Triumph N.A. CEO Greg Heichelbech Interview

February 20, 2014
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
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Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

After 20 years with The Motor Company, a stint that included everything from working with Erik Buell to serving as director of dealer development, Greg Heichelbech started a new chapter of his career as CEO of Triumph North America (N.A.). In a little over three years, Heichelbech’s LinkedIn resume claims great gains in a short period of time, stating Triumph Motorcycles N.A. has “increased profitability by 200%, revenues by 80%, and retail unit sales by 53%.” This was accomplished by “designing and executing a new strategic plan to accelerate growth by enhancing dealer profitability, promoting brand heritage, significantly increasing awareness, expanding the distribution network, and streamlining the infrastructure.”

In terms of enhancing dealer profitability, Triumph enjoyed a record sales year in 2013, selling 52,089 motorcycles worldwide. Approximately 13,000 of those sales took place in the US, with around 16,000 units projected to be sold domestically in 2014. Since taking over in 2010, the US Triumph dealer network has risen from 165 to 225, and the company believes a 300 dealer-strong-network is achievable in the next couple of years.

On the “promoting brand heritage” side, Triumph has thrown its hat into the race to be the first to break the 400mph barrier on two wheels in the form of The Castrol Rocket streamliner. Triumph-powered streamliners like the “Big D Texas Cigar” and “Gyronaut X-1” held the motorcycle land speed record from 1955 to 1970 and the British marque would like to one again capitalize on that performance-based reputation. Having claim to the “World’s Fastest Motorcycle” and being the first to break the vaunted 400mph barrier would be a powerful marketing tool. So Triumph allied itself with Castrol, Hot Rod Conspiracy, and Carpenter Racing and headed out to Bonneville last year with the Castrol Rocket, a 25.5-foot-long carbon fiber-wrapped missile powered by two turbocharged Rocket II engines making more than 1000 hp. The Castrol Rocket, piloted by road racing veteran Jason DiSalvo, got a shakedown at the BUB Motorcycle Speed Trials last year and is eager to attack the Salt once again this year in its pursuit of the title to “World’s Fastest Motorcycle.” This is just one example of how Triumph has actively promoted its brand heritage since Heichelbech took the helm.

As for his aim to “significantly increase awareness,” recent collaborations with companies like Icon and riders like Ernie “E-Dub” Vigil and Nick “Apex” Brocha have thrust bikes like the Triumph Tiger 800XC and the Speed Triple into the limelight. Videos like “Motorcycle vs. Car Drift Battle 2” (20,230,966 views) and “The Raiden Files -Portland to Dakar” have gone viral, making countless people wish they could bomb up sand dunes or slide out the backside of a Street Triple like the guys from Empire Freestyle. People like Brian Klock of Klock Werks Kustom Cycles and Jason Panther of British Customs have been demonstrating the customizing potential of Triumphs to the current generation of riders. This also hails to the brand’s heritage as riders have been cutting and chopping up Triumphs for a long time, from turning them into raked-out choppers to trimming them down into sporty café racers.

So there is evidence Heichelbech’s plan of action since he joined Triumph Motorcycles is working. The CEO of Triumph N.A. attended last week’s international press launch of the 2014 Commander and LT where he addressed the media about the new models and rode along with journalists. The following day, we had a chance to sit down with him to talk about his tenure at Triumph.

MotoUSA: Yesterday when you were talking to us, you said Triumph doubled their market share. Is that in North America?

Heichelbech: Yes. So we look at, there’s two ways to look at market share. The US in general, whether you have a dealer and a market or not. And then in your dealer primary market area. So, we were about 1.5% market share in 2010 as a nation. Now we’re 3%, a little over 3%. If you go into where we actually have a dealer in a market, it’s almost 5.5% – 6% market share. So that’s what I’m talking about, doubling the market share. Our retail sales were up just shy of 60% since 2010.

So what do you think contributed to those gains?

Heichelbech: Well, a couple different things. We just reengineered the business, to be honest with you. So the brand has always been strong, and it’s a great story. But, it wasn’t being told and it wasn’t being told loud enough. So we tried to package the story in a very concise and succinct way and then go out and market it. And so we did that both in endemic and non-endemic magazines, websites, videos. You’ve probably seen a lot of our videos. We work on YouTube, between Nick and Ernie, and Icon and other partners.

And so that was the one big thing, package the brand correctly in a concise message and then get it out to a lot of people. There’s eight – nine million people that have motorcycles in garages. That’s a lot of people. Unfortunately, they’re not all reading our magazines, our industry magazines, so we’ve got to reach them, and how do we do that? So it’s both inside and outside the industry.

The second thing then was to talk to our dealers because they had been struggling because of the downturn. And we said, look we’re going to do a couple things for you. One we’re going to make it easier to do business with us. And two, we’re going to make you profitable. So we changed all of our programs, all of our margins to basically, we gave them more margin so that they could hire people. You have to have product and people. And so we looked at a number of our programs and said how can we share more of the risk with them, both on a bike side but also on a parts and accessories side, and make sure that when a customer walks into that store they get a good experience with the Triumph brand.

Then like you said (during the presentation of the 2014 Thunderbird Commander and LT the previous night), having the 365, 24/7 support, is that something new?

