Harley boss revs up plan to attract new riders

Profile: Anoop Prakash, managing director, Harley-Davidson Canada


Anoop Prakash, the new managing director of Harley-Davidson Canada, has a resumé that is as eclectic as it is impressive.

Prakash, who grew up in Minnesota, received his undergraduate degree from Stanford University in 1995, then went on to complete his MBA at Harvard in 2001. Between those degrees he took a sharp career turn, joining the U.S. Marine Corps in June 2005 and becoming an intelligence officer with the rank of captain.

Looking back on the time between his formal studies, Prakash said he sees some parallels between university and military service.

“The common thread here is leadership,” Prakash said. “As an officer in the marine corps, one gains invaluable experience in leading and developing people. As a Harvard Business School student, the focus extends to leading and changing organizations.”

After his graduate degree, Prakash worked for such companies as McKinsey & Co., Oracle and LexisNexis before heading to the public sector to become associate administrator in the Office of Entrepreneurial Development for the U.S. Small Business Administration. After just over a year in that role, he became the deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s been an honour to be able to serve my country on two different occasions,” said the 42-year-old. “However, after the Bush administration ended, the return to the private sector was inevitable.”

A contact from his days at Harvard got in touch with him and told Prakash about an opening at the iconic motorcycle brand.

“Luckily for me, the stars aligned.”

He said a future with Harley might have been foreshadowed during his youth in Minnesota.

“I distinctly remember a summer road trip my family took to Mount Rushmore, and little did we know we were travelling in the middle of the annual Sturgis [Motorcycle] Rally in South Dakota. There we were in the middle of thousands upon thousands of Harley owners all week, and what struck me was the culture around the brand. A community with shared passion and interest, and yet each and every rider and motorcycle was unique. Looking back, I think it was a sign.” 

However, the job offer wasn’t just for Harley-Davidson, it was for Harley--Davidson India, and a position based out of New Delhi.

“I think anyone would find it personally fulfilling to go back and live in the country where your parents grew up, spend time with extended family, and most importantly to see my own kids engage with their native culture, language and traditions. They can now visit India and instead of feeling like tourists or guests, they will feel at home.”

Prakash is now taking on a new challenge, at a time when Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) could use a course correction. 2015 was not a good year for the world’s best-known motorcycle brand. The company’s net income dropped to $752.2 million from $844.6 million in 2014.

Once dominating sales of big bikes across North America, Harley-Davidson has seen its market share dwindle lately, partly because of its failure to attract new riders looking to buy motorbikes for both leisure and commuting.

In October, the company unveiled a plan to reposition the brand, looking to attract new customers outside of its male baby boomer base.

Despite the overall drop in sales in 2015, Harley-Davidson’s stock jumpe about 10% when fourth-quarter and year-end numbers were released, and the company announced it will respond by shipping more bikes in 2016 than in 2015

Last year the company also announced plans to adopt a model of direct distribution via independently owned dealers in Canada by mid-2017, ending a long partnership with Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada, which had been the exclusive distributor of the brand since 1973. Prakash said the idea is to “make the Harley-Davidson lifestyle more affordable and accessible to the average rider” in a new global economy.

“We’ve brought our entry-level pricing down,” continued Prakash. “So I think there has been a perception of obtainability for the motorcycles. If you ask someone on the street, they’ll tell you it must cost something like $20,000 for a Harley. And in actuality we start at under $8,000, and that is our newest line of motorcycles. So that is a big change for us.”

Sales for Harley-Davidson grew by 12.3% in Canada during 2015’s fourth quarter, due in large part to the company’s move to direct distribution across the country. Prakash said Harley-Davidson Canada is also planning to open three new dealerships, one of which will be in Richmond.

“We’re talking about younger riders who are in the urban centres,” he said. “We have not had great reach into that group here in Canada and other places around the world. … A lot of the new Canadian communities, the South Asian community, the Chinese community, they love their motorcycles. We’ve done extremely well overseas with those communities, so we just want to continue to reach them and serve them.”

Prakash said the whole idea of reaching out to younger riders, as well as tailoring some Harley-Davidson motorcycles to females – one of the fastest-growing rider demographics in North America – was not a reaction to 2015’s overall poor sales showing.

“What it comes down to is we talked to a lot of young riders around the world, particularly before we launched the street model. We did a lot of market research, and what we wanted to find was, what do younger riders want from Harley-Davidson today?”

Prakash said riders told the company they wanted bikes that are more nimble, perform better in traffic and have a higher ground clearance.

The brand’s iconic logo has also been played down in a number of the newer street models, replaced by a sleek, black design.

“It’s true of any company that you have to evolve with the market.”

Prakash said Project LiveWire, Harley-Davidson’s first electric motorcycle, is a response to the desire among many young riders for environmental sustainability. Still in development without a release date, the bike will be the brand’s first venture into a plug-in model, something the average person might not associate with Harley-Davidson.

Prakash added that motorbikes have long been known as a more environmentally sensitive alternative to motor vehicles.

“There is an appeal, not specifically to us or any other brand when it comes to motorcycling, because motorcycles do have a smaller footprint environmentally to cars [and provide] the ability to get around in a more efficient manner.”