 and Hummer lines into the Super-10, introduced the Topper scooter, and bought fifty percent of Aermacchi’s motorcycle division. Importation of Aermacchi’s 250 cc horizontal single began in 1961. The motorcycle had Harley-Davidson badges and was marketed as the Harley-Davidson Sprint. The engine of the Sprint was increased to 350 cc in 1969 and would remain that size until 1974, when the four-stroke Sprint was discontinued.

In 1962, Harley-Davidson built the Ranger, an off-road motorcycle without lights, made only for a year.  It had an extra-low final-drive ratio of 7.0:1 (12-tooth countershaft gear and 84-tooth rear sprocket) had neither a lighting system or front fender. Speculation was this motorcycle was built to consume the motor company supply of 165 cc engines, which would not be needed for any other models.

Aermacchi-built Harley-Davidson — The  Sprint

After the Pacer and Scat models were discontinued at the end of 1965, the Bobcat became the last of Harley-Davidson’s American-made two-stroke motorcycles. The Bobcat was the last of the 125-based Harley’s and manufactured only in the 1966 model year.  It was also the only 125-based Harley with a standard dual seat.

In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought Harley-Davidson, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. The tactic resulted in a labor strike and lower-quality bikes.  Sales and quality declined, and the company nearly went bankrupt.

Harley-Davidson replaced their American-made lightweight two-stroke motorcycles with the Aermacchi-built two-stroke powered M-65, M-65S, and Rapido. The M-65 had a semi-step-through frame and tank. The M-65S was a M-65 with a larger tank that eliminated the step-through feature. The Rapido was a larger bike with a 125 cc engine. The Aermacchi-built Harley-Davidsons became entirely two-stroke powered when the 250 cc two-stroke SS-250 replaced the four-stroke 350 cc Sprint in 1974.

Harley-Davidson purchased full control of Aermacchi’s motorcycle production in 1974 and continued making two-stroke motorcycles there until 1978, when they sold the facility to Cagiva and ending it’s run of two-stroke engines.

Photos courtesy of and taken at Harley-Davidson Museum

For additional Harley-Davidson V-Twin Engine History see this page.

Sources:
Craig Hammitt LinkedIN Article
Wikipedia
Cycle World Article (1993) Article

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First was a slam about H-D imitating and going down the General Motors path.  Then there were calls for a Lazarus-like resurrection!

Not my words, but direct from Mr. Keith E. Wandell (Harley-Davidson CEO and President) who states; “Look in a mirror – Harley was already so far down that same (GM) path it wasn’t even funny.” More talking point nuggets from his first in-depth press interview HERE and HERE.

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never thought of my Harley as a “Chevy” and I own both!  Never mind that many GMs are made in Mexico or Canada.  The public perception of GM is that it stands for overlapping product lines with bland differences and the “bigger is better” mantra is followed to extreme, and then a crash diet when fuel prices soar.  This has lead to a sea of monstrosities as well as a few genuine moments of clarity and even a hint of brilliance.  But in total, the brand is most often marred with an indifferent quality perception and inexpensive or cheap label.

I don’t hang on Mr. Wandell’s every word, but his point above is an interesting way to send a condescending comment to the Harley-Davidson employees and buying public.  Does the Harley Chief really want his current customers to associate their recently purchased premium ride with GM?  It seems disingenuous to compare GM to the state-of-state at Harley-Davidson or use them as the poster child for everything wrong at H-D.  Wasn’t it just a little over a year ago that H-D management and the board approved what many would consider the equivalent of GM buying Ferrari (H-D acquires MV Augusta)?

Keith E. Wandell - CEO Harley-Davidson

The implication from the CEO interview is that H-D, like GM is a fading American industrial might, one that offered up a motorcycle to feed every market segment which has since degraded into exuding minimal coolness from contrived models.  Many others with little identity and somehow you’ve been duped into paying a premium price for indifferent quality.  This doesn’t seem intellectually honest or make for good PR!

