Planes, trains, and outboard motors. That's not a remake of the popular John Candy movie, but an apt synopsis for Bombardier these days. The Canada-based transportation giant spent the last 20 years making itself famous for its jets and high-speed rail runners (not to mention its Ski-Doo snow mobiles and Sea-Doo personal watercraft), and in the last year worked hard to become just was well known for outboard engines.
The job hasn't been easy. When Bombardier bought the Johnson and Evinrude marine outboard lines from bankrupt OMC last year, they inherited significant quality and dealer support problems, and a general loss in consumer loyalty. The Johnson and Evinrude brands needed all the help they could get.
No stranger to danger, Bombardier has built a reputation as a turn around specialist — picking up distressed companies with premiere brands and tapping them with a Midas touch. Before the acquisition by Bombardier of Learjet (currently number one in corporate jet sales), for example, Lear had filed for bankruptcy and shut down operations. After a two-year overhaul — Bombardier put the shop back in order and planes were rolling once again — this time for a profit.
Given its past successes, many are betting on Bombardier reestablishing Johnson and Evinrude as leaders in the outboard engine field, but there are several huge obstacles to overcome. They include a dealer network that feels double-crossed, consumers who believe they were used as guinea pigs for new technology and a group of employees who received pink slips for Christmas. Big hurdles, even for Bombardier.
Several weeks ago, the new Johnson and Evinrude plant responsible for the rebirth was unveiled in a coming-out party to show the world how Bombardier would quiet its critics. Because of a variety of design and technical problems, Bombardier literally went back to the drawing board and rebuilt the Johnson and Evinrude engines from the ground up. In what was known as Operation Clean Sweep, former OMC engineers were interviewed extensively to determine what short cuts had been taken previously and to eliminate a quality issue that had made its way out of the plants and into the hands of the consumers.
The results are evident in the new production facility in Sturtevant, Wisc. Quality control is no longer a division charged with overseeing production, but it's an integral part of each step along the line. A full 20 percent of each line workers job is to check the work of the previous station. Every five stations there is a overall independent check and approximately one percent of all production engines are pulled from the crates and subjected to a 300 point inspection — which includes several on-water components.
The resulting redesigned engines and quality control means that while the names remained the same — these are totally new engines. In fact, one engineer at the briefing declared that for all practical purposes, "Ficht is dead!" That statement may have been a bit premature given that these engines still have Ficht tattooed on their sides, but his point was that the new Bombardier fuel injections system was a far cry from the problem-ridden Ficht systems of OMC lore.
Obviously time — in the field under real-world consumer use — will tell. But confidence at the plant during the coming-out party for the new motors certainly was high. And for good reason.
With a history of innovation and technological know-how and incredible resources to draw on, its not a far reach to see how Bombardier can address the quality issues that forced OMC into bankruptcy, but reviving a skeptical dealer network will take time, patience and faith. Bombardier has already enacted proven measures such as a dealer council and newsletter to keep the current network informed and solicit prompt feedback. To date, Bombardier had signed or resigned a number of dealers and hopes to bring on more, but it's still a bit of an uphill battle. In some ways, the Johnson and Evinrude names are both an asset and a liability.
Bombardier, like almost all the engine manufacturers is also facing the ongoing battle of two- versus four-stroke technology. Currently, the only consensus on the issue is that there is no consensus on the issue. Advocates of the new technology two-stroke engines speak of newfound cleanliness and efficiency, while four-stroke devotees preach that the two-stroke is dead. Bombardier has addressed the issue by squarely sitting on the fence.
For many years, it was believed that the only difference between Johnson and Evinrude engines was the color of the cowling — this year, that all changes.
With the Johnson line, Bombardier is sticking to the more traditional and less sophisticated carbureted two-stroke engines and the less exciting four-stroke engines. The Johnson engines are to be positioned as the work horse of the Bombardier engine line — not too sexy, but always there for you. Currently, Suzuki is using its proven 4-stroke technology for the larger Johnson powerplants, but Bombardier is manufacturing the smaller horsepower engines and all bets would point towards continued expansion.
While both technologies continue to thrive, it definitely seems like Bombardier is more excited about the fuel-injected engines that will be marketed under the Evinrude name. Considered by many as a transitional technology, Bombardier firmly believes that the Evinrude two-strokes can not only compete, but also beat the four-stroke technology in terms of emissions, fuel efficiency and performance. This is the future as they see it, and with a proven track record — I wouldn't bet against Bombardier.
Initial consumer, dealer and industry reaction to the re-emergence of Johnson and Evinrude has been overwhelming. For Bombardier, it was strictly a business decision — they believe this will be a moneymaker, bottom line is all that matters. For many others, these brands strike much closer to heart — this emotional tie is going to be key as Johnson and Evinrude storm back onto the market. They were down, but definitely not out.