Jochen Zeitz
Flickr: Fortune Live Media

Looking at Harley-Davidson CEO Jochen Zeitz's Seriously Impressive Career

Imagine being the CEO of Harley-Davidson.

Granted, that's going to require a great big stretch of the imagination, because that's not even a role many of us can even visualize. The motorcycle manufacturer has been such a long-standing worldwide institution that the mere hog enthusiast is just a speck of dust in the empire created by the brand.

That being said, Jochen Zeitz, President -- new CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Harley Davidson, Inc. -- seems like a pretty interesting chap. He hangs out with Sir Richard Branson. He wrote a book with a Benedictine monk. He founded a museum of contemporary African art. When the press describes him as a "Renaissance Man," they're not just stretching for attention. The guy has pretty much done it all.

But, where did he come from?

From "Acting CEO" to Actual CEO Jochen Zeitz

When former CEO Matt Levatich stepped down from his role, it left a void in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based motorcycle maker's hierarchy.

Then serving as a Harley-Davidson board member and Chair of Harley-Davidson's Brand and Sustainability Committee, which he established in 2011, Jochen Zeitz stepped into the role of "acting President" and "acting chief executive officer." Shortly after, these acting roles became permanent, and it was announced that Zeitz would officially fill the extremely official roles of President and CEO of Harley-Davidson, Inc., and Chairman of the Harley-Davidson Board of Directors.

Given that we're in a time where a global pandemic has impacted motorcycle sales, and many motorcycle manufacturers are scrambling to figure out how to make new motorcycles, new products, and attract new riders, Zeitz appears on the scene at a very pivotal moment in history.

So, Is He Up to the Job?

Have you ever heard of an athletic brand called PUMA? They've got a pretty cool story that deserves telling, but this is an article about Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Suffice to say, they were a very big deal, until they were not. In fact, they were on the brink of bankruptcy when Jochen Zeitz stepped in as Chairman, CFO, and CEO of Puma in 1993. Only 30 years old at the time, Zeitz was the youngest German businessman to hold the CEO title.

What was probably a "Hail Mary" move in the business world actually paid off very well. Zeitz vacated the position of CFO in 2005, but stuck around as CEO until 2011. In that amount of time, PUMA became one of the top three sporting good brands in the world, with a 4000% share price gain reported between 1994 and 2007, when the company was acquired by luxury goods company Kering.

To the average bystander, that seems to be a pretty impressive track record.

Ethics and the Environment

Interestingly enough, the new CEO of Harley-Davidson is super big into ethics and sustainability.

He created a program at PUMA in 2008 to encourage honesty and fairness in all business relationships and transactions.

In 2011, Zeitz announced the creation of PUMA's Environmental Profit & Loss Account to add accountability to the concept of sustainability. This led to his role as Chief Sustainability Officer for Kering after the acquisition.

With his buddy Sir Richard Branson, Jochen Zeitz created the B Team, a global non-profit initiative designed to encourage human rights, sustainability, and responsibility for the environmental impact of business practices.

His personal philanthropic foundations include the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety, and he maintains 50,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Kenya. He's also the founder of The Long Run, a collection of eco-based tourism destinations that provide protection for 21 million acres of land, over 750,000 humans and their communities, and over 30,000 plant and animal species. Clearly, this guy is very interested in what's going on with the environment.

There are some who feel the juxtaposition of a rip-roaring Harley-Davidson hog and an environmentally conscious German businessman are a strange match, but it seems very unlikely that the motorcycle maker would have made this transition without very good reason. After all, it seems the age of electric vehicles -- including electric motorcycles-- is upon us now, so it makes sense that someone with Zeitz's skill set would be on board to usher in this new age.

Of course, only time (and hard core Harley enthusiasts) will tell for sure.

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