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Eighteen months ago, iconic American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG ) announced plans to enter the 1 billion-strong Indian consumer market. Three months ago, the company announced that it would build just its second-ever international assembly plant in the country. Today, the company has effectively placed a huge bet on India, a country that is truly in love with the motorcycle.
Unfortunately, as I spend more and more time here in India, I realize that I cannot see this company thriving in its markets. Worse, I fear that Fools could feel the painful brunt of Harley's overly ambitious expectations.
The Hog ethos
When I think Harley-Davidson, I think open road, fresh air, and a cool breeze tearing through the nostrils of an over-the-hill, balding baby boomer. Thanks to a sustained economic boom, I think there are folks who fit that description and would be willing to shell out $20,000 on a new toy. But I seriously wonder if any of the actual joys of riding a Harley will ever come to the small few who can afford it. And for everyone else, it's simply not a reality.
Still better than I-95
The hard truth for Harley is that driving in and around major cities in India has relatively little to do with open road, fresh air, and the feeling of freedom. In fact, the best way to describe road travel in urban India is adrenaline-inducing ... and not in the good way.
The majority of one's time is spent idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, as pedestrians play a terrifying game of Frogger between taxis and giant, overstuffed transport vehicles. The remainder of one's time is spent accelerating as fast as possible to jostle for position at the next bottleneck.
Jostling for position on a hot Mumbai highway.
One has to seriously wonder how appealing Indian purchasers will find the Harley-Davidson lifestyle when unable to enjoy this very expensive product in the way it was naturally intended to be enjoyed. It's analogous to asking how much you'd love your Kindle if you were only allowed to use it in the dark.
The wrong market
Roads certainly aren't clogged everywhere in this country. But the vast majority of eligible consumers live in major cities where they are. For these people, accessing free-flying highways is no trivial matter. Open roads could be hours away -- even if they exist in the same city.
Not a small market
In Harley's defense, India is undoubtedly a huge market with lots of potential. As the second-largest motorcycle market in the world (behind China), India purportedly hosted somewhere around 37 million motorcycles as of 2002. Compare that to the U.S.'s 7 million registered motorcycles (as of 2007) and you can clearly see why Harley is licking its chops.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Indian motorcycles are not discretionary, luxury purchases. I won't even get into the economics of how difficult it would be for 99% of people here to afford an object of that price -- but it's not inspiring.
Inches away from a passing cycle.
Motorcycle's here are not toys, as they are for most Harley owners in the States. They are a primary means of transport, often for entire families. And they are generally simple, straightforward, cheap offerings sold by names like Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , Maruti Suzuki, and others.
Therefore, unless you're talking about an extremely small sliver of the market, Harley-Davidson and fellow luxury manufacturers like BMW and Ducati don't stack up favorably. If Harley is, in fact, only targeting the super-rich, let us not forget the aforementioned product satisfaction issues. Either way, making meaningful inroads should be an issue.
The Foolish bottom line
Harley-Davidson is expecting foreign sales to account for more than 40% of total sales by 2014. Today, foreign sales represent just $1.2 billion of the company's $6.2 billion in annual revenue. Clearly the company is expecting big things out of its international divisions and much of that will undoubtedly need to come from fast-growth markets like India. But I'm not quite so optimistic about its chances here.
For some that can afford a luxury item like a Hog, the brand has a shot. And as the country grows richer and infrastructure improves, Harley's potential here could be significant. But my investment money would be focused toward entities that are trying to work within existing realities to succeed here. After all, a Hog isn't a Hog if you can't own the road.