The Road Less Traveled: Former Harley-Davidson Exec Speaks at ASCENT

Channel Partners

November 11, 2002

4 Min Read
The Road Less Traveled: Former Harley-Davidson Exec Speaks at ASCENT

In Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands of South Dakota or Daytona Beach, Fla., a plumber, a hairdresser and a CEO riding their Harley-Davidsons across the country are comrades. Whether roaring past a herd of bison on the plains near Mt. Rushmore or buzzing by a fleet of beach bums, their ride transcends gender, social class and ethnicity, symbolizing the liberation manifested in the quintessential American movie, Easy Rider.

Harley-Davidson has earned the distinction as an American icon, revered by generations of teenagers, lawyers, brokers, stay-at-home moms and tradesmen.

Last year Harley-Davidson Motor Co. posted $437.4 million in net income off $3.36 billion in revenue and was named "Company of the Year" by Forbes magazine. But the company William S. Harley and his brothers founded in 1903 has not always flourished. In fact, the motorcycle company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1980s.

The Harley of old had trouble competing with its foreign rivals, and its engineering flaws did not help its reputation. In 1980 three of four engines Harley manufactured seized a valve. Five years later Harley-Davidson executives finished out the year by preparing a gloomy press release stating that in the face of dwindling market share and other problems, the motorcycle company would be filing for bankruptcy. It never crossed the press wires.

Harley’s CFO managed to find a lender over Christmas vacation, marking the first stage of the recovery of a company that achieved international appeal by distinguishing itself from its larger rivals and building a powerful brand. Of course, part of that turnaround included making improvements in the quality and reliability of motorcycles that now draw the envy and admiration of fellow riders.

Clyde Fessler, today’s keynote speaker at the ASCENT conference in Orlando, knows the story well. The former vice president of business development, Fessler and his colleagues aimed to distinguish Harley from such larger rivals as Honda and Kawasaki. What Harley Davidson lacked in resources it made up for in marketing genius. In the early 1980s, explains Fessler, Harley decided that rather than competing directly with its rivals, it would become the alternative provider, "turning left when the competition turned right."

For instance, Harley executives began to commemorate the company’s anniversary, celebrating the founding of the company in 1903. Beginning with the 90th anniversary, Harley executives in 12 regions of the country motored across the United States on their chrome-heavy bikes to meet in Milwaukee, Harley’s 99-year-old home.

In 1983 Harley began distributing its own brew — Harley Heavy — on special occasions. The same year the company formed HOG, short for the Harley Owner’s Group, a motorcycle club where men could bring their girlfriends to rallies and "not be intimidated," Fessler says. Today there are more than 650,000 HOG members in 114 countries around the world. "It helped create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable participating in the sport of motorcycling," says Fessler, who owns six Harleys.

In the 1980s Harley worked to shed its image as a bad boy that catered to crime-prone gangs. Harley joined the Muscular Dystrophy Association as a sponsor and has raised $40 million to fight the disease since 1981.

In 1986 Harley helped strengthen its brand by replacing its "helmets and leather jackets-only" accessories division with a motor clothes unit incorporating fashion and a variety of colors. By getting into the clothing business, Harley executives educated distributors to treat its wares as a separate unit than the motorcycle business, Fessler said.

As a part of its goal to establish a brand, Harley applied the five Ps of marketing: product, price, place, promotion and, most importantly, people, says Fessler. "Passion is the difference between winning and losing, success and failure," said Fessler, who has seen much of the country and world on bikes crafted by his long-time employer.

Fessler retired from Harley-Davidson this year, but he still loves to ride. He plan to attend the next Sturgis, S.D., rally in August for the 17th consecutive year and his next rendezvous in Daytona will mark the 26th year he has attended the motorcycle bonanza.

In contrast to driving a car, which usually serves a practical purpose — getting from point A to B — Harley-Davidson symbolizes an experience that can’t be realized within the confines of artificial heat and glass. Ten years ago Fessler rode from San Francisco to Milwaukee, stopping in Montana’s West Yellowstone for a snowball fight in June.

"Seeing the world from a motorcycle is five times more powerful than from a car or train," Fessler said. "You hear the sound of the bike. You feel the vibration of the engine. You sense the temperature changes. You smell the fresh cut grass.

"And you clear the cobwebs from your mind."

Many telecom execs could use a ride like that.

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