Ken Schmidt: Harley Hero
This is not a story about a motorcycle company. This is the story of the man who revived an iconic American brand on the brink of being lost to history.
In 1973, Harley-Davidson was turning out 37,000 motorcycles a year and pulling in $122 million in sales. AMF, the company who bought them in 1969, forced the company into producing far more than it should, causing compromised quality. The company, already having a reputation for leaky engines and such, was increasingly underperforming. A young boy was watching and falling in love with the Harleys during this time period. Born in 1959, Ken Schmidt sat his 14-year-old self in front of the TV, admiring the motorcycles that he would one day save.
It’s About Reputation
By the mid-70s, AMF replaced the Harley name with its own in a move that was widely disliked, they went too far. They didn’t notice the scale of that business decision error until sales plummeted. AMF then began looking to offload the company they were now burdened with. In 1981, Harley’s chief executive joined with a handful of company officers to find funding and gain company ownership.
Harley commenced its rebirth. And that rebirth would not have been possible without Schmidt. One of the most in-demand speakers and communications consultants in America, Ken Schmidt was recruited. Everything changed.
Schmidt found himself working with a company stuck with $70 million in buyout-caused debt, a terrible recession in their wake, and Japanese competitors pushing them from all sides. Harley-Davidson faced years as a company on life support. It lost more than $50 million in 1981 and 1982, and by 1983 was facing bankruptcy yet again.
The young boy who fell in love with Harleys was one of the few responsible for one of the most impressive comebacks and resuscitation of a company. As one of the business world’s most outspoken and opinionated yet entertaining gurus, he is seen as a thought leader on the market and competitive aspects of the field. Particularly, the people’s behavior and reactions to management of a brand’s reputation. He has been a keynote speaker for countless events involving businesses and groups all over the planet.
According to Schmidt, “The depth and breadth of today’s reputational challenge is a consequence not just of the speed, severity, and unexpectedness of recent economic events but also of underlying shifts in the reputation environment that have been under way for some time.”
A motorcycle enthusiast, Schmidt’s journey with Harley-Davidson proved to be a match made in heaven They needed demand to grow. They needed a lot of things. But Schmidt had a lot to give. Sales exploded in just a couple of years, cementing the company and Schmidt as a success story.
There are a million motorcycle companies. He asked the question that would be the catalyst for the revival. “What makes you different?” Harley answered, and Schmidt never looked back. The answer is culture. Schmidt had to make the company reach the masses again. Let the people move you.
It’s About Humanity
Harley-Davidson’s corporate and financial communication department found a steadfast director in 1990, Schmidt. He was the main spokesperson to the people and frequented network news as well as business programs requesting he impart his wisdom to eager entrepreneurs. He had the key to building a brand. He knew the way to make companies human again. The people followed and the stock climbed.
Next on the docket, ownership position of a prosperous marketing firm in Chicago. It was 1997 and Schmidt was ready to move on from Harley-Davidson to VSA Partners. This venture was a stepping stone to the creation of the Ken Schmidt Company in 1999 after selling his portion of VSA. This would combine his two callings, motorcycles and speaking… sometimes even speaking about motorcycles.
On his two-wheeled pride and joy, Schmidt has a specific set of benefits brought on by a specific set of skills, speaking publicly and traveling all around the world. Those around him tend to tag along, often entrepreneurs and leaders who he works with or attend his speaking engagements.
“I love to startle people by exposing them to proven ideas and concepts they’ve never imagined, and I often use motorcycles to do that, because they lend themselves to great, memorable imagery,” he said. “I always find that when hearts and minds are in perfect synch, real learning happens.”
It’s About Passion
At present, he gladly tells those who ask that he is semi-retired and currently has a full-time position in the role of passion seeker. Working with the grandson of the legendary Harley-Davidson founder himself, he frequently calls this time in his life one of the greatest highs he has ever experienced, as he continues living his philosophy.
“Never do what’s expected, make yourself as noticeably different as possible, and have a lot more fun than you’re supposed to,” says Schmidt.
Today, Schmidt can proudly proclaim he is the author of the 2018 book, Make Some Noise: The Unconventional Road to Dominance where he provides anecdotes, true stories and insights on the journey. He turns to creating a lovingly vocal customer base, building a loyal corporate family, and nurturing leaders of today and tomorrow.