Q&A: Suzuki’s Harris discusses production, scooter sales – October 16, 2006

Mel Harris, Suzuki’s vice president of marine and motorcycle operations, discussed a range of subjects with Powersports Business at the company’s annual new product show in Las Vegas. The following is an excerpt of some of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
PSB: According to statistics from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Suzuki has been producing more and more vehicles. Are you meeting demand?
Harris: Honestly speaking, no. But our production is getting better and better. Suzuki has taken a long look at production. We’re probably a company that watches inventory closer than anybody else and as long as our turn of product remains as high as it is, we can get production at the factory with just about anything we need. We’ve become more of a year-around company. Before Suzuki Motor Corp. really slowed up production of motorcycles during the summer months, and it would only produce say September through March. But because we’ve been able to generate sales year-around … that’s enabled them to move the production schedule in where other things are produced during summer months. Cruisers are a great example. Boulevard production will start maybe April or May and we have it as a steady flow. Where before that stuff would be nonexistent. They would start in late September. Well then you could never get enough production because worldwide Suzuki is growing. Europe is doing a good job. They’re increasing market share and they want product just as much as we do.
PSB: To reach the expected 2007 sales levels of 260,000 vehicles — a sizeable increase from 2005 — will Suzuki have to build more production facilities?
Harris: No. The production in the United States, where we have the Eigers and the KingQuads coming from, that’s been increasing and probably in 2007 and beyond that we’ll be pretty close to the 80,000 mark they’re shooting for … That will help us with Japan. We also have production on some of our smaller stuff coming from our Taiwan plant. So we have plants all around the world that we’re able to gain product from and bring it in and cover the overall situation.
PSB: Suzuki used estimated gas mileage of some of its scooters and motorcycles in advertising last year. Did that pay off?
Harris: It was very beneficial, especially in metro areas. But did we create a false market? Because now gas prices are slowing down, so are we going to suffer because of that? But I think people really looked at the mileage, saw what they saved and no matter what, they liked that.
PSB: Scooter sales growth has occurred at Suzuki and throughout the industry. Will that continue at its current pace?
Harris: This year at Daytona I went up to visit the big Harley-Davidson dealer. When we were up there, we couldn’t turn and go back down to 95 to get into Daytona. We had to go all the way out through the loop. And we counted so many scooters riding with cruiser people.… It looks pretty funny to see a whole bunch of guys with cruisers and here’s a guy riding with them with a scooter. But I think it’s found its market. Older people feel comfortable with it. They don’t have to worry about the shifting, they get good gas mileage and it’s a pleasure to ride. So we see really good growth in the 400 and the 650.
PSB: Will Suzuki consider a lower-displacement scooter than its 400?
Harris: Last year we had a 125cc here that we showed the dealers. We promised them it would be here this September. But again, due to some circumstances at the factory, that’s been delayed. But that is going to be coming to the United States. So we’ll have a full range of Burgmans when we’re done.
PSB: Sport bikes have fueled Suzuki’s sales growth, as well as the industry’s. Is there any reason to think that growth in those sales won’t continue?
Harris: If you look at racing, we win on Sunday, we sell on Monday. We haven’t done as well on the GSX-R 600s in racing as we would like to, yet our sales have skyrocketed. We put up a slide last night that we’re projecting dealers can hit 20,000 600s this year in retail sales. We feel pretty confident (because) we’re already over 16,500 through the beginning of this month … We expect to (reach 20,000). And that’s a really big number.

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