Today, about 40% of Harley-Davidson (HOG -0.06%) motorcycles are sold in foreign markets, but the company is committed to growing that share to 50%. And to ensure it hits that goal the right way -- rather than just waiting for the collapse of the U.S. Hog market to lift international's relative percentage -- it has created a new position. The global brand president will be specifically tasked with boosting foreign sales, and overseeing product planning, marketing, retail, apparel, and communications globally.

Yet the person Harley picked for the job seems an odd choice. With career experiences that are far removed from the motorcycle industry, it's difficult to see how he will be able to transfer what he has learned from his unquestionable successes to this ailing brand.

A rider is seen on a Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle.

Finding new riders for its LiveWire electric motorcycle is just one of the challenges facing Harley-Davidson. Image source: Harley-Davidson.

Another outsider

Neil Grimmer will definitely bring a fresh perspective to Harley-Davidson. He co-founded organic baby food maker Plum Organics, which generated $93 million in annual sales before it was acquired by Campbell Soup in 2013 for $249 million. He then went on to found Habit, a meal kit delivery and nutrition coaching service that served tens of thousands of customers. Campbell invested $32 million in that as well. Prior to his stints with start-ups, Grimmer was vice president of strategy and innovation at organic food and beverage maker Clif Bar.

Certainly a case can be made for the value of bringing in a fresh set of eyes, as opposed to tapping an industry insider who may already have the same blind spots that helped the motorcycle giant steer its way into its current troubled situation. Yet Harley-Davidson already has plenty of outsiders advising it: Among the entire board of directors, there's a total of zero years of motorcycle industry experience.

A different way of thinking

In announcing Grimmer's appointment, Harley CEO Matt Levatich said "Neil's creative instincts, innovation mindset, deep brand and consumer experience, and bottom-line orientation is critically important as we lead and inspire our teams and riders."

And Harley has determined that upgrading its customer experience is critically important. In its "More Roads to Harley-Davidson" roadmap for the future, under the heading "nail the fundamentals to compete and win," item No. 1 was simply "serve the customer."

Grimmer's LinkedIn profile shows a career built around vision, consumer insights, strategic planning, innovation, and product development -- all areas of expertise that Harley's first global brand president will need. It's just that his career has been entirely based around food.

Now, he will be tasked with reversing the bike maker's sales declines at a time when the broader industry is in contraction. Revenues at Harley have fallen for four straight years, and last year they were down by double-digit percentages. But the company ended 2018 with almost $3.4 billion in global motorcycle revenue. That's going to be a major leap in magnitude for a food industry executive used to dealing in sales in the tens of millions of dollars.

Maybe this incongruous hire will be the spark that turns the bike maker around, but it's difficult to imagine how someone whose experience is so far afield from the motorcycle industry will be able to zero in on a winning strategy for this iconic but fading brand.