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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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Recently it was reported that the typical CEO at the biggest U.S. companies received an 8.5 percent raise last year, taking in $11.5 million in salary, stock and other compensation, according to a study by executive data firm Equilar for the Associated Press.

Over the last 5-years, median CEO pay has jumped by 19.6 percent not accounting for inflation.  That’s nearly double the 10.9 percent rise in the typical weekly paycheck for full-time employment across the country.

It could be, but this isn’t a rant about the typical line worker vs. CEO wage-gap.

If we’re being intellectually honest, CEOs today are required to master a broader range of skills than in the past, when top executives might have climbed the ranks with just one discipline. Companies are bigger, more global and increasingly complicated, and there’s accelerating competition in countries such as China, India and Brazil. Executives must also adapt to quicker technological change, including shifts brought on by autonomous driving, electric vehicles and the widening use of mobile devices.  And then there is the Board, and the increasing requirement that CEOs push their stock price ever higher to collect their maximum possible payout.

So, who are those CEOs at Harley-Davidson, that made Harley-Davidson?  Below is a historical snapshot of the motor company leadership:

Matthew S. Levatich

Matthew S. Levatich — Resigned on February 28, 2020 after a 26-year career at Harley-Davidson with the last 5-years as CEO.  For more info see this post HERE.

Harley-Davidson promoted Levatich to President/CEO in May 2015 when Keith E. Wandell retired.  Mr. Levatich was named COO during CEO Keith Wandell’s tenure.

Mr. Levatich, joined Harley-Davidson in 1994. Prior to becoming COO in May 2009, he held wide-ranging roles in the U.S. and Europe. Those roles included Vice President and General Manager of Harley-Davidson’s Parts and Accessories business, Vice President of Materials Management, and President and Managing Director of the Company’s former MV Agusta business. In addition to an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Levatich holds a graduate degree in engineering management and an MBA from Northwestern University. He has served on the board of directors of Emerson, a St. Louis-based global manufacturing and technology company, since 2012.

Mr. Levatich is known as an avid rider and an engineer, that demonstrates a clear vision for the company and talks constantly about focus and alignment and helping the organization remain clear on what it is they’re here to do.  No longer is the motor company the “voice of the executive” rather it’s the “voice of the customer.

Interestingly, Harley-Davidson has evolved from platform teams. Dyna platform, Softail platform, which was largely modeled like the automotive industry. Each platform team was competing for the next big capital investment so they could say now it’s Dyna’s turn to have a major refresh. Or now it’s Softail’s turn. Or now it’s Touring’s turn.  And that doesn’t exist anymore.

In an interview with Cycle World Mr. Levatich stated: “We’re not really in the business of manufacturing motorcycles. We’re in the business of building customers.”  

Keith Wandell

Keith Wandell —  hired from Johnson Controls to serve as Harley-Davidson President/CEO in 2009 — retired May 1, 2015 — only 6-years later.

Credited for leading Harley-Davidson back to profitability by cutting jobs and making its production more efficient he transformed manufacturing through a restructuring plan that generated more than $300 million in annual savings.

Mr. Wandell cut millions of dollars in costs and eliminated several thousand jobs in the manufacturing plants. He brought a sense of urgency to the company, saying he did not want it to be like General Motors and the auto industry that had fallen into deep trouble.

Under his leadership, Harley made significant gains in reaching new customers through growth in international markets and sales to “outreach” segments in the U.S., including young adults, women, African-Americans and Hispanics.  Mr. Wandell also was credited with stoking excitement for a planned electric bike, called Project LiveWire.

Mr. Wandell has been the Non-Executive Chairman of Dana Incorporated since October 27, 2016 and served as its Interim Chairman from September 9, 2016 to October 27, 2016.

James Ziemer

James Ziemer — served as President/CEO from 2005-2009.  Retired in 2009.  Mr. Ziemer is a native Milwaukeean who grew up in the neighborhood next to Harley-Davidson’s original Milwaukee factory location on the city’s west side.

He started with the motor company in 1969 as a freight elevator operator while attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He worked at Harley-Davidson for 40 years.  Upon earning his undergraduate degree in accounting at UWM, he joined the accounting department where he spent the majority of his career. He was named the Company’s Chief Financial Officer in 1990. In 2005, he was named President and Chief Executive Officer of Harley-Davidson.  When he retired, employees presented Mr. Ziemer with the original wood doors from the freight elevator he operated when he first was hired at Harley-Davidson.

