Meet The Expert: Lawson Dixon of Harley-Davidson Saigon
Lawson Dixon is an amiable Australian who started with the News Ltd media company in the 1980s but has spent more time out of Australia than in since. He has a background in automotive advertising and has worked with Ford and Chrysler in the past. He started Ducati in Vietnam before finally getting the Harley-Davidson franchise off the ground in 2013. He beat 70 competitors to win the right to be the first Harley-Davidson dealer in the country. He has matched the hard graft with a golden touch; the very week that they opened for business the ban on big bike licenses was lifted in the country. Prior to this, the only way to get a license to ride a large machine was via a government sponsored motorcycle club.
We met up with Lawson in their District 7 showroom, surrounded by some of the most beautiful motorbikes in Vietnam.
How long has Harley-Davidson been active in Vietnam and how many outlets are in the country?
We opened in November 2013 with very few pre-orders. It was worrying at first as we felt sure there would be much more. It seems that people had got their fingers burned in the grey market and were sceptical, until they saw our operation. We have two showrooms, one here and one in Hanoi.
How are sales, in general and in comparison to targets?
We initially targeted 10 to 12 units per month but are pleased to report that we are selling 20 to 25 here and about 15 in Hanoi.
Who is your direct competition and where does Harley-Davidson stand in the market?
We really have no direct competitors, but I suppose the closest would be Ducati, Benelli, KTM, Suzuki, Kawasaki and BMW. As for our position, I’m not sure overall but for the over 1200cc market we are certainly number one.
Is there a Harley-Davidson owners group?
Yes, as an official dealer we have the rights to sponsor Saigon H.O.G. and they are very well respected. When the Cau Giai freeway opened we rode through to officially open it. Eighty members, it was really special. Harley Owners Group is worldwide; the biggest motorbike club in the world with a million members. When someone buys a bike we register them automatically for the first year. They then have the option of joining the local chapter. There are about three or four hundred members in the country.
How do your customers report their treatment by police?
I have to say all of my personal dealings have been fantastic. I’ve never heard of anyone being poorly treated because of riding a Harley-Davidson. We make sure we drive appropriately. Road safety is taken very seriously by the H.O.G. We actually trained some of the police riders. We were the first people to bring in international riders as trainers. We have taught more than 300 riders to ride safely. We teach low speed handling, how to lift a bike if you drop it. We ride round cones in car parks, learning safe riding skills. We also train on how to ride in a pack. If you have 45 bikes doing 80 kph there are important rules that you have to follow to enjoy the ride and stay safe.
It seems unlikely that a Harley motorcycle would get stolen. Am I right in thinking that Harley-Davidson bikes suffer less thefts or damage than other bikes?
Yes. All machines have immobilisers and alarms. We have not heard of any thefts. We have heard of stolen bikes being smuggled into the country, but not be taken whilst here. These are big machines, not many people can just jump on a Harley and ride of.
What do you see as the opportunity or challenge for expansion of the big bike market?
I think the opportunities are huge. Proportionately Vietnam is the biggest market in the world. The key challenge is to reach out to the younger guys. Traditionally we have sold to older, financially secure, mainly men. We have to take the challenge to a younger market and appeal to that market.
With that in mind Harley-Davidson have introduced “Dark Custom”. This is a concept where customers can personalise their bikes to their own likings. It’s a lifestyle statement in which we are marketing to people a blank canvas on which they can imprint their own personality. This appeals very much to Vietnamese people, who make up 98% of our customers.
So are bikes getting customised here in Vietnam?
Absolutely, when you go to a function and see the bikes parked up, every bike looks different, handle bars, exhausts, colours, etc. Harley motorcycle are highly customisable. Vietnamese people love originality and Harley-Davidson does this better than anyone.
How do you train your mechanics?
I can proudly say that we have the best trained mechanics in Vietnam. They all use Snap-on brand tools and we have the best equipped workshops. We had a guy who came out from the States and spent three months working on intensive training. Before that, we spent time in Singapore. Harley-Davidson University is now in Bangkok, we send technicians there to train extensively. We have eight fully trained mechanics.
Saigon traffic is notorious. What happens if an accident happens? What facilities do you have for repairing damage?
It doesn’t happen as often as you think, in fact very rarely. In most cases a bike falls off a stand, not put up properly. Occasionally a rider drops a bike, but most of our customers are very experienced riders. If damage occurs we have the facilities to repair it.
Up to what age have people bought bikes from you?
The oldest guy we have sold to was 77. Before unification he saw a bike and always wanted one... he bought a Dyna Street Bob, 1690cc.