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Tom Tiller named 2002 Executive of the Year

April 21, 2003
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Tom Tiller, president and CEO of Polaris Industries, Inc., has been named the 2002 Executive of the Year by Powersports Business magazine. Tiller joins previous winners Fred Fox, founder of Parts Unlimited, and Ray Blank, vice president of American Honda Motor Company’s motorcycle division, in receiving the prestigious award.
Also honored for their outstanding business performance and industry leadership last year were Joanne Bischmann, vice president of marketing at Harley-Davidson, Inc.; Frank O’Connell, chairman of Indian Motorcycle Company; and Tom Rudd, founder of Kuryakyn Holdings.
Bob Moffit, who retired in December as vice president of marketing for Kawasaki USA’s motorcycle and PWC division, was honored for his career achievements.
Improving a successful company
Since joining Polaris in 1998 from General Electric, Tiller has led a change of philosophy and a change of attitude that has propelled Polaris toward very aggressive financial and product goals. His influence can be seen on new, effective quality improvement programs that have improved quality by 40%.
He initiated a new, innovative personnel evaluation program that identifies and develops future corporate leaders, and he has recruited top talent from within and outside the powersports industry that has dramatically strengthened Polaris as a consumer product company.
Tiller has pushed his company to new financial heights that have been noted in Forbes and on Wall Street. He has set new standards for product development, which have resulted in innovative new products such as the Sportsman 700 ATV and the Victory Vegas motorcycle.
Tiller is known at Polaris as a hands-on leader. When flood waters threatened the Polaris plant, and the entire town of Roseau, Minn., last June, he was there working 24 hours straight with employees to sandbag the plant. And when anti-motorized recreational forces attempted to ban snowmobiling from Yellowstone National Park, Tiller was at the forefront of an industry-wide effort to fight the ban.
“Polaris was a good company long before Tom Tiller showed up,” he said during a recent interview with Powersports Business. “It always had good people, and passion was part of its fabric. It was conservatively managed and had a good dealer network. I didn’t want to change any of that. But I thought it could go from a regional company to one playing on a bigger stage.”
Tiller points with pride to the company’s financial performance— record results for 20 consecutive years. “This isn’t a company that does really well one year and then falls off the cliff the next,” he says. “We strive hard for sustained performance and growth in market share in all our businesses.”
At the same time, Tiller is candid about Polaris’ situation. “We’ve lost market share (in snow), and the snow inventory situation isn’t good.”
Tiller is a unique blend of the people-oriented manager who is also very analytical and process-oriented. He likes to identify a problem, then get his people to buy into a solution by helping develop a process to solve the problem.
Consider quality control: It had long been a problem. “We always had a better reputation as innovators,” he says, “but we had some really tough competitors who had a reputation for quality. To generate a change inside, we had to measure ourselves against the competition.”
Historically, Polaris management had measured itself against what it had done in the past, not always the most accurate reflection of performance in a competitive industry. “Four percent growth might be good,” says Tiller, “unless the competition is growing six percent. We did some benchmarking and some of the results weren’t good. But people here are quick to pick up the shovel and start digging when they see a problem.”
Polaris developed a system to improve quality and then Tiller tied 50% of each manager’s annual bonus to quality improvement.
Demonstrate a need. Develop a system to provide a solution. Make people accountable. It’s the Tiller management philosophy.
“Most things get done through hard work,” he says. “There’s a lot more accomplished through blocking and tackling than there is 50 yards down the sideline. “
How does Tom Tiller see the situation now, after five years? “I’m absolutely tickled pink about coming in here; I’m an enthusiast. It’s not the easiest way to make a living, but it’s the most fun.”
Joanne Bischmann
As vice president of marketing for Harley-Davidson, Inc., a position she stepped into in 1996, Joanne Bischmann guides the strategy and planning for the Harley-Davidson brand and its product lines.
For playing a leadership role in strengthening and perpetuating the Harley-Davidson brand worldwide, Bischmann has been selected as one of the leading industry executives for 2002 by Powersports Business.
By overseeing all product marketing plans targeting the retail customer, including market planning, advertising, literature, catalogs, events and racing, she’s one of the most influential and powerful women in this industry.
“We get to help plan the product of the future as well as help market the product of today,” Bischmann says. “It’s really the fun stuff — getting the product out to our customers and telling them all about it.”
A partner to nearly every division in the company, Bischmann and her 27-person team have spent three years preparing for Harley’s 100th anniversary. “It’s the mother of all events,” she said.
Prior to prepping for the anniversary, she handled the roll-out of the V-Rod. “The launch of the V-Rod was a momentous opportunity, and probably the biggest product launch we have ever had,” she said.
Bob Moffit
Bob Moffit spent more than 30 years in the powersports industry, 27of them with Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA, before retiring last December as vice president of marketing of the company’s motorcycle and PWC operations.
Moffit, arguably one of the most visible personalities in the powersports industry, did more than generate successul marketing programs for his company. He helped lead the industry, through good times and bad, as a long-time member and chairman of the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC).
For his lifetime of leadership and professional accomplishments, Powersports Business honors Moffit as one of its 2002 industry leaders.
“There are some really good people in this industry,” says Moffit “We’ve done some really good things as an industry. I feel very comfortable in saying that we’ve been a socially responsible industry with a socially responsible agenda. The MIC has done a huge number of really good things.”
Moffit says he’s most proud of the development at the MIC of its Discover Today’s Motorcycling program, an effort that was started when times weren’t as good as they
are today. “We’ve been able to get the motorcycling story out to the mainstream press (with this program) more than ever before,” he says.
Frank O’Connell
While no one would say that everything is perfect at Indian Motorcycle Company of Gilroy,
Calif., even its harshest critics would admit that the company has made huge strides in the last several years.
Perhaps the primary accomplishment of these years was the move by Frank O’Connell to bring new capital and new management talent into the company, beginning in 2001.
O’Connell joined the company as acting CEO in November 2000 and immediately spotted several weaknesses. “We had to raise money,” he said, “but we needed more than just money; we needed a strategic partner who could help us in the operational area.”
O’Connell found what he was looking for in the Audax Group, a Boston-based investment group.
O’Connell convinced Audax to invest some $90 million in the company, and to send several key managers across the country to help direct day-to-day operations at Indian.
For stimulating and guiding this infusion of capital and resources, Powersports Business has selected Frank O’Connell as one of its 2002 outstanding business leaders.
The new team has revamped the dealer network, upgraded manufacturing process and procedures, delivered a proprietary engine and developed an extensive PG&A program.
Tom Rudd
When Tom Rudd founded Drag Specialties in 1968 with $1000 he had scraped together, he had no way of knowing this first step into the motorcycle industry would eventually lead to the sale of his start-up, a short leave of absence from the motorcycle market, and the eventual founding of another successful venture, Kuryakyn.
The company makes aftermarket products for Harley-Davidson, Gold Wing and other metric cruisers.
Based in Somerset, Wisc., Kuryakyn was started by Rudd and his wife, Patricia, in 1988. Since then, the company has grown by 30% to 35% annually and now encompasses several buildings and a pool of around 70 employees.
About two years ago, Rudd began receiving calls from businesses interested in purchasing his company.
While he says he wasn’t interested in giving up the firm, he says he did become intrigued when he talked with Motorsports Aftermarket Group (MAG) Inc. A short time later Rudd joined three other companies owned by MAG.
“I think all of the founders want to do the things they enjoy doing without all of the pitfalls that come along with that,” Rudd told Powersports Business. “This type of thing allows us to pull some of our money out as well as doing what is best for the business.”

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