The mind-set reminds me of an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about plastic corks and how they’ve made major inroads into the 400 year-old world of wine-corks.  One quote rang especially true and reminded me of the Harley motorcycle business.

“By the 1990’s, retailers and wineries were clamoring for a solution to wine taint, but the cork industry didn’t respond.  No industry with 90% market share is going to see its propensity to listen increase – and that’s what happened to us,” stated Mr. Carlos de Jesus (Head of Marketing, Amorim Group (largest cork producer in Portugal)).

The bottom line is corks didn’t work that well and wine ended up contaminated/bad because of cork deficiencies.  No cork manufacture believed there was a problem and didn’t see the opening for an entrepreneur.  In less than 10 years, plastic corks account for about 20% of the bottle stopper market.  They changed the way winemakers think about making and closing wine.

Lessons for Harley?

  1. Never lose focus on your core mission.  Which is bringing great quality motorcycles to the public.  Some motorcycle manufactures have tumbled into the abyss because it became more about hip-hop star alignment, brand marketing, finding a tiny niche and filling it, oblivious to the point most of your market just doesn’t care.  Oldsters and hipsters are both confused.
  2. Don’t be inured to nostalgia or old technology.  The public is more open to innovation than the supplier.  People are not married to the old ways, they’ll embrace new ideas even if not every innovation triumphs.
  3. Success breeds complacencyAll most innovation in the motorcycle business is by the independents or custom shops doing it outside of the system.  To say you need a major motorcycle company to triumph is to say plastic cork suppliers can’t win unless they align with real cork suppliers in Portugal, who after all are fluent in distribution and have pre-existing relationships with wineries.  But, the plastic cork guys went it alone.
  4. Efficiencies and price. We’re not talking virtual here, corks are physical whether real or plastic.  The future is lower priced motorcycles and the cycle time for new models can’t be like harvesting cork from a tree every 9-to-10 years.  The fundamental measurement of lean manufacturing is cycle time.  It doesn’t matter how many “Kaizen” events or “six sigma” projects a company holds. Cycle time is to lean what weight is to a dieter.  You can get all the bean counters to measure inches lost or reductions in calorie intake, but at the end of the day the bottom line is determined when you step on the scales.
  5. Multiple answers. There is always more than one answer which can take hold.  Screw caps are triumphant ‘down under’ in Australia and New Zealand.  Who will develop the next “screw cap” for the motorcycle industry?

The point is not to be weighted down by your presuppositions.  Don’t think that you’re operating in a world of immutable laws.  And to realize that trying to hold back the future is a losing proposition.  The only way to maintain your share is to improve what you’ve got. Concentrate research dollars on fewer models, pack them with the latest features and technologies, manufacture them in low-cost, U.S. factories (non-union?) and update them relentlessly on rapid fire engineering design cycles.

Schematic photo taken at H-D Museum; Keith Wandell photo courtesy of Tom Lynn/JSOnline.

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TTTI landed on the Discovery channel the other night and watched a rare look inside the MV Augusta factory, where they built the F4-312. 

You may recall Harley-Davidson acquired MV Augusta last year for $108M which was previously blogged HERE.

At any rate, I’ve watched the ‘Twist The Throttle‘ documentary series in the past, but MV Augusta was one story I had not viewed on the world’s most famous sport motorcycling brand.  The series reviews various brands (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Ducati, Bimota, BMW and Alpinestars) histories, what happens behind the scenes at their factories, inside their research and development centers and ultimately what it’s like to ride the machines on some of the great motorcycle roads and race tracks around the world.  The series is available on the Discovery Turbo website.

