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Harley-Davidson CEO gives glimpse into world's iconic brand

Published: 2011-11-18

“I would argue that Harley-Davidson is the most iconic brand in the world,” the company’s CEO Keith Wandell told the audience at  the Center for Operational Excellence at a recent quarterly professional development seminar.

Wandell said he first made that statement at the White House in 2009 during a round table of CEOs representing the nation’s largest companies. He knew he ruffled a few feathers with his claim.

“Big egos,” Wandell recalled. “I could see some of them pushing back from the table.”

“But we don’t make these kind of statements without hard metrics to back them up,” Wandell said. “The metric we use is the number of human bodies that have our company name permanently tattooed on their skin.”

Besides defending the company brand, Wandell provided participants with insight on how the motorcycle company survives and thrives during tough economic times particularly when consumer confidence and spending are down.

Wandell, an operations veteran and the first outsider hired as the company’s CEO, was brought in to stem sagging sales. One of the first problems he tackled was on the operations side, particularly product supply. “We had customers coming into dealerships and being turned away or put on long waiting lists,” he said.

Wandell has concentrated his efforts on improving manufacturing efficiency, adopting lean management and accelerating the motorcycle lines speed to market.

As part of the company’s transformation, Harley-Davidson has begun to expand its product offering to include Harley-branded entry level motorcycles to replace the Buell brand.

“A lot of people would be surprised to know that we have motorcycles for under $10,000,” Wandell said.  One of the company’s turnaround strategies is to attract new customer segments, while not alienating the brand’s fanatically loyal base.  “We can’t survive on our core customers,” he said.

The company has a strong and successful diversity marketing  program, he said.  Harley-Davidson is the number one brand among women and African-American motorcycle owners. The company has also expanded its global presence.  With more than $4 billion in revenue and 6,300 employees, the 108-year-old company has locations on five continents and this year opened its first dealership in India.