Wandell reflects on Harley recovery

It wasn’t easy, but Keith Wandell has turned the tide at Harley-Davidson. As he evaluated the global, yearlong 110th anniversary celebration that concluded in Milwaukee last week, Wandell reflected Monday on the dire position the company was in at its 105th anniversary.

The chairman, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. spoke to the Greater Milwaukee Committee at a luncheon Monday.

When he took over as CEO in 2009, Wandell set out to change the way Harley did business, because it simply was not working. The company’s sales were down 40 percent from a 2005 high. He wanted to not only stop the bleeding, but lay the foundation for growth.

He was plucked from the number two role at Johnson Controls Inc. in Glendale to bring a fresh perspective to Harley, and he made some tough decisions.

It was time to roll up their sleeves and talk about what to do differently at Harley, Wandell said.

He developed a strategic plan based on four pillars: growth, continuous improvement, leadership development and sustainability.

The company should remain focused on its core brand, which had tremendous upside because its riders are so passionate about the bikes worldwide, he said.

“At the end of the day, what we were doing was we were diluting the Harley-Davidson brand,” he said.

For that reason, Wandell divested MV Augusta and discontinued the Buell brand. Plants were closed, jobs were lost, but the company was able to revamp its marketing efforts.

Harley also worked on reaching market segments that were not traditional customers, namely young adults, females and minorities.

“We’ve made tremendous improvement in the outreach to bringing other riders in the family,” Wandell said.

Mission accomplished: Today, Harley is No. 1 for riders aged 18 to 34 in North America. In fact, new riders are buying motorcycles faster than the core existing customers.

Wandell also tightened up the new product development process, reducing time to market and incorporating customer feedback.

In 2009, it took about six years for a motorcycle to go from the idea to the dealer lot.

“If we all decided today that we want to design and develop a new bike, it’s going to be 2019 before we bring it to market? I mean, somebody’s got to cut me a break,” Wandell said.

Another goal reached: Harley has cut its development time in half. Just ahead of the 110th party in Milwaukee, it rolled out the most extensive new product launch in the company’s history — Project Rushmore. It took just three years to develop.

“Our employees now know what winning looks like, and it’s awesome,” he said. “I’ve never seen our dealers more excited about new products than they are today.”

Harley has also adjusted its manufacturing process, utilizing hundreds of seasonal workers to supply dealers with requested bikes as soon as possible.

The company now has 1,600 dealerships around the world. Wandell worked to unite them to assure Harley customers were getting great customer service no matter where they were.

He has personally met about 95 percent of the global dealer base. The motto all employees now strive to meet? One company, one team, one direction.

While a lot of ground has been made up, sales are still down 25 percent from their peak, so there’s still work to do, Wandell said.

Under Wandell’s leadership, Milwaukee’s most iconic company is roaring again.

Molly Dill is a reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee.

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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.