MATT LEVATICH

Cycle World - - The Leader - By MARK HOYER / Pho­tog­ra­phy by SAVERIO TRUGLIA

LLeader of the free mo­tor­cy­cling world? Hard to ar­gue against Matt Levatich, a 52-year-old en­gi­neer­turned-ex­ec­u­tive at Har­ley-david­son Mo­tor Com­pany. Af­ter climb­ing through the ranks start­ing in 1994, Levatich was made pres­i­dent and CEO in 2015, and his charge has been to nav­i­gate this $5-bil­lion-ayear mo­tor­cy­cle-maker and cul­tural icon through the chal­lenges and un­cer­tainty that face the in­dus­try. On the in­creas­ing strength of the used mar­ket and how it in­flu­ences Har­ley-david­son’s widely pub­li­cized ini­tia­tive to add 2 mil­lion new rid­ers in 10 years. The big­gest com­peti­tor to Har­ley is used Har­leys: time­less, re­li­able, durable, clas­sic, beau­ti­ful, af­ford­able. And that’s this “to­tal de­mand” thing [of new and used]. But when you’re in the busi­ness of “build­ing rid­ers,” you love the used mar­ket­place. It’s prob­a­bly the big­gest as­set we have, be­cause a 20-year-old can get on a Sport­ster and fid­dle with it and make it his own for $2,500, and it’s a great mo­tor­cy­cle. As a man­u­fac­turer, how do we em­brace it psy­cho­log­i­cally when it doesn’t do a lot [di­rectly] for our busi­ness? The “uni­ver­sals” that bring us to mo­tor­cy­cling. Why do you love to ride? The Ja­panese have this tech­nique of the five whys, that you don’t re­ally get to the root cause of any­thing un­til you ask why five times. So, I love to ride. Why? Then you’re like, well, I like the wind in my hair. Why? Well, be­cause I’m…

When you ask the five whys about rid­ing, you get to things like free­dom, in­de­pen­dence. I know I’m an in­di­vid­ual; I’m not part of the herd. You get to these very deep hu­man el­e­ments across cul­tures, across gen­er­a­tions, across gen­ders, and are writ­ten about by Aris­to­tle and Socrates. So these are hu­man val­ues. Why does rid­ing elicit that for peo­ple? This is the promised land, but it is hard to com­mu­ni­cate to non­rid­ers. Har­leydavid­son calls it per­sonal free­dom.

Re­gard­ing the Livewire pro­to­type and Har­ley-david­son’s abil­ity to de­vi­ate from its clas­sic V-twin form.

The big­gest thing [Livewire] demon­strated to us is that the cus­tomers are much more will­ing to see in­no­va­tive and pro­gres­sive things from Har­ley than prob­a­bly we are al­low­ing our­selves to do.

On the 115th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion this Au­gust.

The em­pha­sis for the 115th in Mil­wau­kee is on rid­ing. There will be rides from four cor­ners of the United States to Mil­wau­kee, for ex­am­ple. [Once here], now we are shift­ing the em­pha­sis of the 115th en­tirely to par­tic­i­pa­tion in moto cul­ture—beach rac­ing on Lake Michi­gan, hill climb, an in­door flat track. We’re giv­ing peo­ple a rea­son to go to ev­ery area dealer to try the new prod­uct, and giv­ing peo­ple no rea­sons to sit down but to move about.

What do you think of when you hear “au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle”?

I think of things that have noth­ing to do with mo­tor­cy­cling. I think ba­sic trans­porta­tion. I think util­ity. I think bor­ing. I think com­mod­ity. I think nec­es­sary. I think inevitable.

What’s the ne­go­ti­a­tion be­tween all that and mo­tor­cy­cling?

Co­ex­is­tence with au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles be­cause peo­ple don’t ride motorcycles for trans­porta­tion, com­mod­ity, bore­dom, util­ity. It’s the an­ti­dote to all that, right?

Stu­dent debt, hous­ing costs, new ne­ces­si­ties, and pres­sure on peo­ple’s time.

All of these things are forces that are plac­ing eco­nomic pres­sure on peo­ple. When I was grow­ing up, I didn’t have an $800 phone and a $100-a-month data plan. These things are ne­ces­si­ties now. So there’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion for the money, whether it’s cost of hous­ing or lower wages or things that peo­ple need that they didn’t used to need, and there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion for peo­ple’s time.

How “big data” on rid­ers will drive Har­ley-david­son’s fu­ture plan­ning.

The mo­tor­cy­cle and car in­dus­try —think Polk and IHS Markit—are en­tirely fo­cused on the ma­chine view of the world. How many Har­leys in op­er­a­tion, how many cars, used cars, new cars, right? It is use­ful in­for­ma­tion but not suf­fi­cient given that we need to un­der­stand what rid­ers are do­ing. How are they en­ter­ing the sport? New, used, this brand, that brand, this size, that size? How are they par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sport? How long are they own­ing their first bike? Are they adding to their fleet or de-fleet­ing? Where are they de­mo­graph­i­cally when they’re do­ing these things? We have ac­cu­mu­lated and ag­gre­gated a lot of data as­sets. And it’s a strate­gic ad­van­tage for us be­cause we now have a rider-mi­gra­tion knowl­edge base—we don’t know your name, but we know your de­mo­graph­ics— we know ex­actly how many motorcycles you’ve bought and sold from 2000 to to­day. It’s a lit­tle bit more of a long-term vi­sion, but it helps us in the mind­set shift from bikes to peo­ple. And I’m ex­cited about that be­cause that’s what this is about. This is a peo­ple busi­ness, and this is a sport busi­ness. And, of course, we are in the ma­chine busi­ness too. But when we un­der­stand [rid­ers], we un­der­stand bet­ter how to chan­nel our en­ergy.

What would 1994 Matt Levatich tell 2018 Matt Levatich?

Take noth­ing for granted. Now more than ever, you have to be great at ev­ery­thing you do, and you have to be on your toes, on your front foot, ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing: Is it good enough? Be­cause to­mor­row it might not be. Ev­ery­thing’s mov­ing so fast. Would I have been that crys­tal-clear on that in 2015 tak­ing over as CEO? That’s much nearer [than 1994 Levatich], and no, no I wouldn’t have. Am I clear about it now? Yes, I am. At the end of the day, it goes right back to what this com­pany has al­ways been: great prod­ucts en­gi­neered, man­u­fac­tured, and dis­trib­uted to cre­ate a mar­ket­place for some­thing you know peo­ple don’t re­ally need. Even back then [in the early days of Har­ley-david­son], maybe there was more of a need in 1912 or some­thing, but pretty quickly, once the Ford Model T came along, mo­tor­cy­cling be­came a sport. And sport needs pas­sion. Sport needs in­spi­ra­tion. Sport needs cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion.

Levatich is a die-hard rider and owner of four bikes: a 2018 Fat Bob, 2014 Sof­tail Slim, 2012 XR1200X, and 2017 Road Glide Spe­cial.

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