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Who Is the Real Hog?
By Robert Scot Michel
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Robert Scot Michel
All rights reserved.
TO HARLEY OR NOT TO HARLEY
It was a beautiful warm spring day in San Diego. I decided to go for a jog and drove my rental car over the bridge to Coronado Island. I made my way to the beach and parked in front of the house featured in the movie Top Gun. I got out of the car, did a little stretching, and started my run heading north toward the air-force base. The F-14 navy pilots were practicing touch-and-go landings on the airstrip up ahead. It was pretty cool watching the jets glide in silently and touch down, and then hear the deafening roar of the massive engines as the jets took off again.
Whenever I go for a short run, it provides a perfect time for some peaceful thinking. My longer runs start out with a lot of thinking and turn into more of a Zen-like exercise. This was going to be a short thirty- to forty-five-minute run. I started thinking about the past week's events. I had already been in San Diego visiting my best buddy, Jim, for about two weeks. In the past week, Jim had arranged for me to meet his boss at Wausau Insurance Company to discuss a job opening as a sales agent for Southern California based out of San Diego office. Jim had worked for Wausau for about five years, starting as an underwriter in our hometown of Milwaukee. Jim got married, moved to San Diego, got divorced, and was living a bachelor's dream in California. Anyway, I went into the interview without any expectations, as I lived in Milwaukee and wasn't looking to relocate. I really just wanted to see what his boss and Wausau had to offer. I had a great interview and within the hour was offered the job. I would start as a trainee selling business insurance with a great base salary and a handsome commission schedule. It all happened so fast that I told the guy that I needed several days to think about the offer.
The day after that interview, my brother Eddie (who was in charge of the test riders at Harley) called me from Milwaukee and told me that there was a job opening for a district manager trainee at Harley-Davidson. He said that if I was interested, I needed to get my résumé to him as soon as possible. As I was running, I kept thinking about the potential of each position. I mean, insurance sales is not easy, but if you stick to it, after a while your book of business grows and your commissions continue to greatly increase. And I would be living in Southern California with my buddy Jim. I kept picturing myself living in a cool condo, driving a convertible Porsche, enjoying the gorgeous weather year round, and living the bachelor's dream. Meanwhile, everything in the news about Harley-Davidson was pretty negative. The company's future looked bleak. It was early 1984, when most Harley riders were thought of by the common man as members of the Hells Angels. Honda had tried its best with its marketing slogan, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." They had also done an excellent job with the quality and reliability of their motorcycles. Nevertheless, motorcycling in general and Harley-Davidson in particular had a bad reputation. Harley-Davidsons also had very poor performance and horrible reliability. But if you were a man's man, Harley-Davidson still was the coolest motorcycle ever made. I spent a few hours on the phone with my brother discussing my concerns about the future of the company. He had just returned from participating in the Cannonball One Lap of America, an event sponsored by screenwriter and automotive columnist Brock Yates. Harley-Davidson had entered the race with an FXRT Sport Glide. It had the new Evolution engine that Harley was planning on putting in all its motorcycles.
The Cannonball One Lap was an 8,704-mile endurance run around America's perimeter, which had to be covered in just seven days of around-the-clock driving. The start and finish line was Darien, Connecticut, with official checkpoints in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Tumwater, Washington; Redondo Beach, California; and Jacksonville, Florida. Drivers were given route instructions for the next part of the course at each checkpoint. The objective was to cross the finish line exactly seven driving days (168 hours, to the second) after the departure, requiring vehicle and crew to be on the road twenty-four hours a day. A mandatory twenty-four-hour layover in Redondo Beach was not on the clock. Harley-Davidson had the only motorcycle entry in the field of approximately eighty vehicles. The company decided to enter one week prior to the April 13 start date, and it had no choice but to pull a brand-new motorcycle off the assembly line and go for it. The whole idea to participate was the brainchild of my friend Hal, who at that time was a district sales manager for Harley up in the Northeast.
Team Harley-Davidson, as it was called, consisted of district manager Hal, Talladega test mechanic Rick Jones, Gerry Knackert, and my brother, engineering test coordinator Eddie Michel. They all took shifts riding the motorcycle, then driving, sleeping, or navigating in the support van. Their efforts were supported at the front end with a sophisticated computer routing program developed by Harley-Davidson engineers, providing time to location routing coordinates. Without the proper benefits of routine break-in or regularly scheduled maintenance procedures, the motorcycle went the entire 8,704-mile distance without problems. Only one oil change was performed, in Redondo Beach (which is also where one of the support staff was buying drugs out of the back of the van during a news conference). My brother Eddie informed me that they never needed to change a tire or adjust the chain. They used about 150 gallons of gas and attained nearly sixty miles per gallon. They averaged approximately fifty-two mph day and night, including gas stops. One of the riders did get busted by the other three, as he was getting so tired on one of his riding shifts that he pulled out the choke knob to run the bike out of gas sooner and end his shift early. I guess I can see that happening, as it was a grueling around-the-clock run.
