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Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Comment by Editor-in-Chief, Robin Bradley

"Black" may be the new "Chrome", but it still don't get you home

Oh dear! Where to begin? If Harley-Davidson seriously think that the continuing direction signalled by their MY2016 offer is going to keep their dealers, employees and investors happy in the long-term, then they are seriously deluded.

The company is, of course, paying the price now for not ensuring that Keith Wandell's "tough love" survival course was undertaken as much in metal as it was in numbers.

They are paying the price for teaching the world that following the decades of superbike revolution "other motorcycle brands and platforms are available".

With competitive pressure now closing in on them from every direction, a share price that stubbornly won't get over Rushmore any more than dealer showroom traffic will, and crowd-sourcing having replaced engineering innovation, does Harley have the talent it needs to get back to designing motorcycles rather than marketing strategies before the vultures swoop?

Allowing customers to tell you what they want to buy from you is a strictly time-limited pathway. It presupposes that every consumer has the motorcycle engineering experience, skills and vision of a Massimo Tamburini or a Misuyoshi Kohama.

Maybe the Motor Company is keeping its next generation Erik Buell, Gianandrea Fabbro or Willie G. Davidson hidden in the wings, and they are just waiting for the right balance sheet or right swing in public taste or demographics before unveiling their vision to the world.

'too busy selling off their shares'

 Hopefully not, because if that is the strategy, then someone in the Juneau Avenue boardroom needs a lesson in some business fundamentals such as the dynamics of R&D investments and atrophy - hopefully they are not all too busy selling off their shares to be paying attention.

Maybe it is a lack of vision, maybe it is a lack of money, maybe it is a lack of leadership - who knows, but despite the fact that global motorcycle sales are still only a fraction of where they peaked in the late seventies and early eighties, and again in the mid nineties and 'noughties', don't let anyone fool themselves into thinking it is through lack of opportunity.

There are still plenty enough motorcycle sales out there for some factories to be able to prosper, and where leadership is concerned, there is every reason to believe that Matt Levatich can prove to be a good follow-up act to Wandell's survival strategy.

His experience in Europe, where the centre of global motorcycle design and engineering gravity is now to be found, should stand him in good stead where the need for vision is concerned.

It is ironic that Levatich was the man who headed-up MV Agusta during Harley's brief ownership. Ironic because in the time he was there and in the years immediately prior to Harley's ownership (and the time surrounding their still-born attempt to buy Ducati) the Motor Factory came within inches of being able to benefit from the genius of both Fabbro and Tamburini, and that of Miguel Angel Galluzzi, and Adrian Morton, and Pierre Terblanche, to say nothing of allowing Erik Buell to slip away – all contemporary and recent motorcycle design and engineering legends.

So, here we are, already 15 percent of the way through the 21st century and maybe, perhaps, possibly just about emerging from what may turn out to be this century's Great Depression (China notwithstanding!), and Harley-Davidson are still trying to beat their competitors, motivate their dealers and feed dividends to their investors by selling black paint!

Black may well be the new "chrome", but it still don't get ya home!

The MY 2016 model year announcement is nothing more than Rushmore trickle down and social media based decision making. Harley need to be leading from the front, not being led by the nose. Harley would appear to have a serious design and engineering deficit.

There are plenty of interim steps that Harley could be taking pending a major new platform and technology initiative - plenty it could plunder from its heritage (why oh why won't they bring back something along the lines of the FXR), and plenty it could spin from what it sees going on around it ... if the Bar 'n' Shield can sit on an Electric Motorcycle and be found to be able to speak to young riders and minorities, then where is the adventure tourer? The Ducati Monster beating muscle bike? The sport bike? The off-roaders? How tempting that collapsed 1998 KTM deal must look to Harley's bean-counters now!

The company can buy back as many shares as it can indebt itself for, but it will never be able to buy back its market share until it realizes that the next 85 percent of the 21st century will be territory it has to share - share with brands and technology and design that other riders (new and old) are simply finding more to their taste.

Potentially this is Honda all over again as far as Harley history is concerned, with investors who think shares are just for Christmas, holding Harley back instead of it being AMF and the unions and designers who think retro is a brave new world of design and engineering innovation because it trends well on Twitter. It isn't. Wake up!