As a sidebar, also in 2009, eleven years after being bought by Harley-Davidson, Erik Buell leaves the company to establish Erik Buell Racing.

Jeffrey L. Bleustein

Jeffrey L. Bleustein — retired as Chairman of the Board of Harley-Davidson in April 2009.  He was Chairman from December 1998 to April 25, 2009.  Previously, he served as CEO from June 1997 to April 2005.

He served at Brunswick Corp in many capacities and was President of Trihawk, Inc., a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson, 1984 to 1985. Remember Trihawks?

Mr. Bleustein was a technology consultant with American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF).  In 1969, AMF merged with Harley-Davidson and in 1975, AMF assigned him to help reorganize Harley-Davidson engineering operations.  Led by AMA Hall of Famer Vaughn Beals Jr., and 11 other Harley-Davidson executives (including Willie G. Davidson), Bleustein helped execute an $81.5 million leveraged buyout of the company from AMF on June 16, 1981.

To commemorate the buy-back, approximately two dozen company officers, along with their wives and select motorcycle press, made a cross-country motorcycle trek from the production facilities in York, PA to Harley-Davidson’s main offices on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee. This 900-mile independence journey was also a ride to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association, now the official charity of Harley Owners Group (HOG). The ride followed a host of ceremonies at York which included the signing of documents that marked the ownership change, and pulling the first “new Harley-Davidson” motorcycle off the assembly line. This 4-day celebration began a new chapter in the company’s “new” future.

Mr. Bleustein was responsible for notable engineering innovations which included the rubber engine mounts, redesign of the V-Twin and introduction of the Kevlar drive belts.

During Mr. Bleustein’s tenure (circa: 1998), Harley-Davidson bought Buell Motorcycle Company and named founder Eric Buell Chairman of Buell Operations. The first Buell’s hit showrooms in late 1999.

Rich Teerlink

Rich Teerlink  — served as Chairman and CEO until 1999 at Harley-Davidson until he retired.  Mr. Teerlink joined Harley-Davidson in August 1981 as CFO where he enjoyed great success over his 18-year career.  He started with the company just two months after the group of 13 Harley-Davidson managers had bought the company from its then parent company, American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), in a leveraged buyout.

Mr. Teerlink’s greatest accomplishment was establishing the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in 1983.  Mr. Teerlink joined the Vertex Board in 2002, and while serving on the Vertex Board, he also served on the Boards of Johnson Controls, Snap-on Tools and Quad Graphics.

Mr. Teerlink is also a notable author of More Than a Motorcycle, The Leadership Journey at Harley Davidson book.  Mr. Teerlink retired from the Vertex Board of Directors, effective February 4, 2015.

Mr. Teerlink was inducted to the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 2015.  Mr. Teerlink was awarded an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Laws from Marquette University on May 22, 2005.

Vaughn L. Beals Jr.

Vaughn L. Beals Jr. — served as CEO of Harley-Davidson from 1981-1989 and as Chairman from 1981-1996.

In June 1981, it was a challenging time as American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF) wanted to cut and run, but no one wanted to buy a company with a limited line of high-priced, obsolete products and a reputation for unreliability.  Vaughn Beals Jr., and 13-other** Harley-Davidson executives (including Willie G. Davidson), led an $81.5 million leveraged buyout of the company from American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF).

Mr. Beals previously served as a research engineer for North American Aviation and Cummins Engine Company where he negotiated the purchase of logging equipment manufacturer Formac International as he was a minority owner and CEO.  This proved to be valuable during the AMF Harley-Davidson buyout.  He was named Harley-Davidson CEO after the buy-out option.

In 1982, the motor company won an anti-dumping judgment from the International Trade Commission (ITC). This led then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to impose additional tariffs on imported heavyweight Japanese models, as allowed by the ITC.  The additional tariffs–45 percent on top of an existing 4.4 percent measure–were meant to decrease gradually over five years, until April 1988.

In June 1986, Harley-Davidson went public with a stock offering to raise capital to help pay off the buy-out option.  This was very successful increasing share price from $11 to $24.  Harley-Davidson  used some of the stock sale revenues to buy Holiday Rambler, a U.S. maker of recreational vehicles, for $150 million.  The Holiday Rambler sale pushed Harley-Davidson into the Fortune 500 category for the first time at number 398.  In March 1987 the company asked the ITC to remove the tariffs imposed on Japanese motorcycle imports a year earlier than scheduled.

