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Who Owns Harley-Davidson?

Harley Davidson

When it comes to the motorcycle industry, Harley-Davidson continues to be one of the most reputable names. The brand has been around since the early 20th century, with William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson starting on their first motorbike in 1901. While the original design had some flaws, friends and even Davidson brothers got involved, allowing the Harley-Davidson brand to grow and become what it is today.

Who owns Harley Davidson Motorcycles? There have been various owners throughout the years, and this article will show you how the owners have changed and what the current structure looks like.

Founders and Early Investors

When you want to look at who owns Harley Davidson motorcycles, it’s important to go back to the beginning. The company was founded in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It was incorporated in 1907, with Walter Davidson becoming the first president. Additionally, several other Davidson brothers held key positions:

  • Arthur Davidson – First general sales manager (and secretary)
  • William Davidson – First works manager

William Harley was the chief engineer as well as the treasurer.

All four of these individuals (three Davidsons and one Harley) were the founders.

In the early years, there were many technical problems. That’s when Walter was initially called in because he was a machinist and self-taught electrician.

By 1905, they had their first working motorcycle, and they were able to produce 50 in 1906.

1907 was a turning point not only because of incorporation but also because of how they were suddenly capable of getting help with the manufacturing process (thanks to William Davidson).

With all this help, Harley was able to finish engineering school at the University of Wisconsin. He went on to control product development and even received 67 patents over time.

They sold to law enforcement and even the US military.

As cars entered and became more affordable, sales declined.

The response was to create new innovations, including the Flathead and Knucklehead OHV engines.

The Great Depression was a particularly difficult time for the brand from 1929 to 1933. In fact, sales fell from approximately 21,000 a year down to only 3700. The company helped to survive the Depression by manufacturing more than just motorcycles. They manufactured industrial powerplants that were based on their engines. They also designed what is known as a Servi-Car, a three-wheeled delivery vehicle that was produced until 1973.

It’s also important to note that only two American manufacturers of motorcycles survived the Great Depression. This included Harley-Davidson as well as Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing.

There was also a bit of tarnishing to the Harley-Davidson reputation. This happened in 1952 when the company applied to the US Tariff Commission in 1952. They wanted a 40 percent tax on imported motorcycles as a way to promote American-made motorcycles. This ended up hurting them, and the company was charged with restrictive practices.

AMF Ownership Era

By the end of WWII, the leadership within Harley Davidson was significantly changed. William Davidson was the first to die in 1937. By 1950, Arthur was the last remaining founder, who died in a car accident at the age of 69.

In order to keep the company alive, the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought Harley Davidson in 1969. They streamlined production but also slashed the workforce.

This left several problems:

  • A labor strike
  • Tanking sales
  • Verge of bankruptcy

The company struggled significantly during this time.

There was a lot going on during this time, specifically because Harley-Davidson faced more competition than ever before. The “Big Four” of Japanese manufacturers had revolutionized the North American market with what was known as the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. These manufacturers were Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha.

The Japanese bikes were affordable.

Harley-Davidson bikes, meanwhile, were expensive and inferior in quality, performance, and handling.

There were also a few controversial bikes produced by Harley…

Liberty Edition: A bike that would commemorate the bicentennial of America in 1976.

Confederate Edition: A stock Harley-Davidson with a Confederate-specific paint scheme.

The company was nearly bankrupt by 1981.

A group of Harley Davidson executives banded together to buy the company in 1981 for the cost of $81.5 million. This included Jeffrey Bleustein, who was the VP of Engineering at the time – and later went on to serve as the company’s CEO from 1997 until 2005.

Bleustein was quoted in 2009 telling IBD, “People throughout the company know more about the work they do in their area than the bosses do, so they are the best people to figure out what needs to be done if you want to improve performance, increase quality, reduce cost, etc. Moreover, people will work smarter and harder on their own ideas.”

The Willie G. Era

Willie G. Davidson is the grandson of William Davidson, one of the original founders of the company. This is an important era when asking who owns Harley Davidson because it allowed the company to return to the Davidson family and respect its roots.

