Triumph’s revival at full speed Motorcycles’ comeback starts in Newnan

After all, who didn’t want the bike that Marlon Brando rode in “The Wild One”? And who could forget Steve McQueen, in “The Great Escape,” trying to do just that on a Triumph Bonneville?

Despite a cult following, the brand ran into financial problems and was liquidated in the early 1980s. British real estate developer John Bloor, at first looking to buy the factory’s land, instead purchased the company’s assets to re-establish Triumph. In 1994 the company opened its North American headquarters in Peachtree City.

The office in 2002 moved west a few miles to Newnan.

Today, with overall motorcycle sales down, Triumph is boosting sales and gaining market share. Helping lead the comeback from the Newnan office is Mark Kennedy, Triumph’s North American CEO, who started on the assembly line and was one of the resurrected company’s first employees.

Growing up in England, Kennedy knew the keys to success: drop out of school and get a job.

At 15, Kennedy was working on an assembly line and racing motorcycles. “My whole family was working class,” he said. “The way to make money was to get a job. School wasn’t a means for success. My teachers would be very surprised.”

But he had two passions: racing motorcycles and British automobile manufacturing. Bloor moved the Triumph factory from Kennedy’s hometown of Coventry to Hinckley, and Kennedy went to work at Triumph Motorcycles Limited.

“We were small in numbers but had the excitement of trying to bring this brand back,” he said. “I would ask a lot of questions, like ‘How many of these bikes do we have to make until we make a profit?’ Looking back, it may seem like I was trying to get ahead or suck up to the boss. But I wasn’t. I really wanted to know.”

The first modern line of Triumph motorcycles was introduced in 1990. While Triumph was coming into its own, so was Kennedy. His enthusiasm, work ethic and curiosity got noticed and he soon became the supervisor. After two years he was promoted to quality manager.

With its products becoming successful, Triumph re-established its distributor and dealer networks, first in Germany and France, followed by Italy, Scandinavia, the Benelux union of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and Japan. Kennedy was named president of the French operation, though he didn’t speak French.

“Well, you really have to learn how to communicate when you don’t speak the same language as your employees,” said Kennedy.

Triumph offers three categories of motorcycle: sport, cruiser and its Modern Classic line. Sport motorcycles are high-powered and lightweight with exceptional handling. Cruisers offer a more relaxed riding position and are heavily favored by Americans. Triumph’s Modern Classic range includes the iconic Bonneville, which blends modern design and technology with a classic motorcycle look.

The sport bike market attracts a younger demographic, typically in their 20s and early 30s, while the cruiser and Modern Classic motorcycles are favored by more mature riders who go from their late 20s through to their 60s.

“We do not compete against Harley-Davidson,” Kennedy said. “Harleys, to those who ride them, represent more than a motorcycle, it’s a lifestyle. It’s very hard to get them to try any other brand. We have much more success taking away from Ducati or Honda.”

Triumph has gained market share in the U.S. each year for the past five years, according to the Irvine, Calif.-based Motorcycle Industry Council. Sales increased 5.49 percent in December 2009 over December 2008; most manufacturers reported double-digit decreases. Canada boasts a yearlong sales increase of more than 20 percent from 2008 to 2009.

The company introduces two new models yearly as well as updates its current line. Last summer the company introduced a 1600 cc parallel twin Thunderbird, which earned several “Best Cruiser” accolades from trade magazines. Sales are reported as strong but Triumph did not disclose numbers.

An important aspect of its sales is accessories, both for the bike and rider. The company has licensing agreements with the Brando and McQueen estates.

Neal Pascale, editor of Powersports Business, said Triumph has done well, particularly in the cruiser market. The challenge is that, for most people, a motorcycle is “more of a ‘want’ product” than a need,” he said. “Triumph is one of the most iconic brands in the industry. They are building bikes and people are liking what they see, especially in the U.S.”

Pascale calls Kennedy a “real unique, real person. I’ve been to the manufacturing plant with him and he just walks up to the workers and talks with them like you would over a drink or dinner. You don’t see too much of that.”

Kennedy is establishing a dealer network and increasing marketing on a national level. He’s about to become a father and fears his British accent is showing signs of a drawl thanks to his Alabama-bred fiancee. He oversees a staff of about 40 people who handle sales and marketing, dealer development and support, along with accounting, legal, and human resources matters.

Meanwhile, Triumphs are making their ways back into movies. Tom Cruise rode Triumphs in the “Mission Impossible” franchise, as did Matthew McConaughey in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Maybe not McQueen or Brando, but it’s a start.

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