It’s been a while since we’ve caught up with Harley-Davidson Canada and its new Managing Director, Anoop Prakash. Rob Harris spoke with him earlier this year and he had big plans back then for the newly-restructured company.
Prakash, now 43 years old and from Minnesota, is a former U.S. marine who holds a BA from Stanford University in Economics and Public Policy, and an MBA from Harvard. He worked for various private companies before taking on a couple of senior government positions under the George W. Bush administration. You can read his official Bloomberg biography here. He’d never ridden a motorcycle before joining Harley-Davidson in 2009 to lead its market entry into India.
Canada Moto Guide editor Mark Richardson went for a ride recently with Prakash on the Motor Corps’ new Milwaukee Eight bikes, and sat down for a chat to catch up. We’ll publish the story of the ride in December, but for today, here’s what Prakash had to tell us about himself, Harley as a company, and the future of the brand in Canada..
CMG: The story goes that no kid wants to ride his dad’s bike. Do you agree?
PRAKASH: I don’t think that’s held true for Harley. It’s also said that we all turn into our parents eventually. I’ve met many multi-generational Harley-riding families. I think there’s always a tendency to explore and try some new things, but we know our brand goes deeper than that.
Fifteen years ago, Harley said we need younger, sportier riders and brought in the V-Rod. It didn’t work. What happened?
The V-Rod has definitely been an opportunity for some riders to transition into the brand. I think it’s been successful.
Do you ride all the other motorcycles from other makers, too?
Other brands? No. I’ve ridden a couple, but not really out of choice.
Surely you’ve got to know your enemy?
I don’t consider them my enemy. We’re delivering something very different, and it’s a full ownership experience. My approach is we want to tell you everything that’s great about Harley-Davidson and let you choose for yourself. We may not be everything for everyone, but we want to be our thing for everyone who wants to be part of it.
How do you reconcile Harley’s traditional “dirty biker” demographic with the new demographic of riders that you’re seeking?
There’s this TV version of what Harley-Davidson represents, but honestly, Harley-Davidson is the most inclusive brand, even outside the industry. We have riders of every demographic, every age, every ethnic background, all riding with like-minded people, and the inclusion is a key part of our brand. We offer a lineup that supports all of them, and services that support all of them.
Look at our performance in the US. We’re the Number One brand among young adults, and among women. In the US, we also track where we stand with Hispanic customers, and African-Americans, and we’re the Number One motorcycle brand for both Hispanics and African-Americans. And those segments continue to grow at a faster rate than what you’d call our core segment. This is something we’ve been doing for more than a decade.
What would you like to see for Harley-Davidson in the next five years?
Next year will be Harley’s 100th year in Canada. I think that hundred-year anniversary is kind of symbolic of an expansion of our reach. We are reaching as far and as deep into Canada as we can to serve every person who wants to experience the thrill of motorcycling. That means being able to serve immigrant communities, being able to serve women — different urban, core riders. You have to be where they are, so you have to have your dealerships in the right place, but you also have to make motorcycling accessible to them. It’s about building communities of motorcyclists within those communities.
For example, we have a lot of south Asian riders, but they’re coming to us and we’re not necessarily going to them, and we need to make a shift to reach out and be present in their communities. It’s not so simple as geographic or demographic, but it has to come from a desire to be in those communities. It’s not a pivot or a change in direction – it’s an expansion. You need representatives in the dealership who either speak the language or understand the culture, to remove the barriers.
How many dealerships are you considering? Right now, for example, in the Toronto area there are three, in Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Oshawa.
In just the GTA, by the beginning of 2018, we should have another two, and another 18 months after that, at least six.
Have you kicked out any dealers?
No – not yet. (Laughs) When we came in (last year as a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, to replace the Canadian distributor, Deeley Harley-Davidson), I have to say we were actually incredibly impressed with the current Harley-Davidson network. They’re incredibly committed and very well run. We gave everyone contracts and I’m glad we did.
Another thing we were very sensitive about, coming in as The Company, is that we needed to make the ownership experience that much better. There was a feeling we sensed that Canadian owners and customers felt they were always paying more than a US customer, or always getting products later, or not getting the full level of customer experience when they joined HOG. We worked hard on those in the initial days. Pricing was a big opportunity for us, offering parity with US prices, stopping them going to the US to buy the bike, making it more convenient and supporting our dealers. Today, our Model Year ’17 lineup is actually slightly cheaper here than it is there.
We also moved our major customer service support to our call centre in Milwaukee, which allows Canadians to get the same level of service as US customers – and that wasn’t happening in the past. It wasn’t staffed the same way to handle the volume.
