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Feb. 9, 2009 – Successful first year follows acquisition of Willie & Max

Dowco is reporting a successful first year of operation for its relatively new acquisition, the Willie & Max brand.
Dowco, the Manitowoc, Wis.-based manufacturer, purchased the privately owned brand in July 2007 and its efforts at bolstering the line with product development and additional marketing have paid off. Mike Kaczkowski, Dowco’s executive vice president, told Powersports Business the company saw a 20 percent growth in Willie & Max revenue in 2008.
“They had a great group of people,” Kaczkowski said of Willie & Max’s previous owners, Bill Saielli and Eric Goodman. “They made a good, high-quality product and although it’s a value-priced product, it had a really good reputation in the market in terms of quality and warranty and the company standing behind it.”
Kaczkowski, who started with Dowco in 2003, actually had very preliminary discussions with the two Willie & Max owners about acquiring the brand a couple months after he started. Those discussions, however, did not really move forward until April 2005, Kaczkowski says.
Helping those discussions along was the fact that the two companies not only did business together — Dowco supplied some of their product — but also were located only a couple hours apart. The Willie & Max facility was about 130 miles south of Dowco’s headquarters.
“The research we did showed they were very strong in that value-priced (saddlebag) market,” Kaczkowski said of the Willie & Max brand. “So the interest from us is there. There is a lot of brand equity there. It fits where we want to expand and it will probably be a more efficient path to where we want to go.”
Dowco, known primarily for its covers, had attempted to further expand its reach in the aftermarket with a series of luggage lines, including for the cruiser and sport bike markets. But when Kaczkowski came on board in 2003, he knew from his enthusiast background that the brand was “really known as a cover company and not much else.”
The company has made in-roads in those luggage markets since then, especially more recently with its Iron Rider label.
But the rejuvenated Willie & Max brand proved to be an immediate hit. Even before Dowco had finished the acquisition, it had started working on a new line, called the Revolution, for the Willie & Max brand. Because of the timing of the acquisition, that new line was held up and did not make many of the distributors’ catalogs. Still, the new line proved to be a huge hit, becoming Dowco’s best new product launch ever, Kaczkowski says.
The acquisition did not bring any big changes to Dowco in terms of staffing.
“Because we shared almost the same distribution base, we didn’t need to add any resources,” Kaczkowski said. “We already had a full staff for the customer service, technical support and sales.”
Dowco’s original intent was to keep the Willie & Max headquarters in Lake Villa, Ill., open after it had acquired the brand.
“Besides the brand that it would bring us and the ability to extend our product lines and extend the core Willie and Max product lines, we looked at that facility for added plant capacity,” Kaczkowski said.
Because of the softening of the overall aftermarket, however, Dowco decided in June to close down that operation and bring it totally in-house.
Looking ahead, Kaczkowski says Dowco will continue to take advantage of the brand loyalty that Willie & Max has in the cruiser market.
“That’s going to be our cruiser market for whatever products we bring into segment of the market,” he said of the Willie & Max line.
The Dowco brand, meanwhile, will continue to cover the textile portion of the market, from covers to luggage to fender protectors.
— Neil Pascale

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