A quickie with Royal Enfield’s North American boss

Royal Enfield is changing things up in North America with a new central distribution company for both Canada and the US. Later this month, the new company officially takes over the reigns from the current Canadian-only distributor and the man who’s spearheading their move is none other than Rod Copes.

Copes, a former Harley-Davidson executive, is well-known for helping H-D break into overseas markets, specifically India, home of Royal Enfield. But the plot has changed; Copes is now the man responsible for helping Royal Enfield break into the North American market.

He’s got a formidable task ahead, but he’s not taking a wimpy approach. Royal Enfield is basing their North American operation out of Milwaukee, the city that’s been Harley-Davidson Central since 1903. Intrigued to find out more, we reached out to Copes, the president of Royal Enfield North America, to see what he could tell us about Royal Enfield and their plans for our continent.

Rod_Copes_portraitFor years, Royal Enfield has been a fringe brand in North America, an Indian company selling oddball throwbacks to a bygone era. Even today, visually, much of their lineup retains strong ties to their 1950s predecessors, which has given them a niche following well outside North American motorcycling mainstream.

But with an international sales growth of over 50% year-on-year for the last five years and sales of more than 300,000 motorcycles globally in 2014 alone, Royal Enfield is doing very well thank you very much. Add to that the recent spy shots of the new Himalayan adventure bike (suggesting that the brand is expanding beyond its retro base), comes a new confidence and the drive to be a big player in the North American market.

The new NA distributor is the first such operation that is directly owned by the Indian manufacturer (the agreement with the distributor in Canada, Origin Motorcycles, expires 15 October), and it’s an indication of how important they think this market is.

And now that there’s a new distributor, one of the first orders of business is to assess and rebuild the dealer network with the goal to get the brand into bigger, multi-line dealerships in all the main urban areas, sitting next to lines from the Big Four and other established marques. By keeping costs to becoming a Royal Enfield dealer in terms of dollars and required showroom space both low, he reckons that 80-90 per cent of their dealers will be multi-line outfits.

They’re also establishing a Royal Enfield-only boutique store in Milwaukee, selling branded clothing and merchandise alongside their bikes, a model they hope to spread across North America. That might seem a bit unlikely right now, but since retro bikes are in vogue these days, Copes thinks it’s certainly possible, and the brand certainly has the mid-sized retro niche well covered.

“In North America, there’s a huge opportunity to re-create and drive  middleweight motorcycle segment because over the past couple of decades it’s actually shrunk,” Copes says. “The motorcycles that we currently offer in the US are all right around 500 cc and they all retail between $5,000 and $6,000. There’s really not a lot of competition in that space.”

But is that where Royal Enfield intends to stay? Maybe, maybe not, Copes says they’re planning to introduce new models soon but wasn’t willing to go into any details.

“We have a couple new platforms — that is chassis and engines — that are in development. What types of motorcycles that are coming out, I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you we’re having lots of discussions right now,” Copes said.

“We’re definitely looking at different branches off the tree, as well as continuing to look at our product line. The good news is, there’s a lot of exciting new products that will be coming out over the next three-five years.”

The media has been full of spy photos of the Royal Enfield Himalayan bike over the past few months, but Copes wouldn’t confirm its existence or rumoured fall launch date. He did admit that there’s plenty of discussion in the company as to its future though – whether it will remain a purveyor of classic-styled bikes, or if they’ll expand into new lines.

We’re betting on the latter.

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