Feb 13, 2009

What the Show Showed

I spent a few hours staring at bikes, bikers, gear, and the usual suspects at the Cycle World Motorcycle Show this afternoon. There are, in fact, some cool new motorcycles, but (as my editor, Victor, suspects) they will probably be economic failures.

Honda, Yamaha, and Kawasaki have new 250cc dual purpose street bikes. A variety of companies have mid-sized bikes, most of which are not new. Honda put a lot of effort into displaying their new Fury VTX chopper-thingie. It is one of the silliest vehicles I've seen since my last visit to Pioneer Village in central Nebraska. The average age of the characters surrounding the Fury had to have been over 60. The same sort of geezer was seen climbing off and on of the Polaris Vision.

Friday afternoon wasn't a good day to judge the turnout or the character of the Minnesota crowd, but I talked to several people who said the show was down at least 20% at all stops. There is an air of desperation you can almost taste coming from the vendors. The customers emit something more like resignation.

I got home in time to watch a PBS movie called "Horatio's Drive" about the first cross-country auto trip, in 1903. About half way through the movie, our youngest daughter called to tell us she'd been laid off by Bank of America. She is an optimist and is convinced that she'll find a job soon. I've been through this sort of economic mess before, in the 70s through the 80s, and I hope she's right, but I worry for her and my son-in-law.

Times have been bad before. The country was less organized, more socially-segregated and stratified, and more destitute in 1930, but we don't know where we are in the curve of the current economic catestrophe.

If I get my druthers, we'll struggle through this recession/depression for long enough that many of the social inequalities and irrationalities get fixed but not so long that the nation seriously suffers. I'd like to see a little resurgence of American frugality and, along with that, a little attention paid to small motorcycles because of their economy and practicality. I don't, honestly, care if gas costs $5 a gallon at the end of the decade. That might be good for motorcycling, too. I would provide some initative for us to cut free from foreign oil.

I wouldn't mind if the whole gangster biker fad died a painful death. If the Angels, Outlaws, Bandidos, and the rest of them all end up replacing the crowd in Guantanamo, I wouldn't care. If even looking like that bunch of degenerates caused bikers enough trouble that leather fringe, bandanas, and Valley People butt-less chaps became fashion misstatements, I'm good with that.

In the end, maybe Honda will have to back off of their Orange County biker junk-mobiles and return to promoting the Nicest People. That's a future I can look forward to.


Anonymous said...

I was saying to my editor last night that I wonder if the nature of the motorcycle will change now. How many will afford motorcycles starting at $7000? Not so many, and at those prices, no one will regard a motorcycle as a vehicle for frugality. So maybe the Js decide, "This is not our beautiful value-added export policy. This is a product to be made in China, Indonesia, India, Thailand, or Malaysia, and sold at $2500. We will now back gracefully out of this and attend to our core businesses elsewhere."

Or, as you note, perhaps the piano tuners will adjust the right strings fairly soon and the music will emerge from the economic noise. I think there is no one who knows.

I had not known about the Plaza Accord of 1985, in which the US strong-armed the Js into a revaluation of the yen, making manufacturing in Japan too expensive for the US market (the hoped-for result). In response the Js invested hugely in the above-mentioned countries, offshoring all sizes of labor-intensive manufacturing and creating "seeds" of manufacturing economies there.

What next.


T.W. Day said...

During that burst of US manufacturing concern in the 1980s, I worked for a company in California that would brag that our products were "Made in California." We often tried to off-shore the assembly to Mexico, but that always turned into a quality disaster. So, they stuck with "Made in California" for three decades (10 of which I took part).

Whenever the "we're a marketing/development company, not a manufacturing company" argument reared its head, I'd argue back that any product you can't build yourself will be product manufacturing you can't properly manage. I'd also argue that flexibility in delivery and price comes with keeping the work close. Finally, I'd remind the execs that IBM used that same brain-dead, lazy argument off-shore their one and only profitable product in the early 80s and lost control of the entire industry.

Through the 80s, we managed to bump a half-dozen companies from our industry, including Japanese monoliths. Our annual growth was rarely under 20% and often near 50%. At the turn of the century, they decided to "go China." In the process, their new manufacturing capabilities enticed them to expand into several product lines that nobody at the company knew anything about. A few years back, several other companies appeared with similar products; all manufactured in China near or in the same factory. Soon, I predict that Chinese brands of similar products will appear and they will be cheaper and better quality than the original company's products. Already, that company's market share has begun to drop and their reputation is as low as it was when the company first started cobbling together badly designed knock-offs in the 1970s.

