Rich Teerlink and Jeff Bleustein are sitting ringside at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, TN, watching the slow race. Both look relaxed in black jeans and Harley-Davidson shirts. Teerlink's feet are propped up on the railing in front of his seat. Bleustein sports a black leather Harley-Davidson hat over close-cropped gray hair. Their eyes are focused on the coliseum floor, where riders inch down narrow lanes on their Harleys, bucking and balancing as they try to be last over the finish line. This is the opening event of the '96 Games-an afternoon of motorcycle contests at the Harley Owners Group (HOG) 1996 Annual Rally in late August. It's a hot and humid time to be in Memphis, but the indoor coliseum is cool and hums with the low roar of idling bikes.
"Go orange!"Teerlink yells at the end of a heat. His team won, and he's into it.
He's also the president, CEO, and newly named chairman of the board of the Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Company. "We have as much fun as anybody," Teerlink says of the annual rallies staged by HOG, the corporate-sponsored club that has grown to more than 300,000 members since Harley created it in 1983.
Bleustein, the company's president and COO, is a more reserved cheerleader but a ready conversationalist when the topic is HOG rallies. "This is a good opportunity for us to get close to the customer," he says. "Over the years you make a lot of friends."
Take Rita Gehrts, who's been riding for nearly 20 years and coming to rallies for almost ten. She talks about "Rich and Ann" as though they're regular house guests. Not quite, but Gehrts does have a story about sharing a meal with Teerlink and his wife before a group ride from a West Virginia rally to the annual rally in Kentucky. And then there was the time in Talladega, AL, when Gehrts's husband, Roger, was stumped over a problem with his bike: "We started talking to Rich about it and he said, 'I don't know how to fix it, but I know how to find someone who can.'" And he did, she reports.
Wind in Their Faces Each year, Harley executives commit to attending a certain number of HOG rallies. During those rallies, they aren't following some parallel track from microphone to microphone. They're right in the roar of things, riding and talking with the HOG members. "We love being with our customers. We share the same passion, so it's natural that we spend time together as enthusiasts," says Teerlink, who usually rides to rallies with Ann. (This time they flew, so he could dash back for the groundbreaking of Harley's new Kansas City plant.)
Customers, in turn, like knowing that Harley's top brass rides its own iron horses. Teerlink recognized that when he joined Harley in 1981. Previously a non-rider, he says, "I learned quick."
Most Harley executives ride motorcycles-but two of them attract particular admiration from the HOG crowd. One is legendary bike designer (and direct descendent) Willie G. Davidson, vice president of styling. The gray-bearded "Willie G.," as he's known to the faithful, spends much of his rally time signing customers' shirts in his famous looping script.
The other is HOG Director Mike Keefe, the HOG members' Milwaukee connection. Keefe attends most of the domestic rallies each year, and he always rides to them. "Our credibility is established at the rallies," he says. "The customers know I rode out there from Milwaukee. I've got sunburn and windburn. It makes a big difference in how they relate to me."
He also believes it makes HOG able to stand for a group of individualist bikers united by their love of freedom and their sense of adventure-even though the club, as a corporate-sponsored entity, could be seen instead as a symbol of structure and authority. "I am a customer," Keefe says. "We don't get company motorcycles. I paid for mine. That gives me a unique perspective. It also blurs the line between customer and corporation. So I don't see them in conflict. We're in sync."
Beyond the common interest in motorcycles, he adds, Harley-Davidson as a company reflects many of the values its customers hold. "The company provides a casual environment that encourages risk-taking and innovation. We're performance oriented. There's no entitlement here."
For the company to walk this talk is critical to the success of its rallies and to the success of the Harley Owners Group, says Keefe. "Other companies that want to do affinity groups come to us and ask us how to do it," he says. The short version of his answer: "It must be authentic and homespun." If customers get wind of a company's customer meeting or owners group as a concept created by an ad agency, forget it.
Something Bigger Face-to-face interaction is the most important regular research senior executives can do, according to Richard Whiteley, senior vice president and founder of The Forum Corporation in Boston. "You must have customer contact, or you're running your business by chance," says Whiteley, a writer and worldwide presenter on the topic of customer-driven quality. "And in the long run, you'll fail."
It's something Harley's Teerlink is well aware of. "We know what our customers like and dislike because we give them the opportunity to tell us," he says. "And they know we'll listen. That's a magical thing, and our competitors can't copy it."
The formalized listening takes place at the Town Hall Meeting, a regular rally event. Harley executives face a roomful of customers with questions-customers who are not afraid to make their voices heard. "They are not a shy group," COO Bleustein agrees. "But they're respectful of Harley-Davidson. They're part of it. It's a compliment that they'll share their concerns with us. They wouldn't do it if they didn't think we were interested in hearing it or if they thought we wouldn't do anything about [their concerns]. They might do it once-but this has been going on for 15 years."
Harley-Davidson would also score points in Whiteley's book because of the involvement of support staff and line employees in the rallies. More than 120 Harley employees work as on-site staffers, doing everything from registration to conducting demo rides on new models to ringing up purchases of Harley merchandise. So many employees sign up to be rally volunteers, in fact, that there's a waiting list for participation.
"Customers have a huge impact on employees-and not just marketing, sales, and executives," Whiteley says. For an employee who has had an abstract view of who or what the customer is, he explains, getting face to face with some of them "changes that employee forever."
Teerlink says Harley-Davidson is "living proof" of Whiteley's words. "Involved employees are happier and more committed to customer satisfaction," he believes. "One of the best investments we make is bringing our employees together with our customers.
"Make no mistake, these rallies aren't all fun and games for them. There's a lot of sweat and muscle involved, too. But we love it."
It's clear that the Harley heritage is as important to employees as it is to customers. Both groups believe that they are contributing to preserving a legend. That's what sets this company apart, and that's what the HOG rallies strive, year after year, to maintain.
"When we talk about the company, we talk about the institution," Bleustein says. "We all think we're part of something bigger. We're stewards of a company for a much larger group of people to whom Harley-Davidson means so much."