Willie G. Davidson, V.P. Styling (Left); Vaughn Beals Jr., CEO and Charles Thompson, President (Right)

Mr. Beals was inducted to the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 2008.

Charles Thompson — served as President and CEO of the restructured Harley-Davidson after American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF) buy-out option.

Mr. Thompson was a long-time Harley-Davidson employee, well-liked throughout the motorcycle industry and served as president and CEO of the restructured company until his health failed in 1982.

William Herbert “Bill” Davidson — was president of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles from 1942 to 1971.  He was the son of William A. Davidson who quit his regular paying job with the Milwaukee Road railroad in 1903 to get into the business of making motorcycles.

William Herbert “Bill” Davidson

Bill Davidson, started working on the Harley-Davidson shop floor of the family business in 1928 after attending the University of Wisconsin.  He won the AMA National Enduro Championship in 1930 and when he wasn’t winning motorcycle races, Bill worked his way up through the company, becoming a foreman, manager of many departments, and finally president of Harley-Davidson in 1942.

In 1963, Bill brought in his son William Godfrey Davidson (Willie G.) on to head up the styling department of the company. Willie G. would end up creating some of the company’s more popular designs, including the legendary Low Rider and the Super Glide which was inspired by the ideas of bike customizers.

In 1965 Harley-Davidson went public as the two families decided to give up control and put the company’s shares on the market.

In 1969, Harley-Davidson was bought by American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a leisure equipment manufacturer.  The arrangement proved, at least initially, to be a good one for Harley-Davidson, for it was in the mid-1960s that the company experienced its first real competition after Indian went out of business. The financial resources and stability that AMF was able to provide helped the company battle Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, who had begun exporting their vehicles around the world, placing themselves in direct competition with Harley-Davidson.

Bill stayed on as president under the control of AMF reporting to it’s then current chairman and CEO Rodney C. Gott (Mr. Gott served as AMF president, starting in 1962, and chairman and chief executive, from 1968. He retired in 1978).  Mr. Gott was a Harley-Davidson rider and big motorcycle fan.  As a sidebar: In World War II, Mr. Gott was a decorated veteran who served in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army and on the staff of Gen. Lesley James McNair, chief of ground forces, and was also commander of the 79th Infantry Division Artillery.

In 1971, Bill Davidson was made Harley-Davidson chairman, but reported that he had little power while under AMF’s control.  It was noted that he was chairman of the Harley-Davidson board that never met.  Conflicts with AMF’s strategy and chaotic market conditions led to Bill Davidson’s resignation in 1973.

It was a period of high CEO turnover at Harley-Davidson.  During this time, AMF named John O’Brian and then Gus Davis as president, marking the first time someone other than a Davidson would sit in the company presidents chair.  Other Harley and Davidson family members continued on at the company under AMF’s ownership.  Bill Davidson’s son John was vice president of Sales, and then moved up to become president after Gus Davis.  William J. Harley was engineering vice president until his death in 1971.  His brother John Harley remained at the company until his death in 1976 as the last Harley at Harley-Davidson.

In 1975, AMF put Vaughn Beals Jr. at the head of Harley-Davidson, and Jeff Bleustein was named chief engineer. Bleustein was charged with making manufacturing improvements, which had  become increasingly necessary as production grew and quality declined.  A limited line of high-priced products and a reputation for unreliable motorcycles marked this timeframe in history.  AMF began to lose interest in keeping the struggling motorcycle business afloat.

Rodney C. Gott (Left) and John Davidson, President Harley-Davidson

In a bit of irony, (circa: 09/1977), the motor company unveiled a motorcycle museum in York, PA., that was named after AMF’s CEO — Rodney C. Gott Motorcycle Museum.  A video HERE.

In June 1981, to save the company, and to effect a turnaround, thirteen Harley-Davidson executives, led by Vaughn Beals Jr., put together a plan for a leveraged management buyout. With the financial support of Citicorp, the management team succeeded in taking control of Harley-Davidson from AMF on June 16, 1981, at a cost of $81.5 million.

