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Harley-Davidson CEO talks growth, strategy with students

Published: 2014-03-04

What makes Harley-Davidson run?

Having one of the most iconic brands in the nation and in the world is certainly a factor, CEO Keith Wandell said during a recent visit to Fisher's campus to speak with undergraduate and graduate students. But the ability to maintain that brand and continue to advance a more than 100-year-old company through difficult economic times relied on a number of strategic growth pillars, including the diversification of its customer base; operations and continuous improvement; and leadership development.

Harley Davidson CEO Keith Wandell

All of which, Wandell explained, have led to sustainable success for the motorcycle manufacturer.

"The only demographic we were focused on was the middle-aged, white guy," said Wandell, who became CEO of Harley-Davidson in 2009 after a successful career in the operations fields. "We weren't focused on female riders. We weren't focused on African-American riders. We weren't focused on Hispanic riders. But look at the United States — the demographics are significantly different than they were 20 years ago and they will continue to be different. So you either recognize that, or you go away."

These days, Wandell noted, the company owns the no. 1 market share in North America with female riders, young riders (18-34), African-American riders and Hispanic riders.

"Why?" he asked students. "Because we focused on it."

Said MBA candidate Lars Lundberg: "I was really impressed with how focused he was on the customer. When I think of an auto company, whether cars, trucks, or motorcycles, I think of operational excellence. Keith mentioned that his first order of duty when becoming the CEO was to focus efforts on their customer. He felt that the customer needed more attention, and not just the typical Harley customer, but the future Harley customer."

Wandell also discussed the importance of creating a culture in which the drive to always improve trumps the complacency of perceived success. Part of Harley-Davidson's efforts in this area included placing an increased emphasis on employee engagement, company values and leadership behaviors.

"I spend 75 percent of my time at work on leadership development," Wandell said. "What I tell my employees is that I expect you to be functionally great . . . but that's the price of entry. You can't work here unless you're behaviorally great."

During a question-and-answer session with students, the company leader addressed a number of additional leadership issues — from learning to leverage your best employees rather than insisting on doing everything yourself, to understanding the value of accountability over popularity.

"People want to be liked so they make soft decisions, and they make decisions that are inconsistent within the organization," he said. "Don't ever get caught up in that . . . You put the strategy in place, you put the values and leadership teams in place, you treat people fairly, consistently and openly — and they'll learn to respect you."