Jeff Bleustein is Powersports 2003 Executive of the Year
April 19, 2004
Filed under Features
EDITOR’S NOTE: Powersports Business magazine annually honors the top business executives in the powersports industry for their performance as business executives and as industry leaders. The editors and staff of Powersports Business believe many powersports businesses are among the best run in this country and that the leadership exhibited by the executives in these companies should be recognized and their approaches identified.
Powersports Business has named Jeffrey Bleustein, chairman and CEO of Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company, as its powersports industry Executive of the Year for 2003. The magazine also has selected four business leaders as recipients of its prestigious annual Leadership Award.
Bleustein was selected for guiding Harley-Davidson, Inc., to an eighteenth straight year of record earnings at the same time that the company celebrated its 100th Anniversary. The special anniversary event drew more than 250,000 persons to the Milwaukee, Wis., area and generated an estimated $135 million for the region.
Past winners include Fred Fox, founder and chairman of LeMans Corp., Ray Blank, vice president of American Honda, and Tom Tiller, president and CEO of Polaris Industries.
Powersports Business also named four executives as recipients of its prestigious annual Leadership Award. The award recognizes outstanding performance by business executives from companies throughout the industry, including OEMs, aftermarket manufacturers, distributors and dealers. Industry leaders are selected based upon their performance for their organization and their contribution to the powersports industry. Leaders are recognized for their innovation, aggressiveness, business growth, and marketshare gains.
The winners this year are: Rod Lopusnak, motorcycle/ATV marketing manager, American Suzuki Motor Corp.; Bob Starr, corporate communications manager, Yamaha Motor Corp., Cypress, Calif.; Christopher A. Twomey, Chairman, President and CEO of Arctic Cat, Inc., Thief River Falls, Minn., and Clark J. Vitulli, Chairman, President and CEO, of America’s PowerSports, Inc., Brentwood, Tenn. psb
Under the leadership of Jeff Bleustein, chairman and CEO of Harley-Davidson, Inc., the Milwaukee motorcycle maker, has posted great numbers and at the same time has pulled off one of the biggest single corporate events in powersports history, its 100th Anniversary party.
For his outstanding performance as a business executive and industry leader, Bleustein has been selected by Powersports Business magazine as the industry’s top executive for 2003.
Bleustein was one of 13 executives who participated in a leveraged buyout of Harley-Davidson from AMF in 1981 and who helped guide the company through those first difficult years.
“We went into one of the worst periods in U.S. motorcycle history,” Bleustein recalled recently, “and sales dropped to about one third of what they had been. A lot of difficult decisions had to be made.”
The company had to be sharply downsized in order to survive, and nearly half of the Harley work force was slashed. “It was very difficult, very painful, a very difficult time for everybody.”
But there were lessons learned that carry through to today’s operations at the giant motorcycle maker.
“What we did,” says Bleustein, “was share information with everybody — the union, the suppliers, the dealers — we told them what the real situation was.”
The struggle continued, with modest progress each year, through the end of 1985 that included a last minute dramatic move to dodge a bankruptcy on New Year’s eve, and then the company went public with its IPO the next year.
Bleustein, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, is an entrepreneur at heart, even though he headed Harley’s engineering department through 1984. At that time, he was charged with digging up additional revenue sources.
He soon spotted an opportunity to purchase a company that was building a three-wheel car, and he was named president of Trihawk, Inc., a Harley subsidiary. “It was really a neat vehicle,” he says, noting that his teenage sons loved using the prototypes to pick up girls. Once motorcycle sales began popping, Harley dropped the car.
However, Bleustein wasn’t finished with his entreprenurial activities — he was instrumental in pushing the purchase of a sportbike designed and built by Eric Buell, the forerunner of Harley’s Buell bike family.
Bleustein moved up the management ranks and was named president and COO in 1993, CEO in 1997 and board chairman in 1998.
Looking back on Harley’s success, Bleustein says one of the main keystones has evolved from those tough times 20 years ago. “Part of our strength,” he says, “is that we have a very participatory decision-making culture.” That culture started with the buyout when the 13 investors had to talk through tough decisions, and it was formalized as the company prospered. Employees were empowered as work groups to make decisions affecting their operations.
“The real key,” says Bleustein, “is to work on creating an environment where people can flourish, can feel ownership in the operations of the business, and where everyone can think like an owner. That made a big difference, as I look back on my own career. I thought I was a pretty good professional manager at AMF, but it really made a difference — having that feeling of ownership. And you would like to have people feel that way, if you can.”
Bleustein says, “If you can let that passion come through and turn them loose, show them where we are going, and tell them the values and issues to be focused on, people will do amazing things.”
Bleustein has been able to generate that passion and involvement with the company’s unions and suppliers as well as its dealers.
“One of our five (corporate) values,” he says, “is based upon respect for the individual. (That means) not only respect for the person but respect for the institutions that represent those people.”
While Harley is in good shape today, Bleustein sees a wave of low-priced imports heading for the U.S. from China, very similar to the way foreign imports flooded the market 40 years ago.
“There will be winners and losers in that,” he says, “but there will be a whole new group of young people getting into the sport who couldn’t afford it before.” psb