Accelerating the Dream
In remembrance of Bruce Rossmeyer we are re-running our story and interview on "Accelerating the Dream" from back in 2006... “People don't just buy the motorcycle. They buy the myth,” so says Bruce Rossmeyer, Harley-Davidson's big man in America, with 11 dealerships established over the last 10 years, and number one in total revenues with approximately $200 million.
He also understands that Harley's brand equity does not necessarily guarantee loyalty. “The customer today is more upscale, more demanding, and has more choices than ever. They won't let us ride on our name alone. So we have to constantly think of new ways to connect with them.”
Rossmeyer has long recognized the power of market forces. “When I first got into the industry, I saw a lot of dealers stuck in an old-school mentality. They were basically garages and repair shops that sold a few bikes here and there, and were either ignorant or dismissive of retailing ideas, such as being sales-driven and customer-focused.”
The selling of the myth is a key factor in Harley-Davidson's success. “Other companies build cruisers that are technically good machines. But Harley's not about the technology—it's about the way you feel. And people who only dream of riding a bike, dream about a Harley.” As expounded in Willie G. Davidson's weighty official tome, 100 Years of Harley-Davidson, the company has used its blend of selective historical reverence and populist brand evangelism to secure and expand its base.
Rossmeyer acts upon this premise, taking a thorough, marketing-driven approach. He sees the company's past struggles as resulting in net progress. “Harley had to improve the product and its way of doing business; and it has, most definitely. In the late '90s, you couldn't get a Harley. Some retailers took advantage of that. On the other hand, the exclusivity kept resale values up. This allowed us to offer financing for motorcycles, which was once unthinkable, and that helped release a pent-up desire for the product and led to improved cash flow. Now, as the demand grows, we're able to fill it, and pricing has come back to reality.” Rossmeyer knows H-D's image has indisputably moved beyond the parochial view of biker-as-outlaw. “We're responding to mainstream clients who easily invest from $30,000 to over $200,000 in their passions.”
One aspect of that response is H-D's diversification into merchandising that surpasses even Ferrari's similarly vast brand elaborations. “Harley-Davidson is an American icon, and people want to own a part of it. And besides, how many motorcycle companies have a 100-year history?”
A uniquely spectacular motorcycle environment called “Destination Daytona”, the pinnacle of Rossmeyer's strategy, is to leverage the legend like no dealer has done until now. Covering 150 acres north of Daytona Beach, Florida, Rossmeyer's new complex features a 109,000-square-foot two-story steel-and-glass dealership and retail center, state-of-the-industry ser-vice facility with panoramic windows, and a forthcoming motorcycle museum.The result is an almost overwhelming “Harley World”, where the visitor is awash in waves of shining Hogs and floor-to-ceiling Harley products of every possible grade. Smartly turned out—albeit with the anticipated biker ponytails and body jewelry—sales associates in Harley black-and-orange invite you to indulge.
Future plans include a food court, 100-room hotel/condominium, restaurants, bars, two nightclubs, a concert pavilion, helicopter pad, luxury RV sites and a new campus for the American Motorcycle Institute College. Says Rossmeyer, “Destination Daytona represents where the brand has been, where it is today, and where it's going.”Rossmeyer's own passion for the brand is evident. An avid rider, his stores are graced by Harleys from his personal collection. Destination Daytona's array includes a 1914 “Silent Grey Fellow”, a 1941 US Army model, a 1951 three-wheeled Servi-car, a retro-look 1993 FLTSC with sidecar, and a dizzying selection of customs. His favorite is a unique signed-and-numbered black-and-silver 100th Anniversary Ultra Glide.
Harley's pedigree is a powerful draw. “Almost as much of my revenue comes from merchandise as from bike sales,” Rossmeyer observes. His stores use the “shop-in-shop” layout to induce the customer to seamlessly browse the entire range. Walk in looking for chrome engine covers, and you'll leave with shopping bagfuls of Harley stuff you just can't do without.
He readily acknowledges the influence of big department stores, citing Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus. Rossmeyer even offers his own co-branded major credit card. There is a touch of Stanley Marcus in the man—that same joy in minding the store. “We want people to step inside the Harley experience. For the grown-ups, it's like Halloween. Put on Harley gear and you're instantly a ‘bad dude' or ‘biker chick'. If the little boy or girl, whose parents buy them Harley pajamas, dreams someday of owning a bike, well, God bless 'em.” Rossmeyer wants to accelerate the dream. “I've watched the audience grow and change tremendously in just ten years. If we're ready to reach out, there's a whole new generation out there that when it matures, will step up to the brand.”
The increasingly important female demographic has not escaped him. “That is probably our single most important area of growth. Women now make up close to 20-percent of our customers,” he adds. “They're not the ‘babes on the back' anymore. They're riding dressers and putting the men to shame.” He knows first hand—daughter Shelly, who manages the Destination Daytona store, rides her chopper to work daily.
Lest one might think Rossmeyer would use his marketing heft to influence the product, he takes a “You build 'em, I'll sell 'em” attitude. “The company knows we need to attract people who wouldn't normally look at a Harley. Take the V-Rod. It raised a lot of eyebrows in our own constituency and got attention from consumers who hadn't been thinking about us. Now there's a range of V-Rod based models. Is that where Harleys of the future will be going? We need to do things like the V-Rod to find out.” He salutes Harley's current involvement in racing with National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) champion Vance & Hines Screaming Eagle V-Rod-based dragster. “Just as NASCAR has really captured the mainstream American consumer, we feel NHRA is also about to break through. That will bring us a whole new Harley enthusiast.”
His core business remains the cruiser and chopper owners, and their insatiable appetite for customization. Rossmeyer sees no signs of the trend tailing off. He has no issues with the one-offs. “The custom builders have been really good for us, because they've shown how far you can take your bike to totally personalize it. Their creativity pushes us to become more creative. We've built customs for everyone from [basketball star] Shaquille O'Neal to [rock star] Steven Tyler.” His alliance with the daddy of custom builders, Arlen Ness, is further proof. Apart from Willie G., “Arlen has probably done more for the Harley image than any other single person in the world,” Rossmeyer observes. Their joint venture will be showcased in Destination Daytona.
For Rossmeyer, constant grassroots marketing is essential. He deploys squads of motorcycle mechanics, at his own expense, to Harley meets from Sturgis to Laconia. At a different end of the spectrum, members of his eponymous Bruce Rossmeyer's Cycle and Cigar Club enjoy VIP status at ongoing events. Being a good cor-porate citizen, he engages in ongoing pro-social activities. Rossmeyer enlists celebrities and other significant persons for initiatives such as Camp Boggy Creek, co-founded with Paul Newman to help seriously ill children, as well as the Boys & Girls Clubs. “Nobody does more for charities than bikers,” he adds. “And by educating young people about motorcycles, I can't think of a better way to build the future for them, and for us."