When it comes to new product, the past few years have been extraordinary for Yamaha, especially on the motorcycle side. More than a dozen models have been launched or significantly updated since 2013.
The result? Yamaha has increased sales and grown market share in some of its popular segments.
That’s why Dennis McNeal, vice president of Motorcycle Operations at Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. (YMUS), couldn’t be overlooked as the 2016 Powersports Business Executive of the Year. In his 38 years with Yamaha, McNeal has risen in ranks from district sales manager to his current VP position.
But he hasn’t only contributed within his company; he is also a staunch supporter of the industry. A five-year veteran of the Motorcycle Industry Council Board of Directors, McNeal was elected chair in early 2014.
McNeal has been a motorcycle enthusiast from a young age. He graduated from high school in 1972 and began working in the steel industry, as many high school graduates in Ohio did.
McNeal’s father, however, encouraged him to attend night school, which led McNeal to earn a degree in communications from Ohio University in Athens. It was after graduation that he realized working in powersports could be a reality. One of McNeal’s riding buddies and high school friends was Jim Ryan, who in the 1970s joined Cycle News.
“We lived a street away from each other, rode bikes and went to college together, and when he got that job at Cycle News, I thought I could do that,” McNeal recalled. “Find a job that pays you to be in the motorcycle industry? It was kind of a dream at the time that became a reality.”
McNeal’s first job out of college was as a district sales manager for Yamaha, and he hasn’t looked back since. After serving DSM roles in the Northeast and Midwest, McNeal was named a regional sales manager, and his role at Yamaha continued to evolve.
“[Former YMUS president] Jim Gentz brought me to California in 1994 as field sales manager. That was the beginning of what brings us here today,” McNeal said.
Soon after moving to California, McNeal was named the national sales manager of Motorsports, leading the motorcycle, snowmobile and power products segments, before serving as general manager of Yamaha Motorsports. He was promoted to his current role in the early 2000s.
But he never left Yamaha, he said, because of “the products, the people and the passion, not just that the employees and my co-workers have, but also the customers, for the brand and the products. Every day is a learning experience, even after 38 years.”
A full career surrounded by trailblazers and positive role models helped.
“I had the opportunity to be mentored by what I would consider the best managers in the industry — Jim Gentz, former president of Yamaha; Ed Burke, retired product planning manager for Yamaha; Buzz Huse, retired service and accessories manager for Yamaha. In
38 years, I can truly say they were some of the best teachers and mentors I could’ve come across,” McNeal said.
He added, “And that’s not a negative against other contemporaries. I’ve had the pleasure to work with Rod Bush from KTM, Ray Blank from Honda and Mel Harris from Suzuki, who really created the industry that we see today. Bob Gurga, who just retired from Honda, and Steve Piehl, who just retired from Harley-Davidson, are friends of mine. So it wasn’t just limited to working with Yamaha, it was working with the industry. I’ve been very blessed with the opportunities that Yamaha’s presented to me.”
McNeal also pointed to Tim Buche and Kathy Van Kleeck of the MIC; Arnie Ackerman, chairman emeritus and founder of Motorsport Aftermarket Group (MAG), and Don Emde, owner of Don Emde, Inc., as those from whom he has learned over his decades in the industry.
“Some of the best and brightest in the industry are really mentoring and watching what’s going on with our business,” he said.
But McNeal has been a leader in his own right, taking what others have taught him and moving the needle forward at Yamaha.
“Dennis McNeal is a true ambassador of our time, not only for Yamaha, but for the entire powersports industry as a whole, and this recognition is long overdue,” said Bob Starr, corporate communications manager for Yamaha Motor Corporation. “I have considered Dennis as a good friend for over 35 years, including the time in his career when he was a district manager, and it was crystal clear even at that time that his leadership qualities were those worthy of greatness.
“Amongst other accomplishments, Dennis has led our Motorcycle Operations Group at Yamaha through very challenging times, and I’m sure our dealers and are now most appreciative of that fact. Of his many qualities, perhaps the one that to me makes him so worthy of this recognition is his undeniable outstanding ethics, both business and personal, and for that, I sincerely feel there is no one in the industry more deserving of this award.”
At the MIC, McNeal has led the board through growth in its dealer membership and increased attendance of the Annual Washington, D.C., Fly-In, as well as the 2015 acquisition of the American International Motorcycle Expo (AIMExpo).
“Dennis continues to effectively connect with our members while articulating and prioritizing the issues and opportunities that MIC should address. His wisdom and discernment continue to prove invaluable to the MIC membership and ultimately, to our customers and fellow riders,” said MIC president Tim Buche. “I continue to be amazed by Dennis’ commitment to this industry. He moves seamlessly from working with Washington, D.C., congressional leaders to collaborating with industry leaders in the MIC boardroom, to meetings with our MIC Dealer Advisory Council and then rubbing shoulders with consumers at the AIMExpo. Dennis is the consummate leader and a perfect choice for PSB Executive of the Year!”
