The news was both predictable and shocking. On February 28, 2020, Harley-Davidson announced that CEO Matt Levatich was stepping down from his leadership role. I say predictable because the company is facing some of its worst financial results since the 2009 recession. I say shocking because we thought (hoped?) that Levatich still had a few tricks up his sleeves. For the Motor Company, however, the time for tricks had passed. It was time for dramatic measures.
While Levatich has been a devoted Harley-Davidson pack leader for over a quarter of a century, he faced an uphill battle from the moment he was named CEO in May 2015. When former CEO Keith Wandell retired, Levatich had big shoes to fill. Wandell was the leader that had seen Harley through the recession and managed to raise the company back up to its pre-depression glory. When Wandell stepped down and Levatich stepped in, the market got nervous and both the company’s shares and sales significantly dropped.
Despite Levatich’s best efforts and his long-term strategy for the company that includes more electric models and an aggressive offense on the Asian market, the company never truly recovered from the change in leadership. The sales have been gradually sliding since 2016.
Of course, we can’t pin it all on Levatich. He also had a board to answer to and the decisions weren’t his alone. Part of me feels sorry that this is the price that needed to be paid to give the historical brand a chance but, ultimately, I think the company was in dire need of a fresh start.
With all due respect to what Levatich has accomplished, when you spend over 25 years proudly bearing the H-D flag, I can only assume that it can be hard to come up with the innovative ideas required to reinvent the brand—at least not as fast as this brand needs it. As reported by director Jason who attended the LiveWire launch event, Levatich’s disconnected and almost confusing presentation of the model supports that theory. I don’t think even he quite understood what needed to be done to breathe life back into the brand. We might be harsh on Harley, more than on any other brand, but ultimately, it’s because we’re rooting for the Black and Orange. We’d like to see it get out of the comfort of its cult following and dare a little more.
Now, I’ve never been a CEO and I’ve never had to turn things around for a company before so I can only imagine what sort of pressure has now been placed on Jochen Zeitz’s shoulders—albeit temporarily. While only an interim until the board agrees on a permanent replacement, Zeitz could have the chops Harley needs to change its luck.
After all, we’re talking about the guy who, in 1993, at the age of 30, became CEO of Puma and managed to turn a brand on the brink of bankruptcy into a thriving sport apparel brand. He then acted as Chief Sustainability Officer for Kering, the conglomerate that eventually bought Puma. During his time with Puma and Kering, his sustainability initiatives helped propel the companies forward and double the value of their shares on the stock market.
He now runs the B Team non-profit organization alongside Virgin’s magnate Richard Branson and sits on the boards of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Cranemere, and of course, Harley-Davidson. Not only that but Levatich also identified him as one of the biggest supporters of the LiveWire project. He has been on the Harley-Davidson board since 2007. Doesn’t this interim CEO sound heaven-sent?
The fact that he had the vision to revive a struggling company at 30 years old alone is impressive. According to an interview with Wired, his vision of success combines sustainability with growth—something that’s deeply rooted in his progressive upbringing.
"It's a question of what we grow and how we grow, and how we can reduce our impact significantly and still grow. We have to grow within planetary boundaries," he told the interviewer. This is the kind of vision and discourse that has the potential to appeal to the younger audience Harley is so dire to seduce.
It’s hard to tell whether or not the company can be saved at all—I hope it can—but if it’s not too late to turn things around, he looks like the right guy for the job. His talk of sustainability could definitely be the breath of fresh air the company needs. Considering Millenials and young riders are more connected and more environmentally conscious than ever before, I think Zeitz’s approach could be the one that makes things “click” between the highly-coveted “youth” and the historical brand. Whether modern and old-school ideas can coexist to ensure current Harlista’s loyalty while also attracting new faces, however, is a bit up in the air. I think they can but what do I know.
We can’t say for sure how long Zeitz will be at the helm of Harley or whether he’ll officially get the job—provided he’s interested in it at all—but I’d love to see what he can do for Harley. With the stocks suffering a dramatic drop following Levatich’s departure, he sure has his work cut out for him.