Bella Bikes

Helen Vasilevski, BCom’92, is bringing the Lamborghini of Italian motorcycles to a North American audience as CEO of MV Agusta USA.
By: 
Shelley Pleiter
Issue: 

In answer to the question, “Where’s home these days?” Helen Vasilevski replies with a laugh, “Wherever my suitcase is on any given day.” While her primary residence is in Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, Helen is on the road seven out of eight weeks, with a one-week stint at MV Agusta’s factory in Varese, Italy. The rest of the time she’s travelling throughout the U.S., visiting dealers, spreading the word that Italy’s premier racing motorcycle manufacturer is serious about its incursion into the North American market.

Helen knows that creating brand awareness is job one. MV Agusta began as an aviation company in 1907, branching into motorcycles in 1945. It dominated the Grand Prix racing circuit, racking up the most wins ever, and has long been a source of national pride for Italians. In the U.S., land of the Harley- Davidson, MV Agusta is known only to the most discerning of consumers, explains Helen. She’s on a mission to change that. 

At first glance, it may not seem like the CEO role of an elite motorcycle brand is the logical place for the daughter of Greek- Macedonian immigrants to Canada who settled in Hamilton, Ont. But given her background, personal philosophy and professional experience, it’s turned out to be a great fit, says Helen.

Helen grew up with English as her second language, “in an old-world order transplanted into a Canadian context,” as she describes it. “You learn to bridge, to see the world from different perspectives.” 

Her parents had an international outlook as well, taking their children on many trips to different regions of the world. “By the age of 12, I’d visited several continents, though I’ve still never been to Disneyland,” she says. “For me, the world is global and it always has been. I never saw myself on a ‘one country, one company, one industry’ career path.” 

She knew that a business degree offered the best opportunity to realize her objective and chose Queen’s because of its strong academic reputation, its unintimidating size and its location in a small community. It was a transformative time, with friendships formed that have lasted through the decades. “Over the course of a year, I probably see at least 20 to 25 of my classmates, many of them fellow expats whom I look up on my travels,” she says. 

Her first job out of school was at P&G, where she benefitted from a solid foundation in the consumer product industry. Several promotions followed in her five years there, but Helen was keen to expand her horizons. She decided to pursue her MBA and chose INSEAD, in Fontainebleau, France. “I didn’t know what door would open on the other side, but I was happy to let fate play its hand,” she says. 

Helen, in full gear, showcases the MV Agusta MY15 collection in California

Helen, in full gear, showcases the MV Agusta MY15 collection in California

Her MBA experience provided an opportunity to assess her strengths. “I realized that I have the capability to connect the dots, to not look at issues in a linear fashion.” She found out from a classmate that Ducati, a high-end Italian motorcycle manufacturer, had just been purchased by a private-equity group and was looking into launching an IPO. One of her classmates said she should call the company’s CEO and offer her services. Helen took the chance, called and impressed the CEO enough that he offered her a job.

She knew going in that it would be a short-term assignment and that the environment would be a chaotic one. “I’m the person that buys the fixer-upper, not the house in move-in condition,” she laughs.

As a woman in a very male-dominated industry, Helen certainly had her work cut out for her, all the more so since she neither rode a motorcycle nor spoke Italian when she first began in the industry. During her three-year stint at Ducati, Helen learned Italian and how to ride a motorcycle, all the while embracing the chaos that results when a company institutes major transformational change. After three years, a new challenge beckoned at Diageo, the world’s largest distiller, famous for such brands as Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker. Helen spent four heady years at its New York City office before moving to Lausanne, Switzerland, to become Director of International Marketing, Sales & Strategic Planning at Bombardier Recreational Products.

Helen’s career was unfolding just as she’d hoped: international in scope, problem-solving focused, in challenging roles at consumer product companies in the upper echelon of their respective sectors. When offered the opportunity in July 2014 to become MV Agusta USA’s new CEO, Helen seized the opportunity.

“The team in Italy took a chance in hiring a woman for the top job, and they’ve been very supportive,” says Helen. ”What I bring to the table is an understanding of the North American market.” She attributes her success in what is a very male- dominated industry to her “survival” at Ducati. “It was my choice to be in that industry,” she says. “That was the world I walked into.”

Asphalt and Rubber, an online magazine for motorcycle aficionados, called Helen “the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. motorcycle industry,” and one of the “archaic and astonishingly conservative” sector’s “handful of female rock stars who are breaking through motorcycling’s glass ceiling.”

“I don’t care so much about trying to fit into the current world order,” Helen says, “because if the industry is going to survive and if the company wants to make a difference, we can’t be fuelled by the parameters that exist today.”

Besides, her biggest challenge is increasing MV Agusta’s brand awareness in North America, which Helen currently pegs at “10%, at best.” She often has to begin by explaining what differentiates an MV Agusta motorcycle from a Ducati. “They’re both exotic, both high-end,” she says. “The Ducati is more “mainstream”; think Ferrari. The MV Agusta, like a Lamborghini, attracts a more discerning consumer, one who understands design and technology and the storied history of the brand.” And one who can afford the price tag, which ranges from US$12,000 to US$46,000. 

In a market dominated by industry-leader Harley-Davidson, Helen and her nimble team have embraced all manner of marketing techniques to get their message out. They’ve cultivated brand ambassadors, such as renowned tattoo artist Ami James and avid collectors who are promoting the brand. Product placement is another avenue they’ve pursued, with MV Agusta motorcycles figuring in a music video by rapper Pitbull and in upcoming films Batman vs Superman and Zoolander 2.

“You can show people a 2D photo of one of our beautiful motorcycles, and they’ll get the general idea,” Helen explains. “But show them the Zoolander 2 trailer, with Penélope Cruz in a one-piece, red leather body suit, riding an MV Agusta F3-800, and they’ll say, ‘That’s the experience I want to have!’”

Beyond brand awareness, Helen plays a key role as a product ambassador, travelling throughout the U.S. to meet with dealers and passionate MV Agusta owners. Her bimonthly visits to the company’s factory in Varese invariably feature discussions with designers about the different riding style of U.S. consumers. “Americans will go for a three-hour bike ride and it’s not a big deal,” says Helen. “In three or four hours on a bike in Europe you can travel through three different countries, and that’s not the norm.” For Americans, who are used to those longer rides, seat height, vehicle height, and overall comfort of the touring experience are all important factors. “When I’m at the factory, it’s important for me to be able to represent the North American consumer in the best possible way to our product designers.”

Helen leads a small team of 15, out-sourcing such functions as public relations and marketing, even warehousing and distribution. The group operates much like a start-up, with speed and the ability to change direction at a moment’s notice being critical. “I’ve learned how to overcome people’s resistance, when they say ‘we can’t do that until we have this and this and this,’” Helen says. “Eighty percent of the time we won’t get that, or at least not in that order. So I tell them, we have to move with what we have, as opposed to waiting for everything to line up perfectly.”

The incessant travel, the challenge of being David (even Michelangelo’s David) in a land of Goliaths, the occasional bumping up against gender barriers — these are stresses that are unavoidable. Helen has the perfect antidote. “I go for a ride on my motorcycle,” she says. “I ride because it gives me pleasure. I can’t multitask on a bike. It requires all of my concentration, because my life and the life of people around me depend on it. For some people, yoga is their meditation. For me, it’s being on a bike.”

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