Heichelbech: Yeah, that started basically in November of 2013. That came out, out of again the strategy of being easy to do business with our dealers but then also the addition of e-comm and talking about, how do we service our customers at the dealer but also ultimately the online customer. Because all of us are busy and we need to be able to interact with those brands that we deem are valuable to us, whenever we want. Right? And so the technology is basically there to do that in a lot of different forms, so how do we take advantage of that? Well, E-comm’s one of them. That’s 24/7. Okay, what about if people want to talk about lights? What if they have a service issue? What if the dealer has a service issue and we need to communicate with the UK? Well I can do that while everyone’s sleeping and when the dealer gets back in the dealership, he’s got an answer. So the genesis was, easy to do business with, the e-commerce site and then providing the best service to both customer and customers that befits what we consider a premium brand, which is Triumph. And so that’s why we did it.

I was curious, as far as sales, what’s the most popular cruiser model?

Heichelbech: Our most popular cruiser model is the Thunderbird. Then it would be the America Speedmaster, those two combined. And then next would be the Rocket III. The Rocket III comes in obviously, a Roadster and Touring version. That’s a man’s man bike. That’s a big mother. It handles really well and feels very nimble. But it can be intimidating when it’s just sitting there. But as a cruiser, those are the hot-sellers.

Even more so than models like the Bonnies?

Heichelbech: The Bonnie family, I was just going to say, now the Bonnie family, the Scrambler, the Thruxton, that is our bread-and-butter. Along with the Street Triple, that’s a really, really big seller. And then the Tiger 800 and the Explorer. And they’re in their own right doing well in their segments. Right now we’ve got a pretty good lineup and everything’s selling pretty well. John Bloor, the owner of our company, has always been a proponent of product investment and that’s why we’re the only European brand that has a full lineup of product, from small to large. You’ve probably seen the news that we’re going to come out with a 300, a streetbike, so we’re just continuing to grow that segment and grow the different segments.

You mentioned the call you received from John Bloor about the Triumph CEO North America position, could you expand on that a little bit. Was that a call out of the blue or were you anticipating it? Why you?

Heichelbech: Well, what happened is, two people that I worked with at Harley went to Triumph. And when they decided that, John decided that he wanted to have someone in the US run the US office, he relied on these two people for their input and I was recommended. So they reached out to me, and I’m sure they reached out to others. And we talked, for probably several months, six months. I knew a lot about Triumph but what I didn’t know as a privately held company is the internal workings. So I wanted to learn more about that. The brand was great, the product was great, but I needed to know more. They felt with my unique experience because I worked at Harley, I worked in the Buell business with Erik Buell, I had done both sales, product development, retail environment, so I had a lot of understanding of the dealer network. So that was one of the things they liked about me. The fact that I’m a rider, whether it’s a motorcycle, or motocross like I used to. I like to go and do trackdays, so I’m not just a cruiser guy because I worked at Harley. I was one of those guys who hung out with the performance guys at Harley. I wanted to take the drag V-Rod out, you know? So the philosophy and the mindset and the lifestyle all worked and it all came together. I saw it as a great opportunity.

Did you ever expect that you’d be the CEO of a company like Triumph?

Heichelbech: That’s a tough question to answer and I’ll tell you why. As a kid, you dream about owning your own business. I always dreamed about that or running a business. Did I think it was going to be Triumph? Of course not. But as a little kid, for whatever reason, that was just one of my things. I don’t know what it was, I like doing a lot of different things during the day instead of just one thing. That’s something you gotta be able to do to run the company, you’ve got to know all different disciplines and be able to bounce from one to the other. So, did I see myself as CEO of Triumph? To be honest with you, no, because I thought I was probably going to be with Harley my whole career. I’d been there 20 years. Like I said, to get me away from that, I had to see something very, very tremendous. And that’s what I see. I really see this brand as being on par with any brand out there, if not better. It just needed to be taken care of and watered and fertilized so it could flourish. And a couple of other different things, whether it be product or marketing, whether it be network. But the brand’s not broken and the product’s not broken, so those are the two hardest things. They were already building great classics and they showed me what the product plan was going to be, so I saw the Tiger coming, and I saw the new 675 coming, and the R, so I got a glimpse of all that.

Can you touch on any goals moving forward?

Heichelbech: Sure. When I first came to Triumph, one of those things that I set out to do was, we wanted to be the number one import brand in the US. Now I’m not talking dirtbikes and all that, I’m talking 500cc and up. Where that goal came from was, back in the ‘60s, we were the number one brand. We sold 28,000 Bonnevilles, just Bonnevilles, a year. So my thinking is, from a brand perspective and all the history that goes with it, even though there was a gap, there’s no reason we can’t take that spot back. You’ve got great product and you’ve a wide breadth of product and you’ve got a great brand. So it’s just a few other “P’s” of the marketing side that I have to work on. There’s been a couple months where we’ve actually outperformed the fourth-ranking import brand (surpassing Suzuki).

My second goal is to continue to expand the network and expand the product that they sell within their stores to be more profitable. What I mean is I don’t want to be just a classics company. I want people to recognize us a full lineup of products. That’s why we’re trying to show here today that’s it not just the LT, it’s the Bonneville to the Rocket III, a broad line of cruisers.