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Arctic Cat Inc. is playing catch-up in the race for thrill-seeking buyers of side-by-side recreational vehicles, the only hot segment of an otherwise tepid all-terrain vehicle industry.


Its one vehicle in the market, which it entered in 2005, is a workhorse, used for off-road hauling, towing and, occasionally, recreational riding. Even though it bills the Prowler as a "work-and-play" option, the Thief River Falls-based manufacturer has been left in the dust by competitors' growing number of flashy sport models for racing or joyriding over hills and sand dunes.

"While they tried to promote it as sport-rec, it just didn't hit the sport crowd like they hoped it would," said Doug Siddens, whose Texas-based Forum Foundry Inc. oversees about 25 powersports online forums, including the 61,000-member ArcticChat.com.

The miscalculation has been costly. Arctic's ATV sales dropped from $431 million in 2007 to just $181 million for its fiscal year ended March 31. Its total sales, which include snowmobiles and parts, garments and accessories, declined about 40 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile Arctic's Minnesota-based rival, Polaris Industries Inc., has surged to the head of the pack in the off-road-vehicle market largely because of its strong side-by-side business. Polaris has both a pure sport model, the RZR, and a utility model, the Ranger, that's aimed primarily at workers, farmers and outdoorsmen. Since 2006 Polaris' ATV sales have increased more than 11 percent, totaling close to $1.4 billion last year.

Now Arctic is poised to strike back. Sometime in the next several months it will roll out its pure sport side-by-side, the Wildcat, which it has been working on for more than two years. CEO Claude Jordan won't disclose how much the company has spent developing it, but says it's the most of any ATV in the company's 50-year history.

Jordan, who joined Arctic as president in 2008 and succeeded retiring CEO Christopher Twomey late last year, acknowledges the company has some catching up to do: "We were caught a little off-guard by how fast the side-by-side market grew."

Siddens said some of the demand for sport side-by-sides, which allow a passenger to sit next to the driver, is coming from motorcycle as well as single-seat ATV enthusiasts. "You can share the experience," he said. "It's safer because you are strapped in, have a cage around you."

The Wildcat opens a new market segment for Arctic, but it also is part of broader push in to new products. The company introduced three new single-seat ATVs in January, and only a handful of its total ATV lineup is more than two years old. In March it introduced 23 new snowmobile models that will make up three-fourths of this year's offerings.

"There is a sense of urgency," Jordan said. "The engineers hear from me frequently on how do we do more things, do them better and quicker."

Indeed, investors are eager. Arctic's stock price plummeted going into the recession, and it is still trading for 30 percent less than five years ago. Meanwhile Polaris -- which a report last year estimated had 40 percent of the side-by-side market in 2009 and, analysts estimate, even more today -- has been on a tear on Wall Street. The stock has been trading at all-time highs in recent months, closing at $106.73 Friday. That's more than double the price five years ago.

Jordan is hoping the Wildcat will help boost Arctic's dealership network, particularly in fast-growing markets in the South and Southwest. Arctic does not disclose state-by-state dealer numbers, but industry websites currently list 46 for Arctic in California, Texas and Arizona, the hottest markets for side-by-sides. Polaris, Honda and Yamaha -- three of its key ATV competitors -- each have more than 150 in those states.

Greg Finke, sales manager of Adrenaline Powersports near Sacramento, Calif., said the dealership stopped carrying Arctic off-road vehicles two years ago and switched to Polaris partly because Polaris could offer both a utility and a sports model.

"People love the RZR," Finke said. "We can't keep them in stock."

Mark Smith, an analyst at Feltl and Co. in Minneapolis, surveyed Polaris dealers in 25 states and found that demand for the company's latest high-end RZR model is meeting or exceeding their expectations. More than one-fourth of the dealers had run out, and many were scrambling to locate models from other dealers to fill orders, he said in a recent report.

Several of Arctic's competitors also have ATV manufacturing facilities closer to key markets in the South and Southwest, and two -- Polaris and Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. -- have plants in Mexico where they also can take advantage of labor rates about one-third of those in the United States.

Jordan said the experience of Arctic's workforce in Thief River Falls outweighs those disadvantages. "The lack of quality issues we have, we're pleased with the way things are going in Thief River Falls," he said. Analysts say Yamaha's share of the ATV market has slipped because of a 2009 voluntary recall of several of its Rhino ATV models. Arctic also makes all its own ATV engines in St. Cloud, and plans to begin making its snowmobile engines in 2015, ending its supply relationship with Suzuki Motor Corp. in Japan.

Arctic's brand name and reputation is better established in snowmobiles than ATVs, including snowmobile racing, according to Rommel Dionisio, an analyst at Wedbush Securities in New York. "If it can leverage the standing it has in snowmobiles with the Wildcat, that will help," he said. Although Arctic's reputation in snowmobiles might not carry much weight in the South and Southwest, Dionisio said it will in western Canada, another big market for sport-riding ATVs.

Arctic has not disclosed product specifications for the Wildcat. At a March meeting in Nashville it gave snowmobile dealers a peek at a model, but made them put away mobile devices so they couldn't take photos.

Even so, a few 14-second clips of the metallic green vehicle on display at the meeting have surfaced on YouTube, generating about 120,000 views. The buzz has carried over to ArcticChat.com and other powersports trade publications and online forums with speculation on the Wildcat's horsepower, acceleration, chassis and price.

Jordan won't comment on the rumors but will say that the company's research showed superior suspension -- for hitting hills hard and fast -- was at the top of potential buyers' lists.

"Anytime you're not first to market there's a challenge. You can't come out with me-too product," Jordan said.

"Arctic has done its homework," said Tom Stifter, a Delano dealer who saw the Wildcat the Nashville meeting. "It is squarely aimed at the RZR."

Stifter said the Prowler has been popular with area hobby farm owners and he's not sure if they would prefer a sport model like the Wildcat. But he said curiosity over the new vehicle could drive overall customer traffic to his dealership, Star-West Chevrolet-Honda Sports.

Dionisio said Arctic's ATV sales should rise about 2 percent to $184.3 million this year, partly because of the Wildcat and other new products. The increase in retail sales by Arctic's dealers is expected to be bigger because they are still winnowing inventories. One thing that will help dealers avoid bloated inventories in the future is a system Arctic established about two years ago that allows them to submit ATV orders in June, August and December instead of just once a year. The new system gives dealers more flexibility, Jordan said. "They don't have to speculate on how many or what type of machine they're going to be selling."

Meanwhile, dealers in Minnesota and elsewhere say they're eager for Arctic to unleash the Wildcat. Ione Sette said she thinks her Owatonna dealership, Sette Sports Center, may have lost sales because some side-by-side buyers prefer lighter sport models to the Prowlers with towing and hauling capacity that she carries for farmers and hunters.

"Name recognition is very hard with Arctic, so it has to do something [with the Wildcat] and it has to be radical," said Mark Hopkins of Action Powersports in Ennis, Texas. His customers want pure sport model side-by-sides, he said, noting Polaris and Kawasaki sales are much stronger than Arctic. "Just get it out. The sooner, the better."

Credit: STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul)
SUSAN FEYDER; STAFF WRITER
Publication Date: June 26, 2011 Page: 01D Section: BUSINESS Edition: METRO
 
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