The role of the new officers after the company buy-out option included: Charles Thompson, president and chief operating officer; Jack Hamilton, Chris Sartalis, Jim Paterson, Kurt Woerpel, Peter Profumo, Jeffrey Bleustein, Thomas Gelb, William Davidson, and Tim Hoelter, all vice presidents. The president of the various divisions were: John Davidson, golf; David Caruso, parts and accessories; Ralph Swenson, York; and David Lickerman, Harley-Davidson International.

Even though he was no longer actively involved with the company, Bill Davidson lived to see the renewal and success that Harley-Davidson enjoyed starting in the late-1980s.

Bill Davidson died in 1993.  He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 1999.

Walter Davidson — was president from 1907 to 1942.  Bill Harley was chief engineer and treasurer. Author Davidson is secretary and general sales manager and William A. Davidson is the works manager.

In 1936, six sons of the founders are working at Harley-Davidson.  Walter Davidson’s sons Gordon and Walter C.; and William Davidson’s sons, William Herbert “Bill” and Allan; and Bill Harley’s sons, William J. and John.

In 1942 from his death bed,  Walter Davidson named his nephew William Herbert “Bill” Davidson as president and his own eldest son Gordon, as vice president of manufacturing.

Historical Principal H-D Subsidiaries: Holiday Rambler Corporation; Utilmaster Corporation; B&B Molders; Creative Dimensions; Nappanee Wood Products.

Article References:

Vaughn Beals Jr. – Wikipedia
Growing Up Harley-Davidson – Jean Davidson
Harvard Business Review – Harley Leadership U-Turn
Jeffrey Bleustein – Wikipedia
The Morning Call – Harley Is A Classic Turnaround Story
Rodney C. Gott Obituary
Gus Davis Obituary
Cycle World Magazine – Interview with CEO, Matthew S. Levatich
Cycle World Magazine – Rodney C. Gott Motorcycle Museum
Chicago Tribune – The Real Harley-Davidson Story
James Ziemer – Northwest Harley Blog
People – Buy Back Article
Rick Barrett – Journal Sentinel

Harley-Davidson (Buyout) Management Team

**The Harley-Davidson managers post buy-out option: left to right standing: John Hamilton, Dr. Jeffrey Bleustein, Kurt Woerpel, Chstopher Sartalis, and William G. Davidson.  Left to right, seated: James Peterson, Timothy Hoelter, David Lickerman, Peter Profumo, David Caruso, Ralph Swenson, Charles Thompson, and Vaughn Beals Jr.

 

Photos courtesy of Harley-Davidson

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2010 Buell Blast

2010 Buell Blast

The public has been manipulated so many times, that when something extraordinary happens and becomes instantly viral in our networked world, many people cross their arms and say – “not real!”

They say the public is cynical.  Who’d blame them?  What with the Borat and Eminem “butt kiss” at the MTV awards show — it was all for ratings.  It seems everything is about seeing misfits behave in the midst of other misfits.  Once upon a time we respected honesty.  To truly make it these days, you’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to have the goods and talent too otherwise you’re just another “scammer” trying to make a buck.

Speaking of honesty, Eric Buell (Buell Motorcycle Co.) is not some faux character in a vague reality TV script.  He’s the real deal and shoots straight about the Buell Blast.  Yes, it’s a piece of crap “sport bike”.  Not his words.  Sure, Eric comes off with ‘tude as if completely independent, not beholden to the parent company (Harley-Davidson), but he does what everyone would like to do — trash compact/compress that little nerdy Buell Blast into oblivion!

The 2010 Buell Blast introduction video is HERE.

The video works because it’s a “first”. Well actually I am pretty sure that it isn’t – but that’s not important as long as it’s perceived as a novel idea.  Kudo’s to the marketing dudes.  The video contains a bit of a mystery. Something that wants to be solved. Curiosity sets in and you wonder if this is a hoax or a real video.  There’s always both the message (the actual video) and the meta-discussions of the message (is this real/stupid/too much?) to drive people to share and view your content. As the buzz grows, people will join only to see what others are talking about – this is when the crowd mentality kicks in.

It’s a battle over clever stuff and this was good product marketing on the failure to convert the non-riding public into Buell owners!

UPDATE:  September 17, 2009 — I neglected to mention that back in March Buell retained Crispin Porter + Bogusky as its new advertising agency of record. The advertising account was previously handled by Laughlin Constable.  This was some good work Alex (Bogusky).   Congrats!

Photo courtesy of Buell.

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