Harley-Davidson Inc. is proving that American manufacturing can succeed in the 21st century, according to CEO Keith Wandell. The iconic Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer has transformed significantly in its 110 years in business, but perhaps not as rapidly as in the five years since its last major anniversary celebration. Several years ago, critics were ringing the death knell for Harley-Davidson, saying it would die off with its core ridership of aging white men. But data the company released this week showed Harley-Davidson grew U.S. market share by double digits from 2008 to 2012 among young adults, women, African-Americans and Hispanics.
When Wandell took the wheel in 2009, the company also embarked on a massive, sometimes painful restructuring plan that has included a radical restructuring of its manufacturing operations, shuttering plants, significant job cuts, ending its Buell sport motorcycle brand and the sale of an Italian motorcycle subsidiary. A renewed focus on product development, reaching new customers and overhauling manufacturing operations has put the company on the road to success for generations to come, Wandell and other company leaders said Saturday morning during Harley-Davidson’s annual shareholders meeting held at the Harley-Davidson Museum campus.
“Since the big (company) anniversary in 2008, there’s been a massive change in the world we live in,” Wandell told the crowd of almost 350. “Harley-Davidson has risen to the challenge.” During an open forum after the prepared remarks, Bob Truty, a member of Iron Workers Local 63 in Chicago, asked whether laid-off workers would get their jobs back now that the company has returned to solid financial footing. Wandell said he empathizes with Truty and wants to bring people back to work as the company gains more business, but he also reiterated the importance of the company’s restructuring. “I would love nothing more than to have every single employee who lost their job come back to work,” Wandell said.
Truty also asked whether Harley-Davidson would keep its commitment to making its motorcycles in America. The company has considered the possibility of manufacturing in Europe, for example, but has time and again decided not to, Wandell said. It does assemble bikes in some other countries to avoid tariffs, but the parts are made in America and shipped as a kit to those countries. Some company operations, like plating, have also been outsourced, “but those jobs exist in America at other suppliers,” Wandell said. “It’s so important that our bikes are built in America,” Wandell said.
During the meeting, shareholders voted to elect 13 board directors, approve by advisory vote the compensation of executive officers and ratify selection of Ernst & Young LLP to audit the company this fiscal year.