Harley-Davidson: The bike, the brand and the tariff

Harley-Davidson is one of the most successful brands of all time. The company's motorcycles, which are distinctive in terms of power, design and even the noise they generate, inspire fierce loyalty among its customer base. Sales and profits have grown every year for the last five, and the stock has jumped from U.S. $6.00 per share to $48.

So its not surprising that More than a Motorcycle: The leadership challenge at Harley-Davidson, written by former CEO Rich Teerlink and management consultant Lee Ozley, should attract attention. However if you're looking for information about how the company built its brand, or generated its stunning success, you won't find it here.

One of the open secrets of the publishing world is that "authors" of co-written books often bring very different qualities to the table. Pairings usually feature a bona fide writer who is teamed up with a personality that has genuine accomplishments under his belt. To put it crudely, one writes the book, and the other lends his name so it will sell.

More than a Motorcycle, appears to be just such a creation. The book purports to be a behind the scenes look at how change was initiated and sustained at Harley-Davidson, but instead comes across as an organizational theory text.

Teerlink and Ozley did have a supplier/ customer relationship during the decade-plus that the latter provided consulting services to Harley-Davidson, but this book is all Ozley and except for extended quotes, not much Teerlink.

Like any specialist, Ozley -- the management consultant -- thinks that his discipline is the only one that exists. Consequently he defines people as a company's key resource. His book is thus a soporific treatise about Harley's processes and committees with long passages on which manager said what, to which union official.

Sometimes it talks from Teerlink's point of view, sometimes from Ozley's, and sometimes from both combined. That, and the extended quotes from the authors which liberally sprinkle the prose, make it choppy and hard to read. Worse, the book borders on intellectual dishonesty by implying there in no tariff protection for the American motorcycle industry. In fact the protection provided by the existing 2.4 per cent tariff is in large part responsible for the company's profitability.

What's more, while saying that people are any company's key resource may be a great comment for CEOs to make in annual reports and at corporate Christmas parties, the statement is highly questionable.

A marketer would argue that Harley's key resource is its brand, which encompasses the bike's patents, its design and most importantly its customer list. If you split Harley into two entities, one encompassing its managers and unionized workforce, and the second encompassing its brand, the first company would be worthless. It would take ten years to develop and market a comparable product. But any Japanese motorcycle manufacturer could buy the Harley brand and designs and quickly set up manufacturing of the bike without missing a beat.

More than a Motorcycle, by only paying lip service to the customer, the brand and the market when discussing Harley-Davidson is really a study in myopia, which marketers could learn something from. Because like Ozley whose sees only managerial structures and processes, many marketers also think that their department is the be-all and end all of corporate success.

 

More than a Motorcycle: The leadership challenge at Harley-Davidson by Rich Teerlink and Lee Ozley, 276 pp. Harvard Business School Press

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