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Maintaining Harley-Davidson's allure

Harley-Davidson CEO James Ziemer

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a sound coming out of Stugis, South Dakota this week. Goes something like this:

[ Sound of Harley engine ]

Now imagine half a million motorcycles in the same small town all at once. Not all of them will sound like that of course, the distinctive Harley Davidson exhaust that brings us this week's Conversation from the Corner Office.

Jim Ziemer started working at Harley Davidson while he was still in college. He ran a freight elevator. Thirty years later he's moved up in the world. I met Ziemer in his office at Harley's plant in Milwaukee. He identifies with his customers, rides his brand new Harley to work when the weather's nice. And the day we spoke was wearing a work shirt with a big Harley patch over the breast pocket.

JIM ZIEMER: The membership of the Harley owners group is currently over a million members. Starting out in 1983, when we first founded it, so it was zero at that time, so it's grown substantially.

RYSSDAL:Who are they? Are they lawyers and doctors with a little spare tire around the middle who want to capture some lost youth, or are they the younger riders who are riding Harleys to be the bad boy?

ZIEMER: Our hog membership does the whole gamut. They're kind of the same demographics we have in Harley Davidson. That's 15% of them are under 35, and average household income is about $80,000 a year. But it goes the whole breadth. I mean, our bikes sell from $6,500 to more than $20,000.

RYSSDAL: How does that line up with what I think is probably the public perception of Harley Davidson, which is a little bit of the inner rebel getting out there when you ride a Harley?

ZIEMER: Part of managing the brand is what it's about, and some of the edge that people think about, has been brought to the brand through our customers, and not so much by us. We have some pretty strict standards, but some of the people certainly think, when they pull up to a stop line, they're thinking that they've got the leather jackets on, that they're the tough person that maybe they're not at home or at business someplace. So it's kind of something that comes along.

RYSSDAL: When business school students study branding, one of the names that's always at the top of that list right next to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Xerox is Harley Davidson. I'd like you to tell me, first of all, in your mind, what is it that makes a brand?

ZIEMER: A brand is made when a person really feels a connection with that brand. I mean we've taken it probably to the ultimate where a lot of our customers have a tattoo on their body so they really feel very special and connected with the brand. People have to feel like it's a member of the family, when you really strong feel connection with that brand

RYSSDAL: Do you ever get complaints from some of the old time Harley guys, that the company isn't what it used to be, and you're selling out to the lawyers and the doctors?

ZIEMER: There's no doubt that Harley Davidson means many different things to many different people. There are some people that say, "We wish we had the old days." But they're few and far between. Actually most people enjoy the good days. I mean, the days today with the new products and the many things that we have to offer.

RYSSDAL: Tell me about the exhaust sound on a Harley Davidson. You guys work on that, don't you?

ZIEMER: We truly have a unique sound that comes from the way the engine is engineered and the exhaust. At the same time, I'm very careful to say, sound, almost to me it's music; I'm not talking about noise. We are compliant with all the regulations out there, and sometimes as regulations get tougher, people want some louder sound, which is not good for the motorcycle sport in general.

RYSSDAL: Do you work on your own bikes?

ZIEMER: Somewhat less than I used to. My last bike, about a decade ago, about 10 years ago, I did completely take apart and had the parts chromed, had the engine redone, and I had the whole bike repainted. So that was the last bike I took apart down to the last nut, and it probably took me about three years to put it back together.

RYSSDAL: Jim Ziemer is the CEO of Harley Davidson. Mr. Ziemer, thanks a lot for your time.

ZIEMER: Oh, thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

Jim Ziemer

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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