Though McNeal has spent more than a decade in his current position, the past few years have been particularly exciting, as Yamaha has introduced the Bolt, Bolt R-Spec, Bolt C-Spec, SR400, R3, R1M, FZ-07, FZ-09, FJ-09, XSR900, YZ250F, YZ450F, YZ450FX, YZ250FX and YZ250X, as well as made significant updates to models in its sport and off-road lineups.
Yamaha has been on the upswing in terms of motorcycle sales, and it has grown U.S. market share in the sport and competition segments, McNeal reported.
North American net sales of motorcycles hit 89,000 units in the 2015 calendar year, a 12.7 percent increase over 2014, according to Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd., financial data. Motorcycle net unit sales in North America are up 89.8 percent since the 2011 calendar year.
“Business has been strong for us, obviously with the development of so many new models,” McNeal said.
He credits the recent innovation to the 2010 promotion of Hiroyuki Yanagi to president of Yamaha Motor Company.
“Mr. Yanagi, who had worked here at YMUS back in the early ‘90s, was appointed president of YMC Japan and really pulled together a lot of resources to develop not just new products, but new technologies based on Yamaha’s fundamental design elements and historic characteristics, and that produced what you see today, from the Bolt to the R1M to the current YZ lineup. It really reinvigorated our company, not just the U.S. business, but globally,” McNeal explained.
Product planning teams in the U.S., Canada, Japan, Europe and Australia are now working as a unified team to create new models globally. And product planners who work in one country for a time, may soon transfer to another country as the teams continue to innovate.
“You get to see new and developing trends sometimes before they even become evident to you because staffs tend to rotate,” McNeal said.
With this collaboration, new model launches have become more global, with YMUS sending more staff than ever to EICMA in Italy in November, and worldwide staff coming to the U.S. for stateside reveals. Certain launches are broadcasted throughout the globe, as models launched in one place are frequently debuted in another at the same time, though sometimes under a different moniker.
The FZ series is one example of new models that have brought success to Yamaha in recent years. The FZ-09 was revealed in 2013, with the FZ-07 following in 2014.
“The FZ series, I think, has really been the biggest surprise,” McNeal revealed. “At the time those concepts were developed, full fairing supersport dominated the industry. These ideas and plans were put together at the darkest part of the recession, and there really wasn’t a developing market at that time for what we call traditional/naked bikes in the industry. The FZ-09, FZ-07 and some variation models that have already been produced, they’ve been a very happy example of developing some of those new riders and new markets.”
He added, “The FZ series, which is multi-platformed in variation models, has already proven a huge success. They’ve increased dealers’ volume and profit centers because a lot of these models that have been brought out in the past few years are bringing new people into the industry. They’re really tapping into customers that in some cases would usually be buying used product at those price points, and it’s created opportunities beyond just the sale of the product — service, parts and accessories, really to support that rider’s lifestyle.”
The FZ-07 starts at $6,990, allowing some customers to upgrade to a new model rather than considering a pre-owned bike. Yamaha has also targeted a number of its newer models at a lower, entry-level price point, including the Bolt, which starts at $7,990; the $5,990 MSRP SR400 and the under-$5,000 R3. Each is aimed at drawing in new buyers.
“It’s fundamental; it’s the lifeblood, that next generation. We’re all searching for it, not just the motorcycle industry — the automobile industry, most retail consumer manufacturers, dealer networks, outlets are trying to tap into that next generation of buyers, the proverbial millennials,” McNeal said.
New models and a fresh customer base have been refreshing for Yamaha dealers. McNeal says the group of dealers Yamaha has now is better educated and prepared for the future, as they’ve learned to navigate through the recession and beyond.
“They’re very vibrant, and since the recession with the growth of their business with these new models, overall very optimistic, whether that’s because of new product with the Sidewinder in snowmobiles, or the YXZ in the ROV group, or the FZ series, YZ series and R series in motorcycles,” he said. “As a group, they’re very optimistic. They’re the best trained with the strongest process, foundation and retail experience than I’ve seen in 38 years. And they’re hungry. They want information; they need support, especially in areas such as training and electronic data information for inventory management and retail sales, and those are the requests we get most often.”
Yamaha strives to deliver the desired education to its dealers through Yamaha Motor University, which McNeal says often ranks highly in dealer surveys. Historically, Yamaha Motor University has worked with industry experts from Gart Sutton & Associates and Lemco & Associates. In fact, Joe Dagley, who runs Yamaha’s dealer education, was hired after a stint with a Lemco & Associates.