For example I learned it takes 11 hours to build the F4 engine and 4.5 hours to build just one motorcycle.  It was also interesting to hear several of the on camera interviews evangelized the lack of any hard-core time-based manufacturing processes… huh?  Isn’t MV a motorcycle manufacture?  Watching the story you couldn’t help but think a bottle of red wine followed each motorcycle down the assembly line like a cocktail soiree and when it’s done, it’s done.  No rush…we’re artists!  Wow, the Italian build process seemed opposite and very casual compared to the Milwaukee plant tour I attended last year.

DADS Simulation

DADS Simulation

In fact, Harley-Davidson uses advanced engineering and simulation tools to compress design cycles as well as other tools to reduce the overall manufacturing process time.  For example the application DADS from CADSI (now part of LMS of Coralville, IA) is used for full 3-D prototyping and to simulate the handling of the motorcycle during a lane change, j-turn or weave maneuvers.   For a company that produces 12 different parts made of 4615 material with complex profiles of 20-42 teeth and robots measuring parts baskets with door-to-door cycle time of 11.3 seconds and overall grind times of 56 seconds…I find it astonishing that MV Augusta/H-D exec’s would go on camera pontificating the merits of the aristocratic craftsmen — “no motorcycle before it’s time” philosophy.

Is it time to exchange the Girard-Perreguax watch for a Timex and bring on the accountant dawgs to rehabilitate the long lunch wine drinking staff?

Photo courtesy LMS and H-D.

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MV Agusta - 1078RR

MV Agusta - 1078RR

You’re an executive at Harley-Davidson.  Gas prices are up, rally attendance is down, product costs are increasing, product sales are in free-fall, you’re customer demographic is aging, the economy is stalled and the housing bubble prevents people from fun-filled-equity-financing.

You dig deep into the Harvard Business School memories and determine what to do?  Buy an Italian motorcycle company (MV Agusta Group) for $108M of course!  WTF?  Harley completed the acquisition of MV Agusta in July,  but until recently I couldn’t wrap my head around this or understand the complimentary connection to the beer drinking Milwaukee company vs. the high-flying invitation-only cocktail soiree that MV Agusta typically entertains.

MV Agusta Factory - Varese, Italy

MV Agusta Factory - Varese, Italy

But, I get it now!   It’s about wine and Harley execs jet setting to Milan for private VIP parties to swap race stories with makers of high-end Italian brands in what can only be described as a marketing orgy to portray the ultimate in luxury and style.

Let’s break it down.  Fly into Varese on a direct international flight and land in northern Italy…about an hour from Milan.  Grab a room at the Palace Grand Hotel and catch a glance out the window to see a spectacular view of Lake Varese below.  The Palace Grand Hotel was built on top of a hill overlooking the town and lake below. Built over 100 years ago the structure is magnificent, and also happened to be owned by Claudio Castiglioni who was once president of Cagiva and MV Agusta.

MV Agusta is the Italian national symbol of motorcycling prestige and technology, and represents the ultimate in terms of engineering.  They must have held candlelight vigils after hearing about the Harley merger?   I learned the secret to this merger is the approximately 195 wineries located near the factory!  The Corso di Porta Ticinese is a popular place for young people to hang out and is home to many notable churches.  During the day the Harley execs can do long lunches drinking world-class wine and then visit the many boutiques, ateliers, craftsmen workshops and when the sun goes down the canal area transforms into a colorful nightlife where the Milwaukee “jetsetters” hang-out to be seen in the various clubs.

In my view this acquisition is a train wreck.  The concepts of cross-engineering or having a modern product that is consistent with an aristocratic past…is like walking around with a Girard-Perreguax watch, Trussardi jacket and camo-print cargo shorts that show off cotton white socks in tan nubuck boots.  This unusual sense of cool as a “Trussardi-wearing hipster” will not inject soul into the Harley brand or bring about positive word-of-mouth buzz for either party.  There is significant engineering/product overlap with Buell and someone needs to rehabilitate the overexposed, wine drinking executive staff.

This is a magazine shoot – not real life.

 

Photo courtesy of MV Agusta web site.

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