By Jim Mackinnon
Beacon Journal business writer
The president of Harley-Davidson Inc. arrived at Rubber City Harley-Davidson in style: riding on a just-released, significantly retooled, large touring motorcycle, the Ultra Limited.
Matt Levatich rumbled into the Cuyahoga Falls dealership early Monday evening with a small group, some 700 miles into a trip that started in Boston and ended at Harley’s Milwaukee headquarters to take part in the company’s 110th anniversary celebration this weekend. Some 100,000 people are expected at the event.
The iconic motorcycle company with its loyal, devoted customers has good reason to celebrate. Sales are improving after the depths of the Great Recession and as Harley-Davidson decided it had to transform how it designed and made its motorcycles.
Harley created what it calls the Project Rushmore product development process. The new Ultra Limited motorcycle Levatich was riding this past week is among the first examples of the process, design and technology changes the company is making. (Base retail price for the top-of-the-line bike: $25,899.)
“We’re very proud of Rushmore for what it represents for our transformation of product development,” said Levatich, who is also the company’s chief operating officer. “But more importantly, we really nailed it with our customers. They’re loving it.”
The first Rushmore bikes were introduced at the company’s annual dealers conference Aug. 17 in Denver, Colo., with the new models shipped to stores shortly afterward.
“The 2014 models have created a lot of traffic,” said Mike Davis, owner of Rubber City Harley-Davidson and two other Harley dealerships in Ohio. Davis attended the unveiling of the new motorcycles in Denver.
“There was more of a buzz than in any of my 10 years as a dealer,” he said. “We don’t see things in advance.”
The 2014 models, particularly the large touring bikes, are selling out at his dealerships almost as fast as they come in, he said.
Davis opened Rubber City Harley-Davidson in August 2012 after buying and remodeling the former Circuit City store in Cuyahoga Falls. Davis earlier in 2012 purchased the former Liberty Harley dealership in Akron then renamed and relocated it.
“We’re having a good year at all three of our stores,” Davis said. “The season started off slow. We made up a lot of ground.”
This was Levatich’s first visit to the Akron area and to the Rubber City dealership. He was able to visit about two dealerships a day on the ride out to Milwaukee. The Rubber City visit had a party atmosphere, with loud music playing and a catered barbecue meal being served in the parking lot to customers and staff. Levatich said he liked what he saw.
Davis said Levatich told him he was impressed by the store staff, all of whom he said looked him in the eye and were friendly and engaging. “I thought it was a great compliment,” Davis said.
Harley-Davidson is doing fine, Levatich said.
“It’s been a tough four years after the downturn of ’08, ’09,” he said. “We put together a strategy [Rushmore] that really focused on what we need to be great at as a company [in] manufacturing, product development and retail.”
Harley-Davidson in July said it expects to ship between 259,000 to 264,000 motorcycles this year, up 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent from a year ago. Harley worldwide sales were 249,800 in 2012, 235,200 in 2011, 222,100 in 2010 and 242,600 in 2009. Revenue and profit are up as well this year from the same period in 2012.
And now Harley has high hopes its first Project Rushmore bikes will continue boosting finances.
Levatich said the Rushmore-developed changes include water cooling for some of the big touring engines, linked anti-lock braking, more comfortable seats, and infotainment systems with integrated GPS that let people keep their eyes on the road and hands on the handlebars.
Project Rushmore also is significant because it represents the first products to emerge out of Harley-Davidson’s retooled and “disciplined” product development process that speeds up the time it takes to bring a product to market, Levatich said. The process involves closely listening to what customers say they need and want as well, he said.
“So, Rushmore is the first bike that really encompasses all of that customer-led input on what they are really looking for from Harley,” he said.
It took the company three years to do all of this, Levatich said. Under Harley’s previous methodology, it would have taken five years and more money, he said.
Rushmore shows that Harley-Davidson is back on solid footing and poised for growth, he said.
Harley-Davidson will be introducing more changes in upcoming years, he said.
“We have a pipeline full of great products,” Levatich said. “It’s got 30 percent more products on it than in 2009. And that’s the benefit of getting really disciplined in product development. A pipeline of exciting, on-the-money products is coming. So, stay tuned.”
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.