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Suzuki’s American rebirth just getting started

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Tom Kaiser, Senior Editor
September 11, 2013
Filed under Features, Top Stories

Suzuki’s Rod Lopusnak on the reorganization, product plans and a new beginning

From the outside looking in, things at American Suzuki Motor Corporation appeared bleak during the depths of the Great Recession. No dealer meetings, staff layoffs, limited product introductions, cuts in the ad budget and an automotive division that was dragging the rest of the company below the waves all signaled trouble to the outside world. It was a dark time for the entire industry, but many watchers predicted that Suzuki would pull up stakes and abandon the American market altogether.

While the company’s auto business is strong in Japan and many emerging markets, its thin lineup and weak American dealer network proved too steep a hill for the company, which had been selling cars in the United States since the introduction of the 1986 Suzuki Samurai.

Following its Chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement last November, American Suzuki Motor Corporation officially exited the U.S. auto market, and ASMC was dissolved, with powersports assets sold to the newly organized Suzuki Motor of America, Inc.

Those inside the company, as well as its dealers, saw the news as the rebirth of a major powersports brand, while uncertainty and rumors continue to circulate among the enthusiast public.

This year, a string of impressive sales gains throughout SMAI’s portfolio have breathed new life into the company, and its recent announcement as a founding OEM participant at the inaugural American International Motorcycle Expo (AIMExpo) could serve as a welcome-back party for one of the cornerstone street and off-road manufacturers in the country.

Powersports Business recently spoke with SMAI’s Rod Lopusnak, general manager national sales, for his take on the company’s future opportunities, its biggest challenges and what’s ahead for the company.

PSB: How did the restructuring position Suzuki Motor of America Inc. for success?

Rod Lopusnak: Although we lost some of our peers on the auto side and it was sad to see Suzuki elect to stop selling cars in the U.S., for us on the motorcycle, ATV [and] marine side, it gives us a huge opportunity … a lot of factory support from Japan always went to the auto division. Now, when we need support — whether it’s advertising dollars or focus on new product development, anything that falls under the umbrella — our parent’s only talking to us now. We don’t have a brother trying to steal some of our food.

PSB: Other than losing the auto business, were there any other losses to your operation?

RL: No. The beautiful thing is since we solidified Suzuki Motor of America we’ve been adding people. We’ve reorganized our whole sales force; we’ve actually brought over a good amount of people from the auto division to the motorcycle division, so those are just added benefits. It’s been excellent. We’ve got more resources already, and it’s hard for anybody to see that immediately, but given time, they’re going to. Ultimately it gets down to the customer, and that’s what we all want. It will make the industry stronger, it will make Suzuki stronger, and that’s the key.

PSB: Where do you see the company’s future growth coming from?

RL: If you go back to 2006, our industry was at 1.8 million units, and now it’s settled down around 650,000 [units]. I think the industry as a whole has balanced out, and we’re definitely seeing growth so, honestly, across the board … we see growth everywhere.

PSB: Any segment in particular?

RL: It really goes across the board. Motocross, I still see us growing very strong there. Dual sport has been exceptional for us. I think with gas being … higher than the general public likes, it seems the dual sport does very well for us. What’s nice about our brand and lineup is we have some unique models that don’t compete directly with other brands, so it gives us a little bit of a monopoly for our dealers. Adventure touring, the V-Strom series, has done exceptionally well and I see a lot of future growth there. And, of course, our company DNA is the sport bike market, so I see us continuing to grow there as well. Last year we were up 21 percent in our ATVs.

PSB: What’s happening with your ATV lineup?

