On October 14, 2009, Harley-Davidson management suddenly announced that Erik Buell's eponymous motorcycle company had reached the end of the road. The decision to shut Buell down - and to put its recently-acquired MV Agusta brand up for sale as well - came in the wake of a collapse in Harley-Davidson's own sales and profitability during '09. Harley management's surprise decision to spend the $125 million shutdown costs in order to focus on the Harley-Davidson brand's core product range seemed questionable to many. To make matters worse, despite rumored offers from other manufacturers to buy the brand and keep it alive, Harley management turned them down and retained all property and rights. The former Buell factory's assets were ignominiously auctioned off, and the building now sits with a "For Lease" sign out front.
The chance to sit down with Erik Buell nearly a year after the shutdown of his company in the canteen-cum-meeting-room of Erik Buell Racing, which occupies a small section of the now-anonymous deserted former Buell factory in East Troy, gave a fascinating - and sometimes depressing - insight into the ways of the modern business world. But make no mistake: a man with enough drive to pursue his dream of building a true American sportbike for more than 26 years isn't going to let even a tremendous blow like Harley's sudden shutdown of his former company stop him now.
Alan Cathcart: At what stage were you made aware of the Harley-Davidson board's decision to shut Buell down, and did president Keith Wandell advise you personally? Were you told Harley-Davidson management's rationale for doing this?
No, Keith did not speak to me himself to tell me of the decision. I found out about it the week before on the Friday, and then it was announced publicly the following Thursday that they were closing Buell.
I guess they had their reasons, but I was not privy to any of these specifically, so I have no idea. I was just told they were pulling the plug on us, period. I got hearsay from people who'd been in meetings where Keith had talked about the whole future of Harley-Davidson being about "focus, focus" on their core customer, and I think people internally were starting to say, "hey, Buell is disrupting us." I do know they did a survey of the entire Harley-Davidson dealer network, where they asked them if they thought they should keep Buell. Well, only about 35-40 percent of the dealers even sold Buells in the first place, so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the majority were going to say, "no, let's just work on Harleys." So who knows? I'm not really in a position to say anything about all the rumors that were going round about their reasons for closing Buell, even if to me it doesn't make any sense. They made the decision, even if I don't agree with it. There were moments a number of years ago where I thought they were going to make the transition to become something bigger and broader than what they were, but it never happened.
I don't want to make all this sound like Harley is a bad company at all, because I really appreciate the fact that they tried to invest in what I believed in. It's just that somewhere along the line, they kind of changed direction. Vaughn Beals, Rich Teerlink and Jeff Bluestein were the leadership group when Harley originally bought Buell, and it was exciting the way they were talking to me about being very innovative, and Buell becoming Harley's sportbike company. And that's why I was enamored with the initial start-up, because they were talking about the things that I wanted to do then, so rational design like fuel in frame, rim brakes, getting into ABS immediately, airbags, just all kinds of innovative stuff. But the business needs at Harley have gone in a different direction since then, and the leadership vision has become different. Who's to say what's right or what's wrong?