A year after Matt Levatich ’94 joined Harley-Davidson Inc., he sat down for a routine annual check-in with the head of human resources and another senior leader and casually expressed that he had always thought about working abroad.
“They looked at each other and said, ‘Well, how about now?’” recalls Levatich. He was in disbelief since his role at the time was in manufacturing and suddenly two company leaders were suggesting he move to England to launch the Buell motorcycle brand in Europe. “As a mechanical engineer with a manufacturing background, I’m given this marketing and business development role in a large, important region. It’s a great example of what Harley-Davidson has allowed me to do.”
It wasn’t the last time the company entrusted Levatich with such a tremendous challenge. In 2003, he moved to the purchasing and supply chain side of the business, despite having no prior experience performing heavy business negotiations with suppliers. After proving himself in this space, he was promoted to Vice President of Materials Management.
“I’m most fulfilled when I feel like I'm on that forefront of my own capability,” says Levatich. “It’s challenging, it’s enriching and I suppose it’s stressful, but that’s the payoff. It doesn’t feel particularly stressful when it’s fulfilling.”
Now the president and CEO of Harley-Davidson Inc. Levatich values his ability to continue fostering a culture where eager individuals can learn and grow on the job. He says he first witnessed how such a broad-minded approach can work when he was at Kellogg.
“My fellow students were the biggest inspiration to me,” he says. “The diversity on every level: global, ethnic, gender and experience diversity. To really see the world through other people's perspectives, and to then recognize how other people's perspectives can be and should be harnessed to make better solutions, that stuck with me and influences how I assemble a team today.”
Levatich, who grew up riding motorcycles, is proud of Harley-Davidson’s immense legacy. But he also understands the importance of differentiating legacy from history.
“I remind employees and stakeholders that when we say the word ‘legacy,’ we’re talking about a 115-year-old company, and it's our duty to carry that legacy forward,” he says. “And when you say the word ‘legacy,’ a lot of people think history, but legacy isn’t just the road we’ve traveled, it’s the road we’re on. Sure, it brings forward everything that we have experienced and who we are and what we're about, but it's inherently focused on where we're going.”
To maintain the company’s legacy while continuing to move forward, Levatich is focused on shifting the mindset from one that believes Harley-Davidson builds motorcycles to another that believes Harley builds riders.
“Of course we have to make great products,” explains Levatich. “But that’s not necessarily enough anymore. We have to inspire the next generation of riders. For instance, in the United States, we have a significant base of used motorcycles – they’re timeless, durable, beautiful. When you’re in the business of selling or building motorcycles you don’t like used Harleys because they compete with you. But when you’re in the business of building riders you love used motorcycles because they provide a pathway for people getting into the sport. So this mindset shift helps us solve the right problem in the right way.”
Also on hand to help solve the right problems in the right way is Levatich’s – and Harley-Davidson’s – instinct for championing diverse and sometimes less experienced backgrounds.
“It’s exciting to me to work on new challenges and to get our 6,000 employees and the 40,000 or so employees of our dealers around the world to become aligned around different ways of thinking and different actions going forward,” he says.