As he approaches his final months as president of S&S Cycle, Brett Smith is confident in his legacy with the powerhouse aftermarket company and its place in the constantly changing V-twin market.
Smith announced earlier this week that he was resigning after serving five years at the helm of his family's business, a move he admits some people — including his competitors — will happily welcome. It's also a decision, he says, that is deeply personal and family related and not part of any of the various rumors he's heard and read that he'd been fired or run out of the business.
Smith notes that he'll still be a voting shareholder in the company that he firmly believes will ride out the challenges facing not only the industry but the nation at large. Smith's father, George Smith, the company's former president, will serve as interim CEO.
"I think S&S is going to do well. It's been put in a great position already in the marketplace. Everybody knows the market is down and all the businesses are struggling … but the strategies we've put in place have certainly gained us recognition, not only in the V-twin industry and the motorcycle industry, but in the powersports industry as a whole," Smith says. "I don't believe that those strategies are going to change willy-nilly simply because I'm departing.
His resignation owes partly to his decision to focus on his immediate family, but Smith says the dual stresses of dealing with everyday business issues and the dynamics of working within a family business has taken a lot out of him.
"I think it was time for me to move on. Not having a specific plan in place would probably seem somewhat uncharacteristic of me for the people who know me," he says. "By the same token, sometimes that allows for even more special things to occur.
I think that [most] know I'm a man of faith, I've been pretty vocal about that. I think that the most exciting thing that my wife and I are looking forward to is to see exactly what God's going to do in our lives with this decision that we made. That's why I'm very upbeat and excited about it," he adds.
Known for his forceful personality, the brash and outspoken West Point graduate has led the 50-year-old company through a time of tremendous growth in the V-twin segment of the market. During that time, S&S Cycle saw its own industry footprint grow with an expanded catalog of product offerings, including the 50-state emissions compliant X-Wedge engine. It also beefed up its efforts in dealer development and training and education.
During that time, the company was the main supplier of aftermarket V-twin motors to the custom performance OEMs that grew out of the V-twin boom.
Smith also gained prominence for his role in the struggle to bend an often reluctant V-twin industry around ever-tightening federal and state emissions requirements. On his watch, S&S Cycle emerged as one of the companies that not only led the charge to comply with regulators, but to fight for reasonable rules that made economic sense for the industry.
Earlier this year, S&S unveiled its own in-house emission certifications lab at its La Crosse, Wis., facility. At the time, Michael Scaletta, S&S director of business development, called the lab "strategically important for the company," adding that it "provides S&S with a long-run competitive advantage in the industry."
The company jumped into the vintage market in July 2007 by purchasing Flathead Power.
But perhaps Smith's crowning achievement, he says, is overseeing the company's massive 50th anniversary celebration in La Crosse. The party virtually took over the small town along the Mississippi River during a weeklong celebration of all things S&S and V-twin.
"There's not a lot that I look back on and say, ‘Man I wish I could have done this differently or changed that,’" Smith says. "I look over our record and I feel pretty strongly about it. We've got a great team of people, a great bunch of employees and I'm proud of all of them."
In light of his achievements with the company, Smith finds it hard to leave when the V-twin industry is under the shadow of the national and global economic crises and his family business is feeling the pain. So, over the past year, he's not only found himself presiding over the 50th party, but also a restructuring of the company that saw 58 employees laid off.
"It was something that the company needed to do and if I had not participated in that and stuck around I think I would have been shirking my responsibilities," Smith says. "That doesn't mean there aren't going to be additional changes at the company after I leave. I think we're looking at additional changes as we speak."
In addition to the layoffs, the privately held company also restructured its board of directors — a body long populated by family members — to include new, outside board members.
"Some of the major changes that needed to happen, happened under my watch. Right wrong or indifferent people will always challenge the decisions that you've made. I agreed with those decisions and I executed those decisions. They were my decisions," he says. "To resign after the 50th and have somebody else do that, I would not have had a lot of respect for myself under those circumstances."
Despite the challenges the company — and the industry — faces, Smith says he hopes people don't see his departure as a sign of doom and gloom for S&S because that's not the case. The company is still very strong, he says.
But before anything starts sailing smoothly, the national and global economic situation will have to stabilize, as will the industry's shaky economics. After that, Smith sees the custom V-twin market bouncing back. Not to the same level as before, but the aftermarket, the custom builder side and the performance side should do well, he predicts.
"As far as my future endeavors are concerned, I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do yet," he says. He focused so heavily on running the company that he's not had time to make a future plan. He's not even sure he's planning on staying in the motorcycle or powersports industry, adding that he's looking into basic business opportunities near his home in Onalaska, Wis.
"Like I said. I'm not leaving the company outright. I'm a voting shareholder. I may be a director again sometime in the future," Smith says. "That's something that I backed away from when we changed the governance and brought the new board members into place.
"There's chances and opportunities to do some great things, but there's still challenges and we've got to navigate through those waters carefully. I believe that this new board and my father and his experience and the workforce and senior management team are going to be able to do that."