As one of the riders of the motorcycle around America, my brother assured me of the mechanical reliability of the new engine and that this would be the first stepping-stone in the successful future of the company. What was my decision?
Suddenly, something interrupted my train of thought. As I had been jogging and thinking, I had also been watching the jets come and go. But this time something was very different—the same jet had flown by several times without touching down. The pilot would bring that jet very close to the ground and then hit the throttle and take the jet back up in the air. Then I noticed that the hook used to stop the jet on an aircraft carrier had been deployed. It was just hanging out, and I am sure it would have caused serious problems if the pilot had tried to land on the runway. The air-force fire trucks were screaming up and down each side of the runway. By now I was at the end of that public beach at the security fence by the air-force base. So I was only a couple hundred yards away, and I got that nervous feeling in my stomach as I realized that some young pilot in training had to deal with a potential deadly situation. I stopped and stretched for a while and then turned around and headed back toward my car. I later found out from Jim's brother Dave, who was a naval aviator, that everything turned out okay.
As I was driving back to the house through downtown San Diego, I decided I would fly back to Milwaukee and go to an interview at Harley-Davidson. Jim and I spent the weekend partying downtown, and I flew home on a Monday. In the meantime, my brother had arranged an interview for me with a guy by the name of Clyde Fessler.
My brother told me not to bother dressing up for the interview and that most everyone at the company wore Harley T-shirts. I just couldn't do that, so I wore casual sport-coat-and-tie-type outfit. I went to the security shack at the corner of 37th and Juneau Avenue. As I was checking in by giving them my name, the guards asked me if I was Eddie Michel's brother. I said yes, and they told me to go right in and that I would find Clyde's office down the hall on the left. When I opened the doors, I was amazed at what a dump this place was. Now understand, I was in the parts-and-accessories building and not the main office building. The parts-and-accessories building also held the entire warehouse for all of Harley-Davidson. The office area that I was overlooking appeared to be something out of the 1930s or 1940s. I made my way to Clyde's office and knocked on the door. After a few seconds, just as I was about to knock again, a gruff voice shouted, "Come in." Now this was cool: the overhead lights were turned off and two desk lamps lit the office. The office was completely filled with everything that had anything to do with Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Whole gas tanks, half gas tanks, handlebars, stickers, emblems, helmets, leather jackets, trophies, posters, and photos. It really was so cool! Clyde was on his phone with his back to me and his feet up on the credenza; he turned slightly and motioned for me to sit down. He got off the phone, and we talked a little about my history in sales and why I like motorcycling and what type of motorcycle I had (a Triumph) and why I might want to work at Harley.
After talking about that for five minutes, Clyde got another phone call. He turned his back again, put his feet up on the credenza, and talked for about fifteen minutes. He must have forgotten that I was in the room, because all of a sudden he told the other party, "Hang on," and then he pressed the telephone to his chest. He made this statement: "So, you are Eddie Michel's brother, right?" Then he asked me what I was doing for the weekend, and I told him that I was going on a motorcycle ride with my friend to the Mississippi River. Nearly before I got the words "Mississippi River" out of my mouth, he said, "You're hired! See Sheryl in Human Resources across the street."
THIS IS IT?
My first position at Harley-Davidson was parts-and-accessories representative for all the Harley dealers in the eastern half of the United States. It actually was a pretty simple job. Essentially I took orders for replacement parts and accessories from my dealers and coordinated their timely delivery. The dealers and their parts managers were great people to talk with. The toughest and worst part of the job was dealing with back orders. As you can imagine, people get pretty angry when they have to wait days or weeks or months for parts to make their vehicle operational. I got pretty good at creating resources around the organization for getting my hands on those back-ordered parts even though I was not working within normal channels. Back in the early '80s, the entire warehouse was located at 3700 W. Juneau Avenue. Cory, the warehouse manager, knew my brother very well and would always help me if he could. Some of the guys in engineering and at York, Pennsylvania, also knew my brother and would help me if they could.