Willie G. joined the company in 1963, becoming a part of the design department. Just six years later, in 1969, he received a promotion to VP of Styling.

He was once quoted as saying, “I was born with gasoline in my veins and a crayon in each hand.”

For nearly 40 years, Willie G. helped to improve the image of Harley-Davidson and make it one of the most recognizable motorcycles in the world. He served as Chief Styling Officer – and while he retired at 78, he continued on as the Brand Ambassador for quite some time.

There are quite a few bikes that Willie G. is known for contributing to the brand:

  • 1971 Super Glide
  • 1977 FXS Dyna Low Rider
  • 1986 Heritage Softail Classic
  • 1990 FLSTF Fat Boy
  • 2001 Harley Davidson VRSCA V-Rod
  • 2006 FLHZ Street Glide
  • 2012 Softail Slim
  • 2012 XL 72 Sportster

Complex does a great job of offering a history of some of the different motorcycles that Willie G. was responsible for.

What Willie G. is known for within the company is to combine the classic Harley with the culture of custom cars. It allowed the bikes to strike a chord with customers, He designed not only bikes but even golf carts and snowmobiles.

He goes down in history within the company for the designs and achievements that he contributed. There was even a special exhibit within the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee due to being one of the most influential people in the company.

Current Ownership Structure

The current ownership structure is that it is a corporation that is publicly held and traded. As such, the owners are all shareholders – and some have more influential holdings than others.

The ownership structure shifted significantly once it was bought by 13 investors in 1981 (after being sold by AMF). Some of the top investors responsible for the purchase included Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson.

There were several BIG changes made by the new investors that helped to turn the brand around. Some of these changes included:

  • Just-in-time inventory management
  • An improvement in product quality
  • Introduction of new technologies

The company purposely chose not to mimic Japanese designs. Instead, they exploited the “retro” appeal of Harley motorcycles. They also bought the “sub shock” cantilever-swingarm rear suspension design from Bill Davis, an engineer from Missouri, that would go on to be used in the Softail series.

The Fat Boy was introduced in 1990, allowing the company to be the sales leader within the heavyweight market.

In 1998, the first factory outside the US opened – in Manaus, Brazil. This allowed the company to take advantage of the free economic zone while also helping to position the brand within the southern hemisphere market.

In 2009, Harley-Davidson India was launched, which allowed motorcycles to be sold there starting in 2010. While this didn’t ultimately pan out for the company, it did help them to learn what does and doesn’t work for the company.

Based on the most recent annual report and what is reported on Yahoo Finance, the top shareholders are as follows:

Shareholder Ownership Percentage
Vanguard Group 9.48%
H Partners Management 8.47%
Blackrock Inc 8.42%
Beutel, Goodman & Company Ltd 5.5%
Boston Partners 4.7%

Most of the top shareholders are asset management and investment companies. In fact, 76% of the company is owned by institutional investors.

You can also look up the stock, traded as HOG, at any time to see what the stock price is and who some of the key stakeholders are.

While the company does face problems periodically, such as problems with some of the police touring models in 2000 and the labor strike of 2007, the company has managed to learn from its mistakes over the past 110+ years of doing business. They’re able to shift, adapt, and continue toward greatness, which is why the Harley-Davidson brand continues to thrive.

When you ask who owns Harley Davidson, it’s important to know the entire history rather than simply accepting that, today, it is a publicly-traded company. After all, the history is the most exciting part of the company.

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Allen Lee

Written by Allen Lee

Allen Lee is a Toronto-based freelance writer who studied business in school but has since turned to other pursuits. He spends more time than is perhaps wise with his eyes fixed on a screen either reading history books, keeping up with international news, or playing the latest releases on the Steam platform, which serve as the subject matter for much of his writing output. Currently, Lee is practicing the smidgen of Chinese that he picked up while visiting the Chinese mainland in hopes of someday being able to read certain historical texts in their original language.

Read more posts by Allen Lee

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