Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Embrace of the Futile

So of course nothing will come from this, but I decided it seemed almost immoral to just sit here crying in my Diet Coke and not at least speak out. So here's what I mailed out to the President of Harley-Davidson:


Mr. Keith Wandell
CEO, Harley-Davidson Motor Company
3700 W. Juneau Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53208

Dear Mr. Wandell,

You are doubtless a very busy man, so I hope you will forgive me the indulgence of five minutes of your time.

I'm writing to protest the closure of the Buell Motorcycle Company.

I've been an avid motorcycle rider for 35 years. I've owned a dozen bikes, including, in the last 15 years, three BMWs and three Hondas. My last two bikes have been Buells.

I admire Harley-Davidson. I admire the company's marketing savvy and success in producing a distinct brand image, and in garnering an intense, worldwide loyalty to that brand. But--and I intend no disrespect--there is a huge body of riders in this country and elsewhere who, for whatever reason, will never be Harley owners. Harley-Davidson owns a certain swath of motorcycling real estate, but there a lot of other philosophical ways to be a biker than the niche which H-D so skillfully fills. When I went to replace my last BMW in 2006, I had a difficult time going to a Harley-Davidson dealership to look at the Buells; such is the gulf that separates me, and others like me, from H-D's piece of the motorcycling pie. But I went, and I looked, and I test drove. And I bought. And now I've bought again.

It is a testament to the solidity of Erik Buell's ideas and to the strength of his dream that he has succeeded in building from scratch the only mainstream sport-based motorcycle company in this country. And it's not just a marketing triumph: the machinery itself is so brilliant as to be transformative. His ideas--both the engineering principles, like the Trilogy of Tech, and his more general ideas about what makes a successful and engaging motorcycle--come brilliantly, almost magically, alive in the flesh. It's not stretching the point to say that from humble, garage-racer beginnings Erik Buell has built up a small but vital concern that is changing the world of motorcycling. Harley-Davidson is going forward with its own agenda, but Buell is working--and beginning to have a real impact--in worlds far flung from H-D's. Erik Buell has made a small line of models that give a credible challenge to the likes of BMW and KTM and Moto-Guzzi and the Big Four from Japan. All from two small buildings in East Troy, WI! Now with the new Rotax-built Helicon motor, and with a new high-profile success at the racetrack, Buell is poised for another great leap forward. This is simply an extraordinary story.

I know nothing about financial matters. Certainly, I'm in the dark about Buell's business numbers. And if the BMC is a drain on the resources of its parent company during difficult economic times, then it's understandable that something must be done. But no one has made the case that Buell is a financial burden; only that they are held to be a "distraction" from H-D's core concerns. But is this really the case? From the outside, Buell appears to run quite independently. (I make my living as an airline pilot, so doubtless much is incomprehensible to me). Regardless, pulling the plug on the company altogether is surely not the only option. It's said that it will cost Harley-Davidson millions of dollars to shut Buell down; could this money not be spent separating Buell out from H-D to make it an independent or saleable concern? It is inconceivable to me that buyers are not even now waiting in the wings. And if Buell is not a serious drain on Harley-Davidson's resources, I would be mortified to learn it was being sacrificed in pursuit of a favorable balance-sheet transaction or as a roll of the dice in search of a share price boost. The death of the company as a cost of such a maneuver seems unconscionable.

I don't know Erik Buell, but I know a bit of his truly remarkable story. Harley-Davidson has played a key role in that story, helping bring the BMC from garage tinkering to a serious concern: I believe at last count Buell has sold somewhere North of 135,000 motorcycles worldwide. To end the experiment now and in this way is such an avoidable and unnecessary tragedy. Erik Buell and his company--and his legion of devoted customers; indeed, motorcycling itself--deserve better than this. I implore you to work to find a solution that does justice to Erik Buell and to the company that bears his name.


Bil Stachour, etc., etc.

I don't even expect more than a form-letter response, but if I get one I will post it here.


This article makes me think I might have been more emphatic.

1 comment:

Andrew Murrey said...

Very Excellent Letter. BFFB