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Harley-Davidson: Riderless or Rudderless?

By Rich Smith - Updated Apr 5, 2017 at 7:58PM

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Veteran CEO puts it on the kickstand.

Attention, Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG) investors: Jim Ziemer is leaving the company.

[Applause.]

[Stock leaps roughly 8%.]

Hey! Now is that polite? I know Ziemer's term as Head Hog hasn't exactly been draped in glory. But as the CEO prepares to bid Harley adieu, it bears considering whether the motorcycle maker's recent troubles arrived because of Ziemer's work, or in spite of it. His 39-year-long career deserves no less. Investors will be better served by examining the facts, rather than jumping to conclusions like: "Now that, Ziemer's gone, everything will be hunky-dory." (Not that Harley folks are particularly inclined to use the term "hunky-dory" in everyday parlance.)

A life examined
Jim Ziemer joined Harley-Davidson in 1969, at the tender age of 19. He's worked there 39 years to date, or two-thirds of his lifetime, and essentially all of his professional lifetime. True, the last three-and-two-thirds years, in which he ran the company, have been rough. Since Ziemer took control of the throttle, Harley has shed fully 63% of its share price -- but it's not the only one. Consider how related companies have fared. Since April 30, 2005:

  • Ford (NYSE:F) has likewise dropped 63%.
  • General Motors (NYSE:GM) is down 82%.
  • Why, even Toyota (NYSE:TM) lost value (albeit just 9%).

Of course, Harley doesn't just make a form of transportation: It makes an item that is a lifestyle choice. A seller of excitement, and a taker-in of your consumer discretionary dollars:

  • So consider that as Harley's stock collapsed, Polaris (NYSE:PII), too, was cut in half.
  • Winnebago (NYSE:WGO) crashed -- down 84%.
  • And Brunswick (NYSE:BC) turned into a shipwreck, vaporizing 92% of its worth.

In other words, everybody who's anybody, or rather anybody who makes products that burn gasoline for a living, has suffered right alongside Harley. Hypothesis: This disaster was not entirely of Ziemer's making.

A stellar career
In fact, I'd argue the contrary. Before Ziemer was CEO, you see, he was CFO. Since taking control of Harley's finances in December 1990, he helped drive the stock up multiple times from a split-adjusted price of just about $1. Sure, investors would have preferred the stock stopped at the $43 or so it was selling for when Ziemer switched letters on his executive nametag. But even at the stock's current $16.20 price, it's up 16-fold from when Ziemer began having a real say in how the company was run. Over the same period of time, the S&P 500 is up a mere 166%.

So ask yourself, Fool: Will Harley really be better off without Jim Ziemer than with him?

And while you're at it, answer yourself, too. Will Ziemer's departure will be a good thing for Harley? Log on to Motley Fool CAPS, and sound off.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Harley-Davidson, Inc. Stock Quote
Harley-Davidson, Inc.
HOG
$38.87 (3.16%) $1.19
Ford Motor Company Stock Quote
Ford Motor Company
F
$15.50 (3.06%) $0.46
Toyota Motor Corporation Stock Quote
Toyota Motor Corporation
TM
$157.89 (3.24%) $4.95
General Motors Company Stock Quote
General Motors Company
GM
$37.95 (3.63%) $1.33
Winnebago Industries, Inc. Stock Quote
Winnebago Industries, Inc.
WGO
$62.30 (3.42%) $2.06
Polaris Industries Inc. Stock Quote
Polaris Industries Inc.
PII
$118.44 (1.55%) $1.81
Brunswick Corporation Stock Quote
Brunswick Corporation
BC
$81.78 (2.17%) $1.74

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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