More than 15 months after Jochen Zeitz became CEO at Harley-Davidson, Zeitz still hasn’t met members of Harley’s leadership team – “that’s the new normal,” Jochen Zeitz said Wednesday during CNBC’s Evolve Global Summit.
While Harley has struggled to find factory workers like other manufacturers, the motorcycle maker sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to access a much broader talent pool. In fact, with the newfound flexibility of the work-from-home lifestyle, Harley hasn’t been challenged to hire key positions at all, Zeitz said.
“It’s worked really, really well because we’re also able to hire talent all over the country, all over the world that might not have decided to move to Milwaukee or to move to one of our headquarters,” Zeitz said. “We have a much larger talent pool that we can tap into now simply because we accept that part of the work will be remote, and you are not obliged to move if you don’t want to.”
As Zeitz reflected on what it was like to become Harley's CEO at the height of the pandemic, he referred to the experience as "dramatic."
Harley was already experiencing a decline in sales as older riders exited the sport while used-bike prices made new bikes less appealing. Despite the company's challenges, when Zeitz became CEO during Q3 of 2020, Harley was on pace to have one of its best quarters for U.S. retail sales in the last six years.
Of course, the economic crises brought on by the pandemic changed the company’s trajectory. Had the initial pace continued, dealers would have sold 29,945 motorcycles in the quarter. Instead, just 23,732 motorcycles were sold during the quarter.
Just as Zeitz became CEO, the pandemic forced the company to close its manufacturing facilities, secure its finances and enter “cash preservation” mode, Zeitz said. As difficult of a position as Harley was in, Zeitz viewed the time as “exciting" and said he “doesn’t mind a crisis.”
“Dramatic as it really was, I really looked at this as a great opportunity to lead one of the most iconic brands in the world,” Zeitz said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. Harley-Davidson is one of those very few brands. If you get that opportunity, you certainly don’t say no.”
Zeitz became Harley’s acting president and CEO in February 2020 when former CEO Matt Levatich stepped down. While Zeitz had served on Harley’s board of directors for about 13 years, he hadn’t been in a C-suite position since his tenure as Puma’s CEO, which ended in 2011.
When asked if he was able to apply his experience at Puma to his new role at Harley, Zeitz laid out a complicated response. He became Puma’s CEO at the age of 29 and as he describes it, “inherited a pretty much bankrupt company on paper that had no product.”
Zeitz says his experience at Puma has given him confidence in his role at Harley and that both brands do have a thing or two in common. Just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles are not just about riding, Puma sneakers are not just about sport – both brands are just as much about lifestyle, he added.
Despite inheriting both companies at a difficult time in their history, the experience has been quite different, Zeitz said.
“There’s very little resemblance between Puma as it was in the early days and Harley as it is today,” Zeitz said. “Harley is truly a global icon that’s been around for 118 years. Puma was an underdog who was barely on the radar screen so there are very few comparisons I would say other than both are in sport and lifestyle today.”
Since Zeitz became CEO, Harley has completed “The Rewire,” an initiative to reset and address challenges facing the company. Now Harley is focused on “The Hardwire,” a five-year strategic plan that identifies both electric vehicle development and establishing a more diverse base of riders as core pillars of the initiative.
Harley also just launched its new Pan America model, a touring motorcycle built for on and off-road riding. Now Zeitz says Harley has plans to launch another motorcycle, although he didn’t offer much detail other than it would come “very soon.”
“We are also launching a new bike in the sports segment very soon,” Zeitz said. “So there’s a lot in the pipeline, but what’s really important to us is also creating excitement around our core customers, which we’ve done with the limited edition icon series, and that’s also doing really, really well."