Everyone loves a good turnaround story, particularly one that involves a U.S. company coming back from the brink of bankruptcy to save a revered American brand from extinction. In that vein, the tale of Harley-Davidson is a well-known story. The iconic American motorcycle firm was on the verge of bankruptcy in the 1980s and facing stiff competition from such global forces as Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. And while the turnaround story is more than a couple of decades old, Clyde Fessler, the former head of marketing for Harley-Davidson USA, is still out on the speaking circuit telling whoever will listen how the company saved itself. Fessler has been gone from Harley-Davidson for more than a decade, retiring in 2002 as vice president of business development. Most of what he uses in his talks is old anecdotes and information, but the audience at a recent industry convention for the most part was highly receptive and still could relate to the story he spun. He told of how after a strategic planning session, the leaders of Harley-Davidson came up with the strategy of when the competition turns left, they would turn right. And they took the four basic P's of marketingproduct, price, place and promotionand added a fifth: people. The Harley Owners Group was a big part of that, with 30,000 members its first year and later growing to more than 1 million. The lesson: Don't just get close to your customers. Bond with your customers. Company officials also branched out into making money on the Harley-Davidson lifestyle, with clothing and accessories now accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. Change also was a big part of the turnaround. The challenge they put forth to themselves was, What will we do differently? If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got. Quality became king, with the mantra If you want to change something, measure it. They also took innovative approaches to advertising. As industrial espionage was a concern, they placed an ad in Japanese. The message: OK Japan. Your next prototype motorcycle is ready. Maybe this time nothing will get lost in translation. The whole presentation got me interested in seeing how Harley-Davidson is doing today, all these years after Fessler retired from the firm. And the news looked good. Net income for 2014 climbed 13 percent to $844.6 million on sales of $6.23 billion, 5.3 percent higher than the year before. So while the tale of the turnaround is years old, it's clear that the success story rides on. Meyer is executive editor of Rubber & Plastics News. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bmeyerRPN.
A legend lives on
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