Imagine this: You have just signed on as president of a company that, despite having no experience building motorcycles -- has decided to take on the likes of Harley, BMW, etc. The first models are released during your first week of work, so you drive out to the factory to watch the first ones come off the line. But when you ask a production supervisor how much the company makes on each bike, he sheepishly informs you that the company loses about $3,000 per bike. "Aye," you think, "well, I hope they are at least good motorcycles." And then J.D. Powers & Associates ranks your firm dead last in quality.
Sound like an impossible situation? It is exactly the situation that Tom Tiller faced when he joined Polaris Industries, which previously had restricted itself to making rough-and-tumble products like snowmobiles and ATVs -- far from the fit-and-finish precision required to build trophy bikes.
How did it all turn out? In both 2006 and 2007, J.D. Powers rated Polaris bikes the best in the world. How did they do it? Going up against seemingly impossible odds is in the Polaris DNA. Hall Wendell bought Polaris for a song after seven years of record low snowfall had reduced the number of snowmobile manufacturers from more than 100 to four -- with Polaris ranking fourth out of four. He slashed costs, improved quality -- and turned Polaris into the top snowmobile company. Then he took on the Japanese in ATVs and took Polaris to No. 1 in that market, too.
The lesson? Far too many companies use tough times as an excuse for not getting thing done. In our analysis of the leaders of top performing growth companies over a 22-year period, we found that they shared one clear characteristic: They used challenges as learning opportunities and as opportunities to build resilience and persistence into their organizations.
I arranged to have a Polaris Victory Vision bike shipped over to Australia for my speech to the global meeting of the largest CEO network in the world (see below, and yes, that's me in the photo). You'll either love it or hate it, but one thing you must admit -- Polaris is still placing big bets and defying the odds.