“It really is a partnership. We can’t sell the product we invest so much time, energy and resources into without the dealers,” McNeal said. “And the dealers need so much more than just that product sitting on the showroom floor, from the materials to market it and advertise it and promote it, to the features and benefits and the training on how to retail it, all the way through supporting riders in their ownership of that product, which is probably the most important piece of the whole process.”
As a result of that OEM-dealer partnership, YMUS formed Yamaha Motor Finance Corporation, USA in March 2015. While Yamaha is still working with Synchrony Financial for consumer financing, Yamaha Motor Finance is a captive finance solution aimed at getting approvals for younger, first-time buyers and those who are reestablishing their credit.
Now in 49 states, Yamaha Motor Finance is already helping dealers grow their business, as McNeal continues to learn. While in Atlanta for the MotoAmerica race in April, McNeal had lunch with some salespeople from a Yamaha dealership in Florida, and they raved about how important Yamaha Motor Finance is to their business.
“It was surprising to me to hear how integrated and responsive they were to a program that’s not even a year old,” McNeal said.
Support in programs like the new financing arm is impressing dealers, who see what Yamaha is offering beyond the product. Those efforts are designed to help dealers foster growth.
“The dealers are really foundations of their community, and it’s important that those dealerships continue because it helps the community continue,” McNeal said.
The partnership that Yamaha brings to its dealers is also one it wants to resonate with its consumers. After nearly four decades at Yamaha, sometimes the enthusiasm for the brand still impresses McNeal.
Take MotoGP weekend at Circuit of The Americas in April, for example. Yamaha invited R1M owners to its hospitality area, and while the OEM expected 15-20 people to show up, 65 R1M owners and their guests attended to celebrate their love for their bikes.
“It was an amazing experience, not just for those owners, but our staff, to see how excited and appreciative they were and the relationship that a model, a product, a motorcycle, can create within that group, that dynamic relationship of manufacturer to owner,” McNeal said.
He’s also been pleased with the ownership Yamaha amateur riders have taken with the bLU cRU support program the OEM launched about three years ago.
“It was a way to bring amateur riders back to the focus of our dealers and our staff because they’re really foundational to our business. The industry, the media, all of us tend to gravitate toward the factory racers, but it’s really the amateur racers that are the lifeblood of our industry and the future of our industry. That’s what bLU cRU is all about. And that really gave us a unified focus that has been much larger than we ever anticipated when we started with the concept,” McNeal said.
BLU cRU has taken off, with riders developing their own videos and other social media content and really grabbing hold of the concept.
“It’s funny because the factory professional riders have tried to adopt what the amateur riders of Yamaha own, where you’ll see Valentino Rossi putting a bLU cRU emblem on his leathers. Josh Hayes, Chad Reed talk about being members of bLU cRU, and that’s really fundamentally our amateur rider association, but they really identify with it because that’s where they came from,” McNeal said.
Racing has always been the foundation of Yamaha, as the OEM has been racing since the company was established in 1955.
“When you look at the product development, whether it be with the M1, working that technology, features and benefits into the
R series, or the YZ factory race bikes and riders developing what eventually becomes a dealer showroom product, it’s literally part of the DNA of our brand,” McNeal said.
Plans for 2016
Racing, however, isn’t the only factor that attracts consumers to Yamaha time after time.
“There’s a passion built in the product that cannot be duplicated. The DT line in the ‘60s that I grew up riding, the SX series of the ‘70s, all the way through the FZ, YZ and R series of today have that intrinsic experience,” McNeal said. “At Yamaha, we talk about a philosophy of ‘Kando,’ and it’s very hard to explain because it’s an emotion, as much as a tangible item, and that touches not only what we produce, but how we produce it and the experience that creates at an emotional level.”
Yamaha Motor’s website says, “Kando is a Japanese word for the simultaneous feeling of deep satisfaction and intense excitement that people experience when they encounter something of exceptional value.”
Yamaha seems to be delivering that to its customers, as they flock to the newest Yamaha motorcycles, as well as the staples that continue to improve year after year. So far in 2016, McNeal reports that Yamaha motorcycle sales are ahead of their forecasted growth.
“We’re ahead of the industry through March, and we’re above our plans and forecasts. That should last through the first half of the year, at which time we’ll begin the introduction of the ’17 model year, and we’ve got some exciting product and promotional activities planned that should continue that growth,” McNeal reported.
He expects that not only will Yamaha grow, but the industry is on a positive track as well.
“The industry is healthy,” McNeal said. “I say that not just looking at new unit sales, which month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter can fluctuate for things as simple as the weather, but if you look at the used product, if you look at what’s going on fundamentally from a macroeconomic standpoint, the industry’s growth over the next 5-10 years, I’m optimistic, will continue.”