By Mike Morgan Special to Published Nov 04, 2015 at 11:10 AM Photography:

Milwaukee motorcycle maker and perennial party planner Harley-Davidson is making headlines for all the wrong reasons lately with a disappointing quarterly earnings release, reports of job cuts at the home office and now a big marketing department shake-up.

Mark-Hans Richer, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, has reportedly left the company. While Harley-Davidson has not responded to requests for confirmation, the news was recently distributed internally to its employees, and his bio has been removed from the company's media site.

As the Harley brand guru for the last eight years, Richer’s departure could signal a sharp turn or be just another leadership pit stop. Interestingly, the change comes after reports that Harley will significantly increase its marketing budget next year. Just last month, Richer was featured in an AdAge story touting the company's strategy with the Millennial market. 

I’m not big on the fiscal numbers that bore the chaps off most Harley riders, but I worked at the company for more than 12 years and three anniversary parties. I have some insight, as well as biases with strong passion for the brand, and first-hand experience seeing Harley become more "corporate" than it likes to admit in recent years.

One overriding struggle at Harley is that its cool Wall Street NYSE symbol "HOG" is just that – a stock exchange abbreviation. So, the company that preaches to riders about the "look, sound and feel" of its bikes, is as much about corporate speak like earnings, ROI or market share.

There’s never been a cooler public offering than Harley’s with bikes roaring down Wall Street to the floor of the NYSE in 1986. Many wise Harley employees from the plant floor to the board room got rich buying shares low and selling high. While the company has ridden with a mostly strong Wall Street wind since then, there have been tough times and struggles.

Richer took the marketing handlebars at Harley in 2007 and promptly made it over in an image straight from Detroit. His claim to fame was masterminding the GM Pontiac G6 audience car giveaway on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. Harley promptly went from an era of "Easy Rider," Schwarzenegger and the Marlboro Man to "Wild Hogs," Marisa Miller and Marvel movies. Fortunately, "Sons of Anarchy" and UFC promos kept some badass in the Harley celebrity culture.

As for the dollars, executives like Richer typically make millions annually with salary, bonus and stock packages. In August, he sold 10,000 shares of Harley stock bringing in almost $600,000 and still owns more than 21,000 shares valued at $1.26 million, according to published reports.

As Harley ups its marketing ante, it needs to make sure that money is spent wisely. Time will tell whether this change signals an effort by Harley to save money in the marketing area, change creative direction or was is just part of the way it goes in big business.

So, as Harley hits hard times in 2015, here are some factors to consider looking on the road ahead:

  • Wheeling and dealing: Harley makes its bikes in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Pennsylvania and now some in India. Even with all its marketing mystique and award-winning corporate ads, it’s the dealers in the field who actually "sell" the bikes. Harley is much more like an auto company than it likes to admit, but its dealers maintain close personal relationships with customers through HOG chapters and other events.
  • Dollar woes: Some things are out of Harleys hands, but that’s business. The strong American dollar has let foreign bike makers lower prices without impact on profits. So, those brands are offering discounts, while Harley holds out to maintain its "premium" brand status. This also makes it harder to sell Harleys overseas where the market had been growing until recently.
  • Merchandise is minimal: Keep in mind that Harley swag sales is profitable, but the volume is small. In its recent quarterly report, Harley reported $812 million in bike sales compared to $69 million in merchandise. The shirts and stuff are cool, but the bikes pay the bills.
  • Outreach not reaching: Harley has been trying to reach new customers like young adults, African-Americans, Hispanics and women since the early 2000s. While there has been some success, especially with women, even Richer recently admitted that "youth does not own cool," which was a rare and refreshing nod to Harley core customers.
  • Office space: Like many big companies, Harley has been dealing with massive internal systems and external regulation. From an employee standpoint, Harley pretty much peaked around 2002 when it was named Company of the Year by Forbes magazine. Since then, a combination of job cuts, internal process changes and less emphasis on motorcycle riding made Harley just another place to work.
  • The up side: Finally, keep in mind that there is a difference between the Wall Street perspective of a public company like Harley making $710 million in net income so far this year, but just not being up to expectations. Harley dominates the heavyweight motorcycle market with more than a 50 percent share. The company continues to work tirelessly to increase ridership connecting with customers through its Riding Academy and other events, which is something special that money can’t buy.

Cool fall-winter events: Just because riding season is all but over doesn’t mean things are slowing down for bikers. Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc is supporting Santana Dotson’s 71 Ways Coat Drive on Nov. 1 and Nov. 30 when they help collect new and gently worn coats and jackets to benefit area children in need.

With Veterans Day celebrations coming up, Wisconsin Harley holds a Stars and Stripes Honor Flight book signing on Saturday, Nov. 14 from noon to 2 p.m. where you can meet Honor Flight veterans with book and DVD for sale benefiting the Honor Flights.

Mike Morgan Special to

Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.

Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.