In challenging time, Harley leans on its history as guide to future

Execs stress company DNA in addressing industry changes

Bill Davidson addresses the media on Wednesday.

Whether they are confronting new tariffs and a presidential tweet storm or the changing demographics of motorcycle riders, executives at Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. on Wednesday continually drew on the company’s history in discussing their approach to the future.

Bill Davidson addresses the media on Wednesday.

“Harley has a DNA. It’s called look, sound and feel and we’re experts at it,” said Bill Davidson, vice president of the Harley-Davidson museum. “Whatever we apply that DNA to, we will be successful. We will be leaders.”

Davidson pointed to the interest from riders when the company first unveiled its Livewire electric motorcycle prototype several years ago as proof Harley can go beyond its traditional products. He added that the production Livewire, which will be launched next year, is engineered to be unique in the marketplace.

“Our brand is iconic and it’s iconic for many, many reasons,” Davidson said. “We’ve learned what not to do and we have learned what to do over 115 years.”

Davidson and other Harley executives spoke Wednesday with media members in town for the company’s 115th anniversary celebration. Many of the questions focused on how the company is handling the fallout from increased tariffs on European motorcycles or on how Harley will compete as it expands into new product segments.

The European tariffs, a response to increased U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, prompted Harley to shift production of motorcycles for Europe out of the U.S. The decision has landed Harley in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, with the president mentioning the company repeatedly over the summer. Trump even expressed support for a Harley boycott and said he would help competitors.

Executives did not go into specifics on the decision when asked, but Dave Cottleleer, Harley vice president and managing director for U.S. sales, stressed that the company is about inclusion, togetherness, community and freedom.

“We as a company, we strive to be absolutely apolitical, because what’s important to us is that experience of togetherness and rising,” Cottleleer said. “That’s what this celebration is about, that’s what we are absolutely focused on this weekend.”

Heather Malenshek, Harley vice president of marketing, said Harley will not lose its status as an iconic American brand when asked if the possibility is a concern.

“As a company we have a very strong DNA, a very strong essence to who we are as a brand,” Malenshek said. “That comes through in every product that we make and everything that we do, so I don’t have any fear of that.”

“We have 115 years to show that we won’t lose that iconic status,” she added. “There’s no other company our there, certainly not in this industry, that’s had 115 continuous years.”

In addition to dealing with challenges from Trump and tariffs, Harley is also confronting shifting demographics in the motorcycle industry and changing consumer preferences. The company laid out a strategy in late July that calls for its entrance into adventure touring and streetfighter motorcycle segments along with launching electric products.

Pressed on how Harley would be able to compete in those new segments, the executives again fell back on the company’s reputation and history.

“We know a lot of riders see Harley-Davidson as an aspirational brand, no matter what style of riding they enjoy,” said Marc McCallister, vice president and managing director of international sales. “As we enter these new segments we’re going to be leveraging that as the premium brand in the segment.”

“As far as the technical capability of the vehicles, we are fairly confident that we will be superior in those segments as we go to market,” he added. “We’re not afraid of the technical competition either so I think we have a very strong proposition in those segments.”

Cottleleer acknowledged Harley has a tough line to walk in a challenging industry, but added the company has already outlasted hundreds of domestic and foreign competitors over time.

“We will win, we will continue to lead, as long as we stick to that DNA and we continue to focus on those things that have made this company great for 115 years,” he said.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

No posts to display