It was exciting to meet all the new people I was going to work with. It was an interesting mix of people. One of our team's boss guys was a big and tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, fat Baby Huey–looking asshole. He was arrogant and condescending. He was also an ass-kisser. He would be at work before anyone got there and stay until everyone left at night, except he would be reading a newspaper. He really wanted to become a district manager. And it seemed like everything he did was planned to make him look good to his boss. But my coworkers were pretty cool—Teri, Carol, Marti, Chucky, Scott, and David. I did have to suffer through the initial time of getting to know everyone. Scott was hired on the same day I was, and he was in charge of parts and accessories for the western half of the United States. He was a real go-getter. Chucky looked like he was fifteen years old. Carol was so kind, wonderful, and experienced, and so was Marti, who would later become one of my best friends. My feeling was David was a henpecked guy who had a trophy business on the side. In the cubicle next to mine were a district manager and his secretary. His name was Chuck Russell and her name was Leah. They were really cool! I was really happy that my desk was so close to Chuck because, as a district manager, he gave me invaluable advice. He wasn't from the South but had a little bit of a Southern country-boy way of talking. He had a dry sense of humor and was always joking. As the first six months of my employment wore on, he and my brother Eddie were really the only reasons that I stayed at Harley.
It wasn't too long after I started that the arrogant Baby Huey took one of the motorcycles from the company-owned vehicle pool for a weekend ride. On Monday morning he was a little banged up, and he told everyone that a deer had jumped in front of him and he lost control. He said the bike was okay but then he ran out of gas in the middle of the ghetto. He went to make a phone call and when he got back the motorcycle had been stolen. Yeah, right! My coworkers and I think what really happened was that he was driving through the city, lost control because he was not a good motorcycle rider, and was so embarrassed that he just left the keys in the motorcycle and ran away. He was the first one to get promoted to district manager. His territory was the state of Illinois. After the first week he was gone, his replacement found a lot of important work that was time-sensitive hidden in the bottom of his desk drawer. Sales management flew to Illinois and fired him after his first week. Just as he deserved.
Clyde, the guy who hired me, had created a club a couple years earlier called the Harley Owners Group, or HOG for short. One of my first traveling assignments was to Massillon, Ohio, to work at the Ohio state HOG event. Nobody really told me what to expect, and I was just going there as a body to be used for any type of work that was required. It turned out that the weather was beautiful and I finally got to meet thousands of our customers in one place. There's not a lot to do in Massillon, but it was great! I got to meet a district manager legend, Davey Warren, and a Harley legend, Willie G. Davidson. We had some displays and a few vendors who sold trinkets and trash from their ten-by-ten-foot booths. Harley-Davidson corporate also sponsored test rides with the entire selection of our new models, including the new Evolution engine. One of my coworkers, Clint, worked the event with me. The first night in the hotel room, he asked me if I wanted to smoke some stuff with him and I graciously declined. I hadn't smoked as much as a cig since I was seventeen years old. (Clint went on to be a long-term employee and became a hero. He witnessed a drunk driver killing a Wisconsin State Trooper and, with courage and the values of a simple Midwesterner, followed him and led the authorities to the man.) Later that night, one of the female customers who I had met during the day and had a great conversation with knocked on my motel-room door and wanted to know if we could just have meaningless sex! I enthusiastically agreed to her request.
I realized after that trip that if you were halfway decent looking and had a Harley-Davidson business card, there would be a bunch of groupies you could take your pick from if you wanted to. Except for the time I was married, I took full advantage of that fact. Women when I wanted them, and none with the last name Michel.
Nearly all of the employees were required to attend and work our annual national dealer show. It happened every year in July, when Harley corporate would introduce the new models for the upcoming year. If you know your history, Harley-Davidson was experiencing very difficult market conditions as well as economic battles at that time. About 25 percent of the dealers had formed a group called the Dealer Alliance Group. At that time, the president of the group was from Black River Falls, Wisconsin. They really had no power, and they were kind of like a thorn in the side of the corporation. In an effort to defuse the mob, Harley decided to hold two different dealer shows in two different locations. In 1984, there was a dealer show in Hump, Nevada, and one in Nashville, Tennessee. I was asked to attend the dealer show in Nashville, which just happened to be on the same weekend as my ten-year high-school reunion. One of the upper sales managers was Pat. I had discussed leaving early from the dealer show to attend my reunion and he agreed. But when I reminded him right before I left, he told me there was no way. That really pissed me off. I had been warned very early on about what a sneaky little shit he was. One of the district managers from the Ohio area, Harry, had gone to my high school many years earlier with my sister Gini. When I was telling him about the situation, he told me to just go ahead and leave when I needed to, and Pat probably would never even know about it. And if he ever found out, I should confront him and tell him that he had promised me that I could go to my reunion. That's exactly what I did.
Excerpted from Who Is the Real Hog? by Robert Scot Michel. Copyright © 2013 Robert Scot Michel. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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