History just keeps on repeating itself until we learn something from it. Unfortunately, the inbred ruling elites never seem to learn anything from anything.

I hadn't heard about the Plaza Accord. Now, I have something new to research.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about all of the same stuff regarding motorcycling, but am sanguine even though business is terrible, and the economic situation is dire. The reason I feel this way is the response I've gotten from my associates at work. Ever week we cut, squeeze, ask for more sacrifices, and ask the workers to take on more. We've been doing this in stages since September. Some have had pay reductions or hours shortened. There have been many challenges. We have had a hiring and wage freeze since last fall, and since then we've lost about nine persons by attrition. Last week our custodian left. We organized everyone on who cleans the bathrooms, who mops the stairs, who does this and that on what schedule...And they are doing it. No argeument. No complaining. Nothing. Just, "what can I do?" and "how can we help?"

It feels like on the front lines everywhere, there is a kind of resolve to do what it takes. The people I've been working with have been just amazing. The selfless sacrifices. The cooperative attitudes. The determination to see it through. Whatever it is. Everyone is afraid, but it's not panic. It's a calm, strong resolution to work together as best we can and keep our fingers crossed. I have a feeling that everywhere across America in business after business, this is what is going on. Nobody likes the situation, but nobody is complaining either. There is a lot of sucking-it-up going on, just about everywhere. There is a tremendous awareness that things where out of whack before, and that they will never be like they were again, at least not for a long, long time. Ten years, or whatever.

This is why I'm sanguine. The $4 gal gas last summer combined with the economic meltdown have hit people even harder in their heads than in their wallets...and their wallets have taken a pretty big hit. But nobody is giving up. Everyone is cooperating. Everyone is doing the best they can. And everyone is determined to get through this no matter what is involved. Everyone loves their stuff, their life and the country. And everyone is confident that eventually we will all be past this and we will all figure this out.

How can one be grumpy about that? It sure feels like a 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going' moment in American history. That is what I love about us, as a people. There is no other place in the world where it is quite like this. We will do more than muddle through (as they might in England, for example..). We will figure this out and make the country and our lives work again, on a new basis. That is what I sense is going on in home after home, and at workplace after workplace. And that is really cool.

And more people will do more riding than ever and will buy more of the kinds of bikes you and I have always like best.

Andy Goldfine
Aero Design & Manufacturing Company Inc.
Aero Dist. / Aerostich Tours / Aerostich-Riderwearhouse
8 South 18th Avenue West
Duluth, MN 55806
218 625 7421 (d)
218 720 3610 (fx)
218 349 1927 (m)

T.W. Day said...


I meant to comment on this note when you wrote it. Instead, my wife and I decided to lose a weekend to flu. Yesterday's party was partly a celebration of our feeling healthy again and the completion of some household projects.

I miss working in a team like yours. The school where I work off-motorcycle season was that kind of place four years ago, but success has hardened the owner's arteries. We went 4-year two years ago and the place has been growing political hemorrhoids ever since. When I first started, though, I'd have worked there for free if necessary.

I worked for QSC Audio during the 1980's recession. We had several economic bouts during that period. The first years were all about keeping the company team alive. After the company put some success behind it, it also turned on the people who made that success. We even had a company-wide layoff "election" one year, where employees were allowed to vote on either everyone taking a salary/hours hit or laying off some workers until the bottom line worked out. The majority of employees voted for the layoff, not knowing who would be laid off. Obviously, some were disappointed with the outcome of their vote. At least in my group, manufacturing, the most secure employees voted for the shared pain while the least competent voted for "others to take the pain."

The key, I think, to every business under stress is top-down sacrifice. All of those corrupt banks, car manufacturers, financial houses, and other corporate failures are headed by even more corrupt execs who don't feel that they should be inconvenienced by the problems they have caused. I automatically assume you to be the first to make sacrifices for your business and for the people you work with to respect that and pitch in to make the place survive. I got that kind of feeling from all of the Aerostich management staff you have introduced me to. Your optimism and strength of character are what propels your business. Teams are hard to defeat, individuals are easy pickings.

From what I saw and heard at the last Boring Rally, you have a lot more friends/fans/admirers than you might suspect. Of all the reasons for being here, getting to know you and the other really special people I've met in Minnesota is what convinces me (late every February) that there is a justification for putting up with winter here. Remember, the next time we get together I am buying lunch.

Thomas Day
Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly Magazine