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.