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W.L. Mellon Speaker: For Dave Cotteleer, It’s All About the Ride

Dave CotteleerBy his own admission, Dave Cotteleer usually operates on gut instinct: If a move feels right, he’s 100 percent in.

That philosophy of following his passion is the most logical way to explain what might seem, on its surface, as Cotteleer’s unorthodox career path, from bank auditor to heavy metal rocker to vice president and managing director of the U.S. Market for Harley-Davidson. But in fact, each experience has informed the other, and collectively, they add up to what has been a lifelong pursuit of authenticity.

“Follow your passion. Don’t sell out,” Cotteleer, MSIA ’97, told an audience of MBA students at the Tepper School, where he spoke as part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. “Always be looking at opportunities that add something to you and something that you can be excited about.”

After graduating with an undergraduate degree in finance, Cotteleer spent a brief stint working for a bank before joining a heavy metal band in 1994. He honed his business knowledge on the road by working with music industry executives, promoters and union workers at concert venues. The birth of his daughter dramatically altered his career trajectory, prompting him to apply to what is now the Tepper School to study operations.

“I run a lot on feel. And when I came here, it felt right,” he said. “It’s a decision that I have never regretted.”

A summer internship at Harley-Davidson led to a full-time job offer, and he started as an information technology project manager in 1997.

“We were kind of, as a country and really in business, midway through what I term as the supply chain revolution,” Cotteleer said. “It was when the whole world was waking up to the power of supply chain.”

Despite a promising career start at Harley-Davidson, Cotteleer began to feel as though he was stagnating, so he left in 2005 for a job with the Sara Lee Corp. in Chicago. Although it was a bigger job and a bigger company, he now thinks it was a mistake.

“I didn’t do it for the right reasons,” he explained. “I thought that I loved the work of supply chain management, but the reality was I was chasing money and title.”

That epiphany led him to realize a basic truth about his life, both inside and outside of the business world: Authenticity is key to effective leadership.

“Be authentic. Because the higher you go, the less truth you hear,” he told the audience. “I believe that as soon as you become a manager, you have a moral obligation to be engaged and to be bought into where the organization is going.”

He returned to Harley-Davidson, where he led the development of a new motorcycle designed specifically for the market in India, which in 2009 lifted some of its earlier restrictions on engine size. With no experience in product development or engineering, Cotteleer believes his leadership skills helped him make the project a success — a factor that also led to him earning the role of Harley’s CIO in 2011, despite a relatively limited technology background.

Currently, Cotteleer says the company is working to apply technology to its iconic motorcycles in ways that younger riders expect and that its traditional customer base can readily embrace.

“The challenge that we face ... is how do we apply technology in our business, to our product, in a way that doesn’t substantially alter the promise or the experience that people expect from Harley-Davidson?” he says, pointing out that countless people wear tattoos of the Harley-Davidson logo, one of the most recognizable brands on the planet.

He remains confident that he and his team at Harley will be up for the challenge. He credits his Tepper School education with helping him develop the problem-solving ability to effectively lead.

“After coming here, I realized there is no problem that can’t be broken down, modeled, and solved,” he said. “You can’t survive this program unless you’re really willing to dig in and work.”

The journey continues for Cotteleer: Since his visit to campus, he has been promoted to an even more senior role as vice president and chief information officer of the U.S. Market for Harley-Davidson.

See photos from Cotteleer’s presentation