As he took the stage at Lakeland College's Bradley Theatre Thursday night to tell the story of how he helped rev up the Harley-Davidson brand, Clyde Fessler revved up the crowd with just the right marketing flair.
Immediately after a brief video introduced the Harley-Davidson culture, Fessler roared onto the stage riding a Softail Heritage Classic FLSTC motorcycle.
Fessler's presentation, part of Lakeland's 13th annual Charlotte and Walter Kohler Distinguished Business Lecture, recounted the Milwaukee-based company's establishment as one of America's iconic brands.
The lecture was part of a festive night for Harley enthusiasts, a night that included a pre-lecture reception that had Lakeland's Wehr Center decked out with Harley motorcycles, clothing and advertising courtesy of Route 43 Harley-Davidson in Sheboygan. Owner Richard Kummer and several members of his staff attended, and the event drew many local Harley riders who parked their bikes outside the Wehr.
Fessler, a Sheboygan native who retired as a Harley executive in 2002, played an integral part in Harley-Davidson's rebound from near bankruptcy. Some highlights of his presentation:
- Fessler said Harley's marketing turnaround started with three main questions: Who are we? Who are our customers? What do they expect from us? Those questions can help any company or person formulate their brand, he said.
- Spend time getting to know your customers, because they are your best salespeople. Fessler said he used to stop shaving at Thanksgiving so he would physically fit in with Harley customers at the annual gathering in Dayton Beach, Fla., each December. "Problems are in the office; solutions are in the field," he said.
- Fessler said Harley-Davidson's brand successfully expanded when the company stopped selling just a product (the motorcycle) and started selling a lifestyle. The company developed a line of Harley clothes and started marketing them to females and children. The company assisted dealers all over the world in redesigning their dealerships. "Our riders want to visit our stores because each one presents a unique experience," Fessler said.
- The company had to overcome negative images about motorcycles fueled by movies in the 1950s and 1960s that painted riders as violent gang members looking to pillage when they went on rides. Harley-Davidson owners have raised millions of dollars for a variety of charities, most notably the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Fessler joined Harley-Davidson in 1977, and he recalled spending two days at the Sheboygan Harley dealership owned by Bill Kummer researching to prepare for his job interview. He served as director of marketing services, general sales manager, director of licensing, vice president of general merchandise and vice president of business development
The University of Notre Dame graduate also served on the board of trustees for the American Motorcycle Association and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
Fessler's appearance at Lakeland was made possible by a gift from The Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust. Lakeland annually brings a nationally known business or economic figure to its main campus to speak with Lakeland students and the general public.
Past lecturers have included former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Forbes Media President and CEO Steve Forbes and Emmy Award-winning journalist and author John Stossel.
The Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust is named for former Wisconsin Gov. Walter Kohler Jr. and his wife, Charlotte.