The man with his name on the tank

Last updated 08:14 25/02/2013
Harley-Davidson's Bill Davidson.
Fairfax NZ

NAME ON THE TANK: Bill Davidson has been in New Zealand to participate in a Harley Owners Group rally organised by the Auckland chapter.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles

Mr Chips (left) and Rosco enjoy a catchup at the Harley-Davidson mass ride at the Ellerslie Event Centre to celebrate 110 years of the brand.
PHIL DOYLE/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Mr Chips (left) and Rosco enjoy a catchup at the Harley-Davidson mass ride at the Ellerslie Event Centre to celebrate 110 years of the brand.

The All Black and Mr Harley-Davidson

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Not only is Harley-Davidson the brand that has been making motorcycles for longest without interval, it can also boast the active participation in the business of the members of one family throughout its entire 110-year history.

The motor company was started by the three Davidson brothers - William, Walter, and Arthur - who teamed up with a talented-yet-unqualified 22-year-old engineer, Bill Harley, and began to build motorcycles in a bicycle shop located on the north side of Milwaukee. It was William A Davidson who would go on to father three generations of future Harley executives. His son, William Herbert, became president of the company, and his grandson, Willie G, rose to become a vice-president and a legendary chief styling officer. Willie's son, Bill, joined the company in 1984, and now sits on the executive board in charge of marketing while managing Harley's Mecca-like museum in Milwaukee. As famous American family dynasties go, this one's right up there with the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, and the Ewings.

Bill Davidson visited New Zealand this month to participate in a Harley Owners Group (HOG) rally organised by the Auckland chapter at Ellerslie race course. It was a good opportunity to ask him whether there was any family pressure placed on him to continue its active participation in the day-to-day running of Harley-Davidson.

"I'm blessed to have such a great Mum and Dad, and their advice was always to 'follow your dreams.' I knew by the time I was six years old that my dreams involved motorcycles.

"I learned to ride on a little Harley M50, then began racing motocross. By the time I got my street licence as a teenager, I was taking a very keen interest in what Dad would say about his work around the dinner table each night."

As soon as he graduated with a degree in marketing from the University of Milwaukee, he applied for a job at the company.

"It took three interviews before they hired me. They weren't going to give me the job just because my name is on the tank, and I'm really glad that they took a good look at whether I deserved to be hired first."

Bill joined the company at a time when it was fighting for its survival in the aftermath of its 1981 sale by American Machine and Foundry (AMF). Thirteen Harley executives, including Willie G, had stumped up their own bucks to buy the company back, but the purchase had stretched their financial resources to breaking point.

"AMF weren't really motorcyclists and were very business-oriented. So they'd ramped up production while running down the quality of the bikes. When I joined, the quality issues had really started to catch us up, and there was hardly any money left to fix them. We had to get very creative.

"Through Dad's styling efforts, we started to show our customers that we knew what they wanted.

"The first Softails, powered by the new Evolution engine, showed them that we liked the sport as much as they did.

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"We began to turn the company round by lifting quality and listening to what our dealers and customers had to say.

"The late 1980s and early 1990s were truly amazing years for us, and we went on to enjoy a 17-year straight run of achieving record profits."

Around the same time, a new customer base emerged for Harley-Davidson in the form of affluent urban professionals. Encouraged by the formation of HOG in 1983, these people weren't just buying motorcycles, they were buying into a lifestyle.

"It was all because of the power of our brand. When that brand represents freedom, independence, and a little bit of rebel, a lot of people found that they could associate with it. They'd wear suits and ties all week, and change into jeans and black leather on the weekends."

So how will the most successful brand in the above-600cc segment of the New Zealand motorcycle market for the past 20 years keep its momentum going?

"Our loyalty rate is 95 per cent. When we get a new customer, we tend to keep them for life.

"So what we're trying to do is get them into the brand earlier - with new Sportster models that are more affordable for 30-year-olds buying their first recreational motorcycle - then keep them riding for longer.... We know that we've been very successful at attracting people born between 1945 and 1965 - the so-called baby- boomers - and we want to hold onto that customer for as long as possible.

"But buying a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is just buying the entry ticket to a whole new lifestyle. At events like this (HOG rally), we give our customers a reason to ride, and when they're about to ride to an event they'll often visit a dealer to buy our accessories and clothing first.

"It's a great basis for a strong and successful business."

- The Press

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