Categories: Features Norton
June 21, 2019
| On 4 months ago

A Conversation with Norton CEO and Owner Stuart Garner

After nearly four decades in the advertising business, I’ve been around enough co-branding campaigns to fill a Louis Vuitton + Supreme duffel bag with Doritos by Taco Bell chips. Strategic partnerships between brands are not without potential pratfalls (The Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars/Sex Pistols collaboration leaps to mind.) But when there is a real fit across audiences and consumers, they work, particularly in today’s challenging and fractured media environment.

Monday night, I had the distinct pleasure of experiencing the launch of a strong strategic partnership between brands; Breitling Watches and Norton Motorcycles. And the tony event at the Breitling flagship boutique on the corner of 57th and Madison Avenue in NYC, hosted by Breitling USA President Thierry Prissert (with brilliant actor Adam Driver in attendance as ‘brand ambassador’) came with the benefit of spending a good deal of time talking with Norton’s driven and confident CEO, Stuart Garner.

From the PR perspective, “Breitling and Norton Motorcycles share a strong heritage. Both were founded in the 19th century by visionaries who gave their names to their companies and, to a large extent, defined their industries.” I can attest that both the Breitling Edition Norton Commando (limited to 77 units), and the Breitling Premier B01 Chronograph 42 Norton Edition are sweet mechanical objects of desire. The chrono sports a 42-millimeter stainless-steel case, water-resistant to 10 bar (100 meters), a “Norton” logo engraved on the case, and a transparent case back with a Norton motorcycle and logo.

Breitling CEO Georges Kern, a motorbike enthusiast who has enjoyed a spirited enduro romp or two with Garner, is in the midst of a huge brand turnaround for Breitling. “It was my goal to make Breitling cool – a relaxed and informal alternative to the more conservative brands out there,” said Kern. This Norton timepiece is definitely a strong step in that direction.

Ah, yes, the motorbike. The Breitling Commando Sport 961 is distinguished by a vintage Breitling “B” engraved on the clutch box, Breitling-designed speedometer and tachometer dials, and a black-on-black vintage “B” stitched into the saddle. It is a particularly fetching bike in black and silverish-white livery, and the Mk 2 Sport has benefitted from 7 plus years of iterative improvements from the original, making for a spirited bespoke roadster. While prices for each were not revealed at the event, there should be no challenge selling them all to well-heeled enthusiasts and fans of both brands.

In what was scheduled to be a 15-minute chat (perhaps showing him a photo of my ’68 Norton P11 Ranger boosted my cred), Stuart Garner waxed for nearly 40 minutes over the history of the brand, the Isle of Man TT effort, the launch of the new V4 and 650 twins, the company’s renewed commitment to the US market, the future of the retro-modern and electric motorbike segments, and of course, the partnership with Breitling.

He spoke of the joys of riding simple, mechanical, not-too-big machines (like the soon to arrive 650 Nomad and Ranger), bumbling down backroads with joy. He described how Norton has come to be located in a majestic castle at Donington Hall, and how that has impacted the spirit of the company. He was effusive and candid and generous with his time, while coming clean on some of the challenges and near-brand-death experiences that he’s had to navigate this storied, 121-year old motorcycle manufacturer through.

Some of the highlights of our conversation:

Regarding the 2019 TT: “We nearly didn’t go, because we didn’t want to run last year’s bike. We used the Aprilia motor to prove the chassis while we developed our own V4, which at 1200 cc was originally approved two years ago, and then through a ‘miscommunication’ we found out we couldn’t run it very close to TT. So, we’ll be back in 2020 with the 1000cc Norton V4.”

On moving in to Donington Hall: “It wouldn’t be the same if we were located in a shed somewhere. Donington is at the center of our brand.”

On overpromising and under-delivering in the US Market and newfound humility: ‘We’ll be in the hunt for the right kinds of dealers, ones that understand this brand and have an affinity for this segment of the market. We’ll be bringing in the 961, the V4 SS, and the 650 twins, and using select shows and Norton enthusiast club gatherings and the like to build back our customer base.”

On the competition: “The Japanese brands can’t do ‘lifestyle’ like the American and European brands can.’

On electric bikes: “My eleven year-old son doesn’t care, but if you’ve had the smell of two strokes in your nose, it’s not going to be easy.”