Harley-Davidson president and CEO Matt Levatich steps down from company

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Matt Levatich

Harley-Davidson president and CEO Matt Levatich is stepping down from the company, ending his career of 26 years at the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles. 

The board of directors has appointed board member Jochen Zeitz as acting president and CEO, Harley said in a news release Friday afternoon.

Levatich will remain with the company through March, according to the news release. 

He departs the Milwaukee-based motorcycle maker as its shares have fallen 46% since he took charge in May 2015. 

Meanwhile, its bike sales in the U.S. dropped for a fifth straight year in 2019, covering most of his tenure as CEO. The company's global motorcycle shipments were the lowest since 2010. 

Levatich has emphasized a strategy of attracting new riders and launching new motorcycle models to reverse the sales declines. The company's recently introduced electric motorcycle, LiveWire, has been well-received by test riders but has yet to show any traction in the marketplace. 

Harley and other heavyweight motorcycle manufacturers have been caught between two customer demographic trends: Young people aren't widely embracing the big cruiser and touring bikes, and longtime riders are aging out of the sport.

Analysts have grown increasingly restless over the U.S. sales slump during one of the strongest economies in decades, and at least one has questioned whether the company should be put up for sale. 

Harley has pushed back with smaller and more versatile motorcycles aimed at attracting new customers, with several models coming out this year. It also has placed an emphasis on international sales.

The company said it ended 2019 with 3.1 million riders in the U.S., 55,000 more than in 2018. Under a plan launched in 2017, the goal is to have 4 million riders by the end of 2027.

"Clearly we have to pick up the pace to close that gap," Levatich said last month. 

Yet Harley also faces increased competition from the Indian motorcycle brand from Polaris Industries, a Medina, Minnesota-based manufacturer of motorcycles, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

"Indian has really stepped it up in its outreach to minority communities," said Robert Miranda, a member of the Latin American Motorcycle Association chapter in Milwaukee.

"I think Harley needs to have some vision and leadership in that area," said Miranda, a longtime Harley enthusiast. 

In the most recent earnings report, issued at the end of January, the company said U.S. sales fell for the 12th consecutive quarter, but it reported a rise in profit and said it remains focused on attracting new customers through smaller, more versatile bikes and electric motorcycles. 

“We see 2020 as the pivotal year," Levatich said in a statement accompanying the earnings report.

One analyst, Brian Yarbrough with Edward Jones Co., was blunt in his assessment of the company's performance: "These are declines on top of declines on top of declines. Years of declines," he said.

As part of the leadership change, Zeitz also was named chairman of the board and will remain chairman once a new CEO is appointed. Current chairman of the board Michael Cave is now presiding director.

A committee of the board will be formed and the company will use an outside firm to undertake the search for a new CEO, Harley said.

In the release, Zeitz said, "The Board and Matt mutually agreed that now is the time for new leadership at Harley-Davidson. Matt was instrumental in defining the More Roads to Harley-Davidson accelerated plan for growth, and we will look to new leadership to recharge our business."

Levatich was president and chief operating officer for six years before he was named CEO and president. Over 26 years at the company he has held positions of increasing responsibility in the United States and Europe, including general manager of the parts and accessories division and custom vehicle operations.

In a statement, Levatich said, "I am very fortunate to have spent many years with a company as revered as Harley-Davidson. The grit and determination of the employees and dealers and their passion for bringing our brand of freedom to people around the world has always been inspiring. I am proud of what we have achieved during my time as CEO, in one of the most challenging periods in our history, and I am confident that the progress we have made on the More Roads plan will position Harley-Davidson for long-term success."

Levatich could not be reached for comment.

Zeitz has been a member of the Harley-Davidson board of directors since 2007 and established the company's brand and sustainability committee. He served as chairman and CEO of the sporting goods company PUMA from 1993 to 2011. He was also PUMA's CFO from 1993 to 2005.

Zeitz served as a director of luxury goods company Kering (formerly PPR) from 2012 to 2016. He was a member of Kering's executive committee and CEO of its Sport & Lifestyle division from 2010 to 2012. Zeitz is also a board member of the Cranemere Group Limited and is on the board of The B Team, which he co-founded with Sir Richard Branson.

Levatich's departure from the company was announced after the market closed. Harley's shares closed down 2.2% at $30.47. The closing share price was down 18% for the year. 

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