Do you have any say over future product?
Our styling team and product development team do research themselves, and then they ask us to feed in to the process as well. Every quarter or so, we have an opportunity to update the product development team with things we’re seeing in our market: trends, requests, real riding experiences. With Canada being one of the top three or four markets outside the United States, we are a very important voice in the company.
At one point, before 2008, Canada was the largest market outside the United States. Now I think we’re in the same grouping as three or four other markets: Japan, Australia, Germany, and I think we’ve been in all those markets for a hundred years or more.
So what are we going to do for our hundredth?
Host epic parties!
How does Canada compare to the States as a market?
Canada’s industry is actually growing right now, and it’s growing faster than the economy. That’s a huge testament to the passion for motorcycling in Canada. I think the respect people have for motorcyclists and for the sport itself, and Canada generally being a country that appreciates the outdoors, it all plays into motorcycling being a really rich and well-followed sport. I think that because we have such a compact riding season, it’s even that much more precious for every rider to plan out their summer and really think about what they’re riding and who they’re riding with. When are they going to do their week-long trip? There’s a lot of thought and care in planning for the season. Dealers are the same way.
You call Canada a touring market and you’ve come from seven years in India, establishing Harley-Davidson there. What kind of market is that?
India is not a touring market! India is a new market, a lightweight and middleweight motorcycle market, driven by its origins in commuting. It was never seen just as recreation. When you look at the opportunity in India, just like we have in Canada or the United States or more mature European markets, motorcycling is the purest form of self-expression and that also rings true in India. When people bought their motorcycles for commuting, they didn’t buy just on price but they also bought on colour, and on features, and on what the brand stood for in their mind. Now you see a shift there where you’re getting a critical mass of recreational riders and you’re getting a real market now.
Is it the same thing in China?
India at its heart has always been a motorcycling country. They love motorcycles. My dad always used to ride an Enfield. He had an Enfield back in college and he’d talk about riding, and there was this affinity to motorcycling. The difference in China was they went from bicycles and scooters and graduated from cars very rapidly, especially in the big cities, and developing motorcycling as a sport had to start from a much more basic starting point. It doesn’t help that duties to get a motorcycle into China are tremendous – a top-end touring motorcycle in China is double that of the United States. Every year the market’s getting bigger and bigger, but it’s going to take a little longer because the starting point is further back.
Why did they choose you for the job in India?
My work experience was one aspect, having worked in both strategy and business development and sales. But I grew up in Minnesota and spent a lot of time going back and forth to India, and I think I could really serve as a bridge between the Harley-Davidson values and culture, and what the brand stood for and delivered in its purest form in India. And I think that’s very important when you move to markets like India or any other new market, where they don’t know what the brand stands for and they only know it from movies and TV.
What are you doing with your trikes? Those things are deadly!
I think we’ve made a lot of improvements in the handling, especially in the last two model years — there’ve been some dramatic changes in the way the trikes handle. In the initial years, I would say the best way to describe the trikes is they definitely took a lot of muscle to steer, and to make them do what you want…
To not tip over…
Your words, not mine! They were hard to steer, but we’ve done a lot to make them much more enjoyable and trikes are probably one of our fastest growing segments now.
Is that not just because of the aging Harley rider?
No, the demographics in the last period have not changed dramatically year over year, so you’re seeing a better product, and also a more accessible product, pricewise.
The concern has always been that the Harley rider is aging out and is not being replaced by the younger rider. Do you think that has been happening?
It’s very market to market. I can only speak to the Canadian market, and here in Canada, we’re seeing a very strong growth in the industry overall. That’s driven by not only steady growth in touring but also growth in cruisers. What’s driving the market is really the cruiser end of the market, and that’s really younger riders. Canadian demographics would say there are plenty of younger riders coming into this sport. We have a lot of young riders in urban areas who are choosing motorcycles over cars, because they’re fun but also practical in the city.
Does your wife ride with you?
We rode with some dealers this summer on a three-day ride in the north-east and it was her first ride with me. We have young children and we didn’t want to both be on the bike at the same time. But she trusts me enough now, having ridden for the last seven years.
What was your first Harley-Davidson “experience”?
My first exposure to Harley-Davidson was that I lived in Minnesota, and we did the mandatory trip to Mount Rushmore back when I was 13 years old. We piled into the wagon and my dad had no idea we were going to Mount Rushmore the same week as Sturgis. No clue. And there we were, the whole family with my two younger brothers and my grandfather visiting from India, right in the middle of everything. As a 13-year-old boy, that was the highlight of the trip and everything else paled into comparison.