RL: Our KingQuad lineup’s doing really well. The QuadSport Z400 returned for 2012. There’s actually more demand than we have product right now, so we’re looking to increase production and fill some holes, but we want to do it cautiously. We want a nice, consistent, healthy growth instead of any big spikes. Another market that we’re going to see growth in is the kids market for ATV. Because of all the lead issues, we’ve seen that really go away, so you’re starting to see it really pick up across the board. Year-to-date, I think that market’s up 5 percent, and last year it closed strong with a 9-percent increase over the previous year. We haven’t jumped back in, but in the very near future … just before the holidays we will be jumping back in. We’re going to return our QuadSport Z90 back, so I think that will be a nice lift for our dealers as well.

PSB: How about the LT-R450 quad?

RL: Not yet — we’re still working on that. That model has a big piece of my heart, so that’s definitely on our wish list. The sport segment is still … flattened out, so hopefully we’ll see a turnaround. Last month, July, was a great month for sport. It was one of the first months in a long time that we’ve seen nice growth in the sport segment, so if we can see the growth keep going there, then I think we have an opportunity to see the LT-R return in the future.

PSB: Is SMAI developing a side-by-side?

RL: We’re a motorcycle, ATV [and] scooter company, and right now with our new company, 100 percent of our resources are focused on that and really setting our foundation in those three areas. Side-by-side, of course, is a piece under the powersports umbrella, so we continue to look at it and evaluate it, but there’s no other information I can give you right now. There are a lot of players in that market space, but that’s not to say that we will or won’t get in, but at this time there are no immediate plans.

PSB: How competitive is Suzuki in the street and dirt motorcycle segments? Do you need to play any catch up?

RL: No, I definitely don’t think that we need to play catch up. The thing about powersports is that it’s product driven. The latest and greatest gets the most buzz, but … we’re very competitive in every segment.

PSB: Are you looking to enter any new product segments in the near future?

RL: I would say not in the immediate future. Our immediate future is to improve our core and what we do really well.

PSB: With a lot of new technology and engines in the ATV market, what do you need to compete?

RL: In the 750 category we’re extremely competitive. I think that we still have a phenomenal engine. I’ve spent a lot of time on ATVs, on all the brands, and the good thing is there’s a lot of incredible product out there — that’s what’s great for the end customer. I still believe 100 percent that if someone gets on a KingQuad and they get on a competitive model of equal price points and engines, we’re extremely competitive.

PSB: How do you see the ATV market long term, given the growth of side-by-sides?

RL: I think there’s a solid foundation for ATVs out there that for riders who want to go out and enjoy something on their own, very similar to guys who ride off-road motocross, indoor or any type of off-road. They like the individual part of the ride and I think there’s a piece of that with ATVs that is coming back. Not everybody wants to have somebody behind them or next to them.

PSB: How about the youth ATV segment?

RL: When you take our Little League away for two, almost three years with the lead law, we basically stopped Little League for ATVs. If you stopped Little League for three years, all those kids are going to go do other things. That wasn’t good for our industry, it wasn’t good for ATVs in total, and it forced kids and parents to go out and make different recreational choices. That had a direct impact then, and it still has an impact today.

PSB: What are you planning for the AIMExpo?

RL: We’re excited to be a part of it. I think it’s a unique platform that AIMExpo’s trying to bring to the U.S. I’ve spent some time at the Cologne [INTERMOT] show in the past, and I think it’s a similar platform, so I think it will be very exciting for consumers. The dealers will have the opportunity to see a lot and also learn a lot, so we’re going to use that as a focal point to kick off some of the new stuff that we have to show for 2014.

PSB: You’ve been with the company for 17 years. During the recent turmoil, were you worried for your job security?

RL: There was honestly never a point that I was worried. It’s simple to … look at Suzuki Motor Corporation’s health. They’re extremely profitable and very strong financially. The economic downturn affected everybody from the guy who delivers your mail to the gas station you go to every day. It was a huge impact. I think the issue of our industry losing 800,000 to a million units a year is a much bigger issue for everybody in this industry. [Suzuki] just elected to go down a path, we made a left, some other guys made a right, some other guys went off road. It will be interesting five years from now when you go back and review it all and see who took the best trail.

 

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