Some motorcycle enthusiasts feared Keith Wandell might be the outsider who drove Harley-Davidson into the ground. Instead, he may be remembered as the guy who kept the motorcycle maker on the road.
Wandell grabbed the handlebars at the motorcycle maker in the heart of the economic crisis in 2009. Harley lost $55 million that year, as buying a motorcycle stopped being an option for many consumers.
“We had to make, quickly, some big, bold, decisions,” he said in a recent interview.
Wandell was the first CEO from outside Harley, so those decisions were watched closely. Not all were well-received. He got the union’s approval to use temporary workers, which enabled Harley to time its production closer to the peak bike-buying season, saving time and money. He relied less on middle-aged men in the U.S. to buy the bikes. And he focused the company on doing what many say it does best: making big, powerful, premium-priced Harleys. But that meant getting rid of some popular secondary brands.
The company made $624 million last year, the best annual profit since 2008. It also boosted profit by 30 percent in this year’s first quarter, compared to the same period in 2012. With lower costs and more efficient production, analysts say Harley is in a good position to grow as the global economy improves and in better shape to weather any future downturn.