Revving the engine

How local resident Keith Wandell steered Harley-Davidson back to hog heaven and repositioned the iconic motorcycle manufacturer for a bright future.

Story by Eddy Hoyle

Harley-Davidson is an iconic symbol of personal freedom and independence with a legacy that typified the ability to rebel. Keith Wandell came on board as president, CEO and chairman of Harley Davidson, Inc. in 2009 in the aftermath of the economic meltdown of 2008 that hit Harley-Davidson hard. He was hired to turn things around, and he recognized that Harley-Davidson as a company had grown up catering to white, middle-aged men, who saw themselves as part of a tough culture.

“It was a good-ole boy culture and I was the first outsider to lead Harley-Davidson,” Wandell said. “From a marketing and cultural perspective, we needed to change the culture but not lose all that made the company great. I had meetings with the board, with the management and with the employees to introduce myself and talk about the need to turn things around, and all I heard was, ‘You don’t understand the company. You’re not a biker.’”

“The only reason I’m not a biker is because of your arrogance,” he responded each time. Then he told them a story about his personal experience when he went to a dealership a few years earlier to purchase a Harley. He walked in and was totally ignored. Dressed in khakis and a golf shirt, he didn’t give the right vibe or the right look. When he finally approached a sales person and said he was interested in buying a bike, the response was a disrespectful smirk. “Is there a problem?” Wandell asked. The sales rep responded by saying, “Oh, you’re serious? Well, the best I can do is put you on a waiting list.” There were plenty of motorcycles at the dealership.

“I had great respect for the legacy of this 107-year-old company and didn’t want to demean it, so I asked each group, ‘What are we doing today that would preclude us from being great in the next 50 years?’ That got them to think about a new vision,” Wandell said.

Keith Wandell helped change the customer culture at Harley-Davidson by embracing electric technology and making the 107-year-old company more inclusive to younger people, females, minorities and foreign markets.

His vision was to institute new marketing initiatives that would expand and change the customer culture. Wandell wanted to make Harley-Davidson more inclusive by marketing to younger people, females, Hispanics and African Americans and to strengthen global marketing. He also intended to diversify the company internally.

“When I came on board in 2009, Harley-Davidson was only $17 per share with a $3.5 billion market cap. Five years later the market cap was $16 billion. Therefore, we created $13 billion of shareholder value by doing this,” Wandell said.

Two examples are the introduction of the LiveWire motorcycle in 2014, the first electric motorcycle which interests a younger demographic that is interested in technology; and holding female-only garage parties at Harley dealerships where women wouldn’t feel intimidated and could be taught how to ride.

Wandell leads by example and has chaired the National Minority Supplier Development Council. “We can pass laws and social legislation, and it will have an impact, but the change coming from an economic impact will be 10 times greater. African Americans are 13 or 14 percent of the population, but less than 1.5 percent of revenues of our supply base are from minority firms,” he stated. “I’m involved with this Council for reasons I believe deeply in.”

In addition, for the past decade Wandell has partnered with the Ohio State University football program as a mentor to former OSU athletes who went on to the NFL and want to transition from professional sports into the business community. “Their whole lives have been in sports, and they haven’t been coached in the business environment. Most are African Americans, and all are OSU alumni. I help them find their way into business and become successful. I help people achieve their goals in life. That’s what real leaders do,” Wandell said.

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