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Tim Hoelter

Thirty-year Top Executive of Harley-Davidson; Engineered One of Most Dramatic Turnarounds in Corporate History

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In the summer of 1981, Tim Hoelter left his secure partnership at a respected Milwaukee law firm to pursue an exciting opportunity – joining the executive/investor group, as the only outsider, purchasing Harley-Davidson from its parent, AMF Incorporated. His timing, however, was terrible. From awful quality problems, a negative brand image, foreign competition and staggering debt, to the deepest recession since the Great Depression causing sales to plunge, Tim realized he had put his family at risk by making the worst decision of his life. But thankfully, that’s not where the story ends. With incredible teamwork, fierce courage and steadfast commitment, the Harley-Davidson buyout group overcame horrendous odds. Tim shows how it’s possible to motivate and inspire any organization by taking you behind closed doors for a detailed and emotional account of the meetings, strategic decisions and innovative business changes Harley-Davidson made during those trying years. The end result today is an American success story and one of the world’s strongest brands.

The name Harley-Davidson is ranked among the best brands in the world. It’s instantly recognized, deeply respected and profitable. In fact, Harley-Davidson generates tens of millions of dollars annually in royalties thanks to Tim Hoelter.

So it may be hard to believe that not so long ago the Harley-Davidson brand was in crisis and the company was in real danger of losing ownership. Counterfeiting had gone unchecked and knockoffs with drug paraphernalia and racist items were dragging it through the mud. Making it his Top Priority, Tim showed strategic vision and leadership by singlehandedly launching a no prisoners taken effort that rescued the brand, secured Harley-Davidson’s ownership and turned the brand into a cash cow. In the process the law department became a key instrument in revitalizing the brand – a motivational story of innovation and unprecedented achievement.

Tim also strategically positioned the company to compete globally. Traveling far beyond the company’s headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he gave Harley-Davidson a “seat at the table” in the International Motorcycle Manufacturers Association in Geneva, at the UN, the WTO and in the International Trade Administration in Washington DC.

After 30 years in leadership roles at Harley-Davidson, Tim is able to share narratives of huge significance that inform his audience – he’s an inspirational leadership and strategic management keynote speaker with stories only he can tell.

Harley-Davidson sits on top of the world heavyweight motorcycle market. More than a motorcycle, the brand fulfills dreams of personal freedom and inspires cult-like devotion among legions of riders around the world, some of whom proudly ink their bodies with permanent artwork. Despite increasingly fierce competition, Harley commands 50% of the U.S. market and sells more motorcycles to young adults, to women and to African American and Latino adults than any other motorcycle company. These accomplishments are the result of strong leadership, strategic management and innovative business practices. Tim Hoelter gives a firsthand account of how Harley became one of the first U.S. manufacturers to combine just-in-time inventory practices, employee involvement and Deming’s principles of quality into a triad of success that drove costs down, increased productivity and turned out motorcycle after motorcycle exceeding customer expectations. He shows how any company can forge a Harley-like bond with its customers and implement sales and marketing programs to run circles around competitors.

Tim Hoelter and the Harley-Davidson buyout group persevered to overcome many daunting obstacles in the early years. With the specter of bankruptcy always hanging over their heads, they were a team united that had each other’s backs. However, when it came to the threat posed by the company’s 4 Japanese competitors, they were a team divided.

In the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki were flooding the market and threatening the company’s fragile turnaround. How could the approaching tsunami possibly be averted? Only Hoelter, who went to his boss with the idea, and CEO Vaughn Beals, were willing to risk everything with a long shot effort to avert disaster.  What those two accomplished, first at the International Trade Commission and later with the Reagan White House, is still talked about in Washington trade circles. Their strategic victory gave Harley the critical breathing room it so desperately needed to complete its turnaround and become the world-class competitor it is today. Tim Hoelter shows you how perseverance and a can do attitude pay off. He alone reveals to his audience the numerous closed-door meetings, the critical considerations and Ronald Reagan’s strategic thinking that ultimately led to success and secured Harley-Davidson’s unprecedented victory.


Tim Hoelter’s distinguished 30-year career with Harley-Davidson took him through ups and downs and twists and turns, around the world and back to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where his story is commemorated inside the walls of the Harley-Davidson Museum. As Harley’s first General Counsel, later as Vice President, Government Affairs, and as the only outsider among a group of 13 executives who purchased the company in a leveraged buyout in 1981, Tim has seen it all. His motivational firsthand account of the horrendous obstacles his group faced, how they hung on, averted bankruptcy and turned Harley-Davidson into an American Success Story is a gripping tale that will forever resonate with leadership teams facing seemingly impossible challenges.

After falling in love with motorcycling on the back of a ’56 Triumph during his undergrad years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adventuring through Europe on a shoestring budget, teaching, then graduating from Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tim landed a job practicing with a premier Milwaukee law firm. His new employer happened to represent Harley-Davidson’s parent, AMF Incorporated, which meant eventually, Tim’s becoming Harley’s “go to” lawyer for a host of issues including marketing campaigns, contracts, dealer and regulatory matters.

Then, after nine years of advising the company, demonstrating his love of the industry and the “real” people in it, Tim logically, yet somewhat extraordinarily, was invited to become the lone outsider among a close-knit team of Harley-Davidson executives forming the buyout group. For Tim, the decision to jump on board was to a great extent based on emotion, versus cold, hard career calculations. He invested his entire life savings for a 4% ownership interest in the newly independent company, yet within six weeks he was quite certain he’d made the worst decision of his life.

His career switch unfortunately aligned with the U.S. economy suddenly plunging into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Nationwide unemployment exceeded 10%, the prime rate soared into the teens, Harley’s sales plummeted by 40% and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Under a staggering mountain of debt, an unsavory brand image, ownership of its trademark in jeopardy, and an onslaught of Japanese competition, all added up to four and a half years of living on the edge, knowing Harley’s bankers might pull the plug at any moment.

However, the years to follow brought Harley unparalleled success and are filled with countless stories of strategic management, teamwork, innovation and what many regard as the most dramatic turnaround in U.S. business history.


"Wow your delivery and the overall story-telling approach was phenomenal! I think people had no idea about the history of the brand and they enjoyed your genuine account of everything that happened. I think you entertained people but also left them with some solid business learnings."

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