Harley-Davidson in China Encounters Barriers of Entry for Two Wheels: Cars
China’s population is almost 2,300 times greater than that of Milwaukee, where Harley-Davidson Inc. (HOG) is based. The motorcycle maker still has more customers in its hometown.
About 100 cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai, have restrictions that include banning two-wheel vehicles from elevated highways and major thoroughfares to curb noise and thefts, according to the state-affiliated Society of Automotive Engineers of China. That has stymied Harley’s growth in the world’s most populous nation.
Harley is lobbying the Chinese and American governments to ease those laws in an effort to increase sales by as much as 40 percent a year through 2016, said Sean Jiang, its managing director for China. The biggest U.S. motorcycle manufacturer is quadrupling its number of dealerships and supporting riding clubs to capitalize on a luxury-car market that J.D. Power & Associates said will grow by about 35 percent this year.
“Any investment in China without addressing the regulatory requirements will be a castle built on sand,” said Jiang, who is based in Shanghai. “We need to be proactive in engaging with the government.”
The laws treat motorcycles the same as scooters and motorized bicycles, even though some Harleys have bigger engines than cars and may cost more because of import duties that can add 30 percent to the sticker price before consumption and value-added taxes. They also have to be scrapped after 11 years, Jiang said.
The Touring Ultra Classic Electra Glide starts at 340,000 yuan ($53,000), according to the company’s website. By comparison, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW 320i sedan starts at 273,600 yuan in Beijing and the Audi A4L sedan at 247,800 yuan, according to data compiled by Sina.com.
Shanghai bans motorcycles from elevated highways, the historic Bund and the financial district. Beijing hasn’t allowed new registrations since 1985. Guangzhou banned motorcycles in 2007 after a surge in drive-by purse snatchings.
“Because of the import structure and high pricing, our customers here have a much higher disposable income,” Jiang said. “I don’t think they will use vehicles as a crime tool.”
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The Ministry of Commerce, the lead agency for trade issues, didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.
Harley sold 268 motorcycles in China last year -- its best- sellers are the Touring and Sportster lines -- and aims to double that this year.
The House of Harley-Davidson dealership in Milwaukee sold “more than 500” bikes last year, sales manager Goran Zadrima said by telephone. Milwaukee’s population is about 595,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Honda Motor Co., which sells scooters and smaller 125cc bikes in China, delivered 1.29 million units in the country last year.
Harley is coming off a quarter in which it boosted U.S. sales for the first time in almost five years. Retail sales in the Asia-Pacific region increased 6.7 percent, driven primarily by emerging markets, Chief Financial Officer John Olin said during a July 19 conference call.
Harley expects to ship 228,000 to 235,000 motorcycles worldwide, an increase of 8 percent to 12 percent from last year. The company’s New York-listed shares have risen 8.2 percent this year.
International sales represented 35 percent of its revenue last year, up from 25 percent in 2006, according to the company. Harley wants to increase that to at least 40 percent by 2014.
The company opened its Shanghai office in 2005 and its first dealership a year later. It plans to increase dealerships to 28 by 2016 from seven at the end of last year, Jiang said.
Harley also is working with the Society of Automotive Engineers on a series of TV spots exploring the motorcycle culture around the world.
“With the U.S. motorcycle market fairly mature, Harley’s opportunity to gain market share abroad is a key positive,” said Sharon Zackfia, an analyst with William Blair & Co. in Chicago. “The noise ordinances in China may present a challenge.”
Zackfia has an “outperform” rating on the company.
Another challenge for Harley is overcoming the perception that two-wheeled vehicles are strictly utilitarian, Chief Executive Officer Keith Wandell said in a Sept. 12 interview in Milwaukee.
“The Chinese consumer is unfamiliar with leisure riding,” Wandell said. “They’ve always looked at two-wheelers as a form of transportation and getting to work. How do we get people to understand what leisure riding is all about?”
One way is by supporting riding clubs to promote the brand, said Wandell, who rode in a rally from Beijing to the Great Wall in April. There are chapters -- called Harley Owners Group or H.O.G. -- in Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao and Hong Kong.
Every weekend, the Shanghai H.O.G. gathers at a Sinopec gas station wedged between an antique shop and golfing academy on the city fringes before heading into the countryside.
Bikers have to go around the nearby city of Hangzhou because it bans motorcycles, said James Rice, 45, who runs a bakery-supplies company and leads the rides on his red Ultra Classic Electra Glide.
“We pay as much or more in taxes as the cars and should have equal treatment under the law,” said Rice, who moved to China from California in 1991. “To local governments, motorcycles are the transportation of poor people so outlawing motorcycles is a way to keep the riff-raff out of their city.”
Chen, who takes his blue V-Rod on the rides, said the chapter is a good place to blow off steam and make new friends. Police sometimes let riders off with a warning when they go on banned streets.
“These days, people in the city get very stressed out at work,” Chen said. “Riding a Harley, with the wind blowing through your hair, is a good way to relax.”
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