INTERVIEW: Jon-Erik Burleson on KTM-Husqvarna future

Publish Date: 
Jul 17, 2014
By Beth Dolgner

THE BUCK STOPS HERE. A chief executive officer is the single person responsible for a company’s performance. He or she is the leader of the entire organization and the main link between the business and its board of directors (and usually the media). The CEO’s job security hinges on whether the business succeeds or fails.

Dealernews launches its Executive Q&A Series with a look at the leaders who are responsible for what their businesses will be tomorrow.

Jon-Erik Burleson has been president of KTM North America Inc. since 2005. His career with the company began in 1996, when he was 21 years old. Now, Burleson also oversees Husqvarna North America and WP Suspension North America. KTM has about 340 dealers in the United States and 65 in Canada.

Burleson, who still races KTMs and is helping three of his four children race, discusses KTM, Husqvarna, introducing youngsters to motorcycling and why competition is a good thing.

Dealernews: What led you to a job with KTM?

Burleson: I grew up in a motorcycle family. My dad was a racer for a number of years, so I grew up around dirt bikes and never thought the world was anything else, really.

In the late ‘90s, I liked racing -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that, different kinds of racing stuff  and decided to go to college because I wasn’t fast enough to do anything in racing.

"Your biggest market gains and losses, and your position in the market, change at the low points, not the high points."

- Jon-Erik Burleson

I got a phone call from Rod Bush, who at the time was president of KTM North America. We knew each other -- we had gone on a trail ride together, and he had been asking me about college and what my plans were. He called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to help me out? I need a sales rep in Michigan, and I know you live in Michigan.” I said, “Well, I don’t really know a lot about sales, but I like dirt bikes.”

He said, “If I let you go racing on the weekends and give you bikes and parts to go racing, would you come to work Monday through Friday?” I said, “OK, let’s give that a shot.”

And then you became president.

Burleson: I got to kind of grow as the company grew. When I was hired, I was the 22nd employee. We had gone through a restructuring in ’92, so it was a very small company. As we grew up, there were a lot of business needs, so I took the opportunity to go back and get my graduate degree and spent a lot of time in finance and logistics with KTM.

I developed into a role of supporting Rod as his right-hand guy. Then in ’05 he was diagnosed with a pretty severe stage of lung cancer, and in three short months went from diagnosis to passing away. There was a pretty big need inside the company, obviously.

I’ve said it quite often that I was for sure too young, for sure not experienced enough, but the time was then, so I said OK.

How was KTM North America affected by the U.S. recession?

Burleson: We were really growing like crazy in ‘05, so in units we were quite good. The market was going like crazy, so everybody was growing. We didn’t have that much market share; we were just growing like crazy.

A couple of things happened that set us up to be successful. The U.S. dollar devalued about 18 months prior to the financial crisis, and that meant that we kind of prepared the groundwork. We were more prepared for the financial crisis because we had already battened down the hatches.

When the market crashed, we were in a situation where we were already implementing change.

One of the things I believe pretty strongly is that your biggest market gains and losses, and your position in the market, change at the low points, not the high points. During the crisis, we saw opportunities to do things differently and take off and go different directions.