Thursday, March 25, 2010
The motorcycle industry has lost its oldest, dearest analyst. Don J. Brown, whose work spanned decades, died yesterday at home. He was 80 years old.
Don’s full biography can be found (where else?) at the website of the AMA Hall of Fame. I just want to share a few personal reflections.
For the past few years I’ve edited Don’s pages in Dealernews: “State-by-Statement” and “ATV/Dirtbike-by-State” — in which he predicted, by state, how many units dealers would retail that year — and “DJB Composite Index,” his by-brand national predictions for the year.
By-brand is the key word. Because of Don, our magazine has been a dealer’s only source for annual retail sales of all the major brands. Some companies like Harley-Davidson divulge retail sales in their financials, but not many. And we’ve had them all.
Yeah, I know. The Motorcycle Industry Council also gets this information. But it shares only with its 300 or so members, none of which are retailers.
In discussing Don’s methods, I have to tread lightly. It won’t be hard. He never told me exactly how he received monthly unit sales numbers. All I know is that it depended on relationships formed carefully over the years with the OEMs. But whatever the procedure, he did get monthly numbers. The MIC and Don — they knew the big picture before anyone else.
Somebody once asked me, “So then why doesn’t Don just share the monthly retail numbers — the real numbers? That would be more valuable than predictions for the whole year.”
Don was on board with the idea. The OEMs, not so much. In fact, Don said he created his forecast models as a bargaining chip. The bike makers may have been uneasy with providing a live feed to retail numbers, but forecasts were palatable. So Don created a scientific model into which he fed the current numbers to predict what would happen.
An executive for a big brake brand once told me that he used Don’s predictions every month in deciding production volumes.
Note that Don’s tables did contain lots of “real” numbers: namely, the by-brand retail sales estimates for the previous year. So for a long time, dealers could pick up nearly any issue of Dealernews and see the market shares of the major brands (Don never tackled the Chinese or other “New Asian” imports). Before the market crash of 2008, the previous year’s sales figures and Don’s warm predictions seemed to suffice.
His most recent predictions, of course, were far from warm. More like frigid. These upcoming years are in special need of a seasoned prognosticator — making us feel the sting of Don’s death that much more.
I’d already been missing Don’s yearly recap and prediction feature articles. I reread one today from January 1989, when a head shot of Don was the Dealernews cover. As Don’s health declined, he stopped writing the longer pieces.
“And what about Don himself?” you’re asking?
Personally, I knew Don only a little, but I valued him highly as an industry colleague. As Dealernews top editor Dennis Johnson noted when he broke the news of Don’s death last night, Don was our in-house sage. Heck, I’m only 33 years old. Don wrote that 1989 feature story when I was still in middle school — and even then he was a respected industry veteran.
Over the years, Don told me several interesting stories over the phone and through e-mail. I printed out a few my old e-mails this morning. One of the shorter insights involved the Triumph TR6 vertical, known as a “McQueen Special.” Here’s what Don had to say: “As a former desert racer, that bike is beautiful. But I had to stop racing when I joined JoMo [Johnson Motors, the original Triumph importer] in 1956. I raced 1950 through 1956. Catalina was my last race. I finished third in the 350cc class on a Velocette. As for that Special, I sold Steve McQueen the first motorcycle he ever owned. It happened to be a 1959 TR6 Special.”
He casually said and wrote stuff like that.
Now, I was Don’s editor. That’s to say things between us weren’t always rosy. There were fights, all editorially related, of course — and real geeky stuff, too, not matters of industry knowledge. I remember a long e-mail exchange over the initial-capping of the word baby boomer. Don also liked to italicize phrases and whole sentences for emphasis. Too much, I thought. We eventually found a happy medium. Sometimes I cut or reworded his article to his displeasure.
I remember one time Don was so mad (about what, I don’t remember), he shocked me by saying, “I don’t give a damn,” emphasizing the last word with a shaky voice. That was as close as he ever came to swearing. And damn is hardly a cuss word. Bart Simpson says it.
Please, please don’t get me wrong. We didn’t fight very often. Usually we were warm with each other. He always asked how I was doing, and sometimes talked of his beloved family, a lot more than I did of my own.
Fact is, Don was a classy guy, a professional, a beaming example of the Greatest Generation. Back in the day, he probably wore a suit to the office.
And Don showed appreciation — too much, I think — for my editorial help, especially during the last two years, when he started calling me “Eagle Eye.” I was just doing my job, but it’s always nice when people appreciate what you do for them.
Don had a sense of humor. My phone rang one day. I picked it up and could hear only heavy breathing. Apparently, Don had dialed my number, then experienced some sort of physical ailment. He regained himself in about three seconds and, without missing a beat, said, “Don’t get excited, Arlo. This isn’t your girlfriend calling.”
Now maybe I’m sharing too much. I’ll wrap up.
Even though Don and I occasionally “fought” — in the heat of editorial battles, crazy old man may have even crossed my mind — what I remember most the day after his death is: Knowledgeable Don. Smart Don. Sweet Don. Funny Don. Family Don. And, of course, the best analyst the industry has ever had.