DEALERNEWS senior editor Beth Dolgner this spring sat down with CEO Greg Heichelbech to discuss his management style and what Triumph has accomplished so far under his direction.
Triumph confirmed June 20 that Heichelbech was no longer with the company. The following is a transcript of Dolgner's interview with the former CEO...when he was still CEO. -- Editor
ATLANTA, Ga. Greg Heichelbech joined Triumph North America three years ago, and during his tenure as CEO the company has been almost completely overhauled, with new staff, new processes and new dealer programs. The revamped approach has resulted in 12 consecutive quarters of growth.
Heichelbech attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater before landing a job with Harley-Davidson. He ascended from an entry-level position to Director of Dealer Development for the Retail Environment Group before heading to Atlanta to run Triumph North America.
Dolgner: How did you break into the industry?
Heichelbech: I was a motocrosser. Like most kids, I rode dirt bikes in the field, then started doing a little racing. One thing led to another. I went to college, and came out and said, "You know, I need to have a job." I’ve always been interested in cars and motorcycles, and Harley was at my back door, and I had a friend from school that was working there and suggested I submit a résumé.
What kind of experience did you gain at Harley-Davidson?
Heichelbech: Harley gave me a unique experience because they owned a couple of different companies. I was fortunate enough to go to all three businesses. I started at Harley, went to Holiday Rambler, then went to Buell, then went back to Harley, then went to Buell. Let me tell you, they were all different. Buell was a startup and was completely different than Harley, and Holiday Rambler was not a startup but it had been a privately held company, so it operated differently. I got to do all kinds of jobs, from sales to product development to strategy to director of sales to the retail environment of the stores to product launches, so I was able to get a big group of experiences.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced at Triumph?
Heichelbech: Well, the brand was great. The products were great. But I think their understanding of the U.S. consumer, market and dealer -- and, therefore, the business model -- was underdeveloped. So that was something we needed to discuss: how distribution is handled in the U.S. and what that needs to look like to be more successful. That revolved around the dealer model and their profitability, to how the American consumer sees the brand and what really made the brand popular back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. What piece of Americana stuck in people’s minds, and how [could] we revive that and translate it to today? We had to figure out how to develop that and make the connection.
[We also evaluated] what systems did we need to have in place -- vs. what was available -- to support a much bigger business. More dealers, broader geographic space, more volume of everything: parts, accessories, the whole nine yards. That all had to be looked at, and then also we had to make some tough decisions. We were always warehousing our own products and we had our own warehousing staff, and so it was very close to us and it was in the back of our office. We had to make that decision that this wasn’t our core business [and] farm that out.
Didn’t you bring in a lot of new staff?
Heichelbech: We did. We had a lot of good people working for Triumph, but the way the company had been going, or the direction they had been taking it, the staff maybe fit that model but didn’t fit our new model. Good people, wrong skillset. You try to bridge that gap and say, hey, this group or this individual can adapt and bring them over, and this one’s expertise is only in that area and it’s not going to help us get where we need to be in a short amount of time. So we had to make some tough decisions. But I think in the long run for everyone, it was better. Everyone’s happier. That’s the hardest thing: making executive decisions.
What is your philosophy as a leader?
Heichelbech: Empowerment comes in the form of being accessible to everyone in the organization, basically opening your books. That means showing all the dirty laundry of the company to everyone and saying, ‘This is why we’re fixing it, and what we have to fix.’
And the other thing [at Triumph] was rolling up our sleeves and doing a lot of the hard work at the very beginning with the managers. That not only helps us learn the business and fix what’s wrong, but [lets us] build camaraderie with that group as we fix those problems. That builds a really strong team. So I think a lot of the people in here feel like we’ve been fighting a war together. ‘We’ve got his back,’ and I’ve got their back.
How do you communicate with dealers?
Heichelbech: At first it was a lot through our dealer council, which helped us a lot at the very beginning when I came on, getting to understand what the dealer issues were. We tackled a number of issues with their help. Then we started going a little broader by adding 20 clubs. The 20 clubs give you a different perspective because then not only do you get to hear the concerns from a larger group of dealers, but you also get to hear the executional issues within the store.
We’ve got the dealer council, we’ve got three 20 clubs going to four, so there are 60 dealers that Matt [Sheahan, COO], myself and Don [Carleo, CFO] get to interact with.
What members of the industry have influenced you the most?
Heichelbech: The first one was Rich Teerlink. I kind of saw how he managed himself, how he worked within the Harley family, how he worked with the dealers. There were two VPs who in particular helped shape my attitude toward working with dealers, and that was Jerry Wilke, who was a VP of sales, and Jon Flickinger. Both of those guys were very knowledgeable in the industry, but very good at relationship building and being able to have a tough conversation and leave as a friend, which is very hard to do. I can’t say that I’ve always mastered it.
What do you see for the future of Triumph North America?
Heichelbech: I don’t think our strategic initiatives are going to change. What I do see is that both we and our dealers are going to get smarter, more efficient and quicker to reacting to not only the market, but the consumer and his demands. We’re going to become stronger and more profitable, and it just kind of happens as a snowball.
And I feel like -- and this is a gut feel -- that it’s happening, but we need another year of retail success. We’ve grown 60 percent since we started three years ago, and we’re poised to have another good year this year, and I suspect that within the next year or two there’s going to be a big breakout for us.
And it’s really just around all the work that we’ve done on those foundational pieces and the strength of this brand.
I think the market is ready for it. I’m talking to people about looking at Triumph, maybe for the first time, or they had ridden [Triumph] in the past and are on another brand, and the other brands aren’t as interesting anymore. So there’s a lot of openness to change. If we play our cards right, then I think we can fill that void.
What is your favorite Triumph model?
Heichelbech: It has to be the bike I just got. It’s a custom-built [street legal] flat tracker that’s made by Bonneville Performance, our flat track racing team. It’s here for the staff to ride so they can see it and get energized. Two weekends ago I was racing at NOLA on a Thruxton, so that was a blast. So right now, those are probably my two favorite bikes.