Bills leaves Polaris to head Segway

In a surprise move announced Nov. 18, Ron Bills, general manager of the Polaris Marine division and the man many industry observers credit with reinventing the Polaris personal watercraft line, said he has been named president and CEO of Segway LLC, the company best known for its Segway Human Transporter.
In an exclusive interview, Bills discussed with Powersports Business his unexpected departure, the situation at Polaris Industries , and his trademark positive thoughts on an industry that has been his focus for the better part of the last decade.
“The Potential Is Unreal”
While the decision took most industry insiders by surprise, Bills said the possibility of leaving Polaris for Segway had been a decision he had been dealing with for the past five months.
“I’ve received 500-1,000 calls over my years, and I’ve always blown them off,” explained Bills of previous job offers that attempted to lure him away from the watercraft industry.
“In this particular case, I listened. This is an incredible opportunity with some really, really neat technology in an industry that in my opinion is going to be booming — alternative-fuel vehicles of all different kinds, whether that be electric scooters, motorcycles or electric quads, human transporters or other recreational products, both electric and hybrid-
electric. Segway is an incredibly interesting company. Just the brand has over 53% name recognition in North America, really achieved through the publicity it’s gotten through the initial launch of this innovative technology. When you look at that company and its structure and the horsepower behind it, it’s truly an incredible company.
“It really saddens me to leave an industry that I’ve put my heart and soul into for a decade. I will always love the watercraft business, but this opportunity is something I talked to my friends and mentors about, and they said ‘Ron, what are you crazy? Of course go do that!’ The potential is unreal.”
Segway, based in Manchester, N.H., was founded by inventor Dean Kamen, and received broad exposure over the last several years for its innovative Human Transporter, a two-wheeled electric vehicle that is self-balancing and takes up no more space than a single pedestrian.
According to Bills, the Human Transporter is just the beginning of what the technology will eventually bring to the market. “I really have a lot of faith and belief in the product, and expansion of the product,” Bills told Powersports Business. “This is just the tip of the iceberg of the technology capability, and the capabilities of Segway.”
Kobes Named As Replacement
Bills said he expects Polaris Industries to continue on with business as usual. “Polaris is just an absolutely great company that will continue to follow through on the plans that are there, and grow the marine business,” Bills said.
Bills’ position at Polaris will be filled by Rich Kobes, former Polaris director of operations at the company’s Roseau, Minn., manufacturing facility.
“Rich’s in-depth knowledge of and experience with the manufacturing side of our company make him uniquely qualified to lead one of our major product lines,” said Tom Tiller, Polaris president and CEO, in a statement announcing the changes.
According to Bills, the decision to leave Polaris was extremely difficult, especially considering the notoriety the company had received over the past two years for the introduction of the MSX watercraft line, as well as the introduction of a sport boat manufactured in partnership with Mercury Marine and boat builder Baja Marine.
“Hard is not the right word,” said Bills. “It’s a gut-wrenching agony; ice-pick in the forehead kind of hard. It’s been the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I love Polaris, I love the watercraft industry, and I’ve put my heart and soul in this thing for the past almost four years. It was a five-month process doing this, and it felt like I was walking over a bed of hot coals the whole time.”
In addition to leaving his position at Polaris, Bills will also leave behind his role as head of the American Watercraft Association (AWA).
When asked to look back at his tenure in that role and what he was most proud of, Bills did not hesitate. “Basically, I’m really proud of the industry,” he explained. “I think there’s been some tremendous progress in working together as manufacturers to improve the technology of the products. When you look at the technological advances, we advanced far more rapid than sister-products in the powersports business. The progression of the product to clean, quiet, friendly, and safe, has just been tremendous. I’m really proud of everybody and their ability to work together as an industry group.”
Continued Optimism
Although the move to Segway will be Bills’ first departure from the PWC industry in 10 years (Bills started as a Product Development Manager at Sea-Doo in ’93; moved to the Yamaha Jet Boat division in ’96; and took the PWC head role at Polaris in 2000), he still professes an enthusiasm for the sport, as well as the contention that the PWC market continues to be on the rebound.
“I’m still very optimistic that we’re going to see industry growth, and as we turn through the old-technology boats and get into the new technology boats, people are going to be trading in and trading up for compelling reasons,” he explained. “And I think we’re going to see some industry growth. Every one of the products is great from all the manufacturers. There really isn’t a bad product, which is a big deal.”
Bills noted that the AWA would continue to move forward in its search for a new director. He also noted that the International Jet Sports Boating Association was in the process of being restructured to best benefit its racing members.
“I’ve truly enjoyed my tenure in the watercraft business, and the marine business,” said Bills. “I’ve made an incredible amount of friends in the industry, and I’m really proud of what the industry is doing, has done, and the progress we have made together.”

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