"In times of drastic change, it is the learners who will inherit the earth. The learned will be perfectly positioned for a world that no longer exists." Swarthmore College’s 2009 Lax Conference’s keynote speaker Richard Teerlink started his presentation with this quote from Eric Hoffer.
Teerlink led Harley-Davidson’s fabled turnaround, fueled in part by his belief that people are the most important resource in any company. Teerlink was CFO, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Harley-Davidson during the time it went from the stepchild of a public company to private ownership by 13 managers carrying $40 million of debt to its reemergence as a public darling again.
How did they do it? At the time of HD’s privatization, the Japanese dominated the motorcycle industry, and HD’s board had to make some tough decisions: they laid off 40% of the workforce–all at once, Teerlink points out, so that fear would not weaken the remaining group; cut compensation of the rest of the employees; killed an expensive new development project; reduced their dealer network; asked suppliers for reductions; eliminated all the Senior Vice-Presidents so that responsibility would be pushed down further in the ranks, with more direct reporting to top management and fewer silos; and collaborated with employees, dealers and customers to enhance the HOG experience.
Teerlink says that as with all major shakeups HD made some dumb decisions but learned to reverse course quickly. An advertising campaign was launched that honestly acknowledged past weaknesses and promised owners a different experience. And the company delivered.
Teerlink emphasized to HD employees that they were not selling machinery, but an emotional experience, one that offered entertainment and a community. Thus the HOGS–Harley Owners Group–was born, with networking, social events and riding support (fly and ride, for example) offered nationwide.
The premise that "people are an organization’s only sustainable competitive advantage" drove Teerlink’s transformation of HD. His book, "More Than a Motorcycle: The Leadership Journey of Harley-Davidson," chronicles how he brought that premise into reality.
At a time when law firms are facing some of the most challenging marketing conditions of all time, we might do well to learn a few things from the people who brought us the HOGS.