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Industry Leaders: Sheldon Coleman – April 24, 2006

April 24, 2006
Filed under Features

For quite a while, Sheldon Coleman lived in the corporate world of forecast budgeting and long-term strategizing. So it’s more than a little bit ironic that the former head of Coleman, the huge recreation products company, would get caught up in a market-driven industry.
“This deal never came out of any spectacular building plan,” said Coleman, the founder and president of Big Dog Motorcycles, Wichita, Kan., the No. 2 manufacturer of V-twin motorcycles in the United States. “This was really the market pulling us along, or me along originally.”
Coleman unknowingly began Big Dog when he hired a Harley-Davidson mechanic to work out of his Wichita garage. Coleman eventually purchased the parts to make a classic-looking cruiser “with extra power and extra flash.”
“A friend of mine said, ‘That’s cool. Can you build me one?’” Coleman recalled. “Three factories later, the market still pulls us along and tells us what to do.”
Big Dog has become the No. 2 manufacturer of V-twin motorcycles in the United States. The company continues to forecast growth, looking forward to building its 20,000th motorcycle and naming its 100th dealership this year.
What’s the biggest challenge for the on-road motorcycle industry and what should be done about it?
“I go to the relationship of the product to the consumer, which drives the whole package …. All of us have to make sure that we have product and price points and styling and reliability that deliver to the consumer to satisfy and exceed their expectations.… In general, particularly in the Big Dog Motorcycle world and the heavy cruiser world, we’re talking about a recreational product. We just have to make sure that we keep in step and in touch with what the consumer needs and what the consumer demands.”
What’s been the biggest challenge in your current position and how have you dealt with it?
“The thing for a small company that is now getting more entrenched and a more meaningful size it really comes down to blending reliability with providing the styling the consumer is demanding. … We’re very focused on what the consumer is looking for in styling. The reliability issue is a much longer road for any manufacturer to conquer. The supply chain has to be immaculate. It takes a long time to sort through who can be a good supplier to us and who can’t …­ Who can grow with you and provide the quality in our supply base so we can improve our reliability. As well as improving and staffing our engineering operations to be able to really take care of the details and design in the reliability the first time.
“What we’ve done (to address the challenge of designing new product) is we’ve beefed the heck out of our engineering operation. That’s been our biggest growth (human resource) area. … It’s been very expensive, but it has to be there.”
What’s the best advice you can give to others in the industry?
“The industry has had a slowdown and it’s been an interesting year. … My comments to the world would be the sky is not falling. These things are part of normal business cycles ….
“(When consumers)?take a break for awhile, it actually creates more pent-up demand. When they turn back to you because they have their car payments under control or whatever that is, that pent-up demand actually comes back in spades. But you have to be patient. You have to batten down the hatches. And you have to wait for the cycle to turn. We are in a great industry. It has a tremendous future.”

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