Milwaukee Biz Journal
Harley-Davidson Inc. president and CEO Matt Levatich uses the word “freedom” in nearly every public comment he makes.
For Levatich, who was appointed CEO of the iconic Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer in 2015, freedom is one of the brand’s core values, along with things like strength, independence, self-expression and individual identity. In a conversation hosted by Scale Up Milwaukee Thursday morning, Levatich emphasized the importance of Harley-Davidson’s purpose and identity being “liberating, not constraining.”
A key to a company’s success, in Levatich’s mind, is a “clear” understanding of what a company stands for.
“What I like about Harley is we never have to have that conversation,” he said. “We’ve been about the same thing since the very beginning.”
Levatich went on to to say the company’s core values are liberating, as opposed to “we’re made in the USA,” which he implied was constraining. Harley-Davidson has made international growth a key priority in its 10-year strategy, but has also been criticized, most notably by President Donald Trump, for planning to move production of motorcycles overseas to avoid tariffs.
In expanding on his philosophy, Levatich invoked New Glarus Brewing Co.’s Spotted Cow, which is famous for its “Only in Wisconsin” branding.
“That’s a really awesome example of a differentiated point of view, but it’s a constraint to growth,” he said. “I admire, on the one hand, their willingness to say that, but then I think to myself, is that going to work 10 years from now?”
The need to be open and broad in Harley-Davidson’s brand identity played a frequent role throughout Levatich’s remarks Thursday. While discussing Harley-Davidson as a “legacy company,” he shared his enthusiasm for adapting and evolving to create new riders, having in his mind shored up manufacturing and product development.
“The plan has a very exciting component of modernizing, if you will, not what we stand for, but how we show up and put products in front of our customers,” he said. “This to me is the third piece of re-tooling the company and preparing it for the next century.
That plan, the aforementioned 10-year strategy, was announced in early 2017, but got an accelerated update in July, less than 18 months after it was first announced. Levatich said he could envision announcing similar updates to the overall strategy somewhat annually in the future.
“The world is dynamic and our capabilities are growing,” he said. “We felt this summer, it was very important. I think there were a lot of people that were wondering, what’s going on at Harley? Our U.S. numbers are not growing. Our industry, of which we are a significant portion, is not growing.”
Appropriately, Levatich also mentioned Harley-Davidson’s launch of its “All for Freedom, Freedom for All” brand platform under his watch in 2017. That slogan is “inherently more positive, more inviting and aspirational” than something more commonly associated with motorcycling such as “stick it to The Man,” but also reiterates Levatich’s commitment to a more liberating, less constraining brand identity.
“This is all part of a conscious effort to be more inclusive, more inviting, more interesting to more people by being who we are, differently,” he said.
LEWISTON — No one has ever accused Patrick Dempsey of lacking pizzazz.
Just before sundown on Friday, the leather-clad actor swept into Simard-Payne Memorial Park on a Harley-Davidson customized specifically for the event.
As they often do when Dempsey rolls in, the crowd went wild.
“I’ve never made an entrance like that before,” Dempsey told the uproarious throng, rushing through a sea of reaching hands, cameras and phones as he made his way to the stage.
Several hundred people had turned out at the park to help launch this year’s Dempsey Challenge.
When Dempsey breezed in on the Harley, most were focused on the actor and philanthropist.
A few, though, were dazzled by the Harley, a modified Sportster that had been painted all black and customized with some pieces from the Harley-Davidson special collection.
“Patrick spent many hours going over exactly what he wanted,” said John Story, managing partner at L-A Harley-Davidson, which provided the bike. “We just finished up last night, actually.”
In the spring, Story said, the business plans to launch a Harley-Davidson ride to raise money for the Dempsey Challenge.
When Dempsey rode in Friday night, he was flanked by a couple of dozen bicycle riders from the Challenge to Conquer Cancer, a group from South Carolina that has been riding in the Lewiston event for the past six years.
“They can go anywhere,” Dempsey said, “but they always come here. They ride for the people who can’t ride.”
“We’re just proud to be here to support Patrick and the Dempsey Challenge,” said rider Milton Bowen of Anderson, South Carolina.
On the 10th anniversary of the event, which raises money to support cancer patients and their families, enthusiasm for Dempsey was no less high than it was when the challenge began.
While hundreds reacted to the actor’s dramatic entrance into the park, it wasn’t his first appearance of the day there. Earlier, he had arrived more quietly, which turned out to be a thrill for some of the event volunteers.
“I looked over and I said, ‘Is that Patrick Dempsey?’ ” said volunteer Darcy Anokye.
Turns out it was. And it turns out Anokye had been speaking with a cancer survivor at the time, so the two women walked over to meet Dempsey, who grew up in Buckfield.
“He was more than happy to give that survivor a hug and take a picture with her,” Anokye said. “She was so happy. She said, ‘This means everything to me.’ “
Volunteer Colleen Landry also got to meet Dempsey hours before the crowds filled Simard-Payne Memorial Park.
“We talked to him some and he gave us a hug,” Landry said. “He was awesome.”
“Yeah, he was,” agreed Anokye. “He’s always awesome. He’s just so down-to-earth.”
Down-to-earth and Harley-riding, Patrick Dempsey is appreciative of the support: It takes 900 volunteers to make the Dempsey Challenge the success it is, according to organizers. And that’s not to mention the corporate sponsors and donors who have helped raise more than $10 million for the challenge since 2009.
“It just goes to show,” Dempsey said Friday night, “just how big this community is.”