As the Vice President-General Manager of Arctic Cat Snowmobiles and Parts, Garments and Accessories, Brad Darling exerts enormous influence on the machines and gear we ride today, and will ride in the coming years.
It’s a massive responsibility that the lifelong snowmobiler attacks with great enthusiasm and respect, because he’s fully aware of the company’s powerful history and the passion its customers bring to the sport they love.
I sat down with the 50-year-old married father of two and fired off a series of questions about the company, its machines, the relationship with Yamaha and more. He responded with refreshingly candid answers and anecdotes that are as interesting as they are informative.
AI: Let’s start by telling us your background in the snowmobile industry and with Arctic Cat.
Darling: I grew up in a family that owned an Arctic Cat dealership in Canada, still have two brothers still at it today. We were always riding sleds, it was our family’s passion.
My father made sure we touch every aspect of the business, I had to do sales, be a mechanic, build machines, work in the parts department and, of course, sweep the floors. I also got to ride the machines, including my first race at age 5 on Kitty Cat.
I worked there until 1990, at which point I went into the finance business and then to the lawn and garden industry. Ten years later, I returned to the snowmobile industry as an Arctic Cat district sales manager in Ontario, then progressed into the National Sales Manager position in Canada from 2003-2008. In 2008 I moved to the U.S. and became the North American Sales Director.
In 2011 I was promoted to Vice President and General Manager of Arctic Cat Snowmobiling. And recently I also became the VP-GM of our Parts, Garments and Accessories as well as the snowmobile division.
AI: How does that wide experience color your perspective of the sport and influence the decisions you make as GM?
Darling: Growing up, I clearly remember my dad saying, “Never forget where you came from.” It’s an important lesson in life and business.
First and foremost, I’ve always been a rider. That’s a perspective I’m able to bring to the decisions I make on a daily basis.
Working directly with customers at the dealership, and later with dealers as a DSM, I completely understand the perspective of all the participants in this whole sport: rider, dealer, sales, and manufacturer. I like to think I bring a balance of those perspectives to my job as GM.
AI: That’s cool. Tell us exactly what you do as GM of Arctic Cat’s snowmobile division, and the kinds of decisions you make.
Darling: I’m fully responsible for the snowmobile division worldwide, including the products we offer, our marketing efforts and sales. I may be responsible, but I’m surrounded by extremely talented people that make it what it is today!
AI: It must be fun to be responsible for the kind of sled the company produces now and in the future, although I’m sure there are some challenges with that too, right?
Darling: The most fun part of the job is product planning. Wouldn’t you like to know what’s coming in three to five years? (Laughs)
AI: Yes, please tell me everything!
Darling: I’d like to because it’s really exciting, but I can’t. I can share with you that we have a rolling five-year plan. Three years out, we’re locked and loaded. The plans that are 4-5 years out have a little more fluidity.
In everything we do with product planning, our decisions are based on what our customers want. We call it “voice of the customer,” or VOC. Years ago, decisions were made with only feedback from our distributors and dealers, who certainly have an important voice, but we expanded our circle to make customers central to the process. It really helps us get it right!
AI: The influence you have on snowmobiles is pretty significant. What are the challenges of your position?
Darling: Our biggest challenge is meeting the insatiable demand for new stuff every year despite an overall industry that is actually pretty small. Our riders want new engines, new chassis and new suspensions seems like every year. I don’t blame them, because I do too. But when the industry sells just over 100,000 new snowmobiles annually, the numbers don’t allow major redesigns every year. Still, I think we do a pretty good job satisfying the consumer demand for new!
AI: It must be pretty fun when you do launch something big.
Darling: For sure, especially when the product is a homerun, that it meets or exceeds our customers’ expectations. It’s no fun to introduce something that has teething problems.
AI: What’s been a recent homerun?
Darling: The 2014 ZR 6000 El Tigre (above) was a big homerun. Our own 6000 DSI 2-stroke engine was a huge hit. Match this all-new light-weight Arctic Cat C-TEC2 engine with a proven ProCross chassis, and that sled nailed it on quality, performance, cost and fun factor. It was a huge accomplishment for our engineering teams, and it really highlighted their massive expertise.
AI: You’ve made a big push for the company’s renewed focus on quality. Tell me about that and what it means going forward.
Darling: We’ve always focused on quality, but the last few years we put enormous emphasis on it. The greater emphasis was the result of the fact that, as consumers, we all have a greater expectation of quality and less tolerance for problems. When we had teething problems with some of the first ProCross and ProClimb machines, we let our customers down. We let ourselves down, frankly. Arctic Cat riders ride more and the 2016 sleds are the best snowmobiles every to roll out of the Thief River Falls factory.
So our response was to raise our standards of quality in everything we do, from design to testing to manufacturing, for our vendors and for us, then to grow that effort to include our dealers and other aspects of our business to making sure our customers get that first check up on their sled. Together these mean a more enjoyable riding experience.
All of snowmobile engineering is thinking with the same mindset. Quality targets are now just as important as cost targets, to make sure we are on track we have monthly meetings to certify that we’re meeting our expectations.
And sometimes it’s not just quality, but how we spec our sleds. Here’s an example: I took a group of neighbors on a ride a couple years ago, most first-timers. One of the sleds I brought was an F5 in the Twin Spar chassis. That’s a price-point machine, and so we equipped it with the least expensive single-runner ski carbides. Well, when my neighbors were riding it on a hardpack trail, it was darting, which is common for single runners and a situation that may not scare experienced riders. But it was a big source of nervousness for these first timers.
Afterwards I discussed it with our Product Team Manager, Lynn Berberich, and we agreed that, yes it’s a price-point sled, but it may also be a first-ever sled for many people. So we needed to equip it with dual-runner carbides to stop the darting and give them comfort and confidence.
AI: I know it’s tricky for you to talk about some of this stuff, so I appreciate your honesty. Do you think that the number of problems was blown out of perspective, or that many of them were the result of modified sleds and such?
Darling: (Pause) First, I want to be very clear that we acknowledge problems with some of our sleds in stock form, and for that I’m sorry. That is not the experience I want for our customers. Here’s a true story. We had some belt problems in 2012. We went out and visited dealerships that had customers’ sleds to figure out why. We even went so far as getting some of these machines back to our plant in Thief River Falls for our engineers to inspect.
During this period we heard from a dealer about a customer’s sled who was blowing belts. I personally called the dealer to discuss the problem and asked if everything on the sled was stock, and he assured me that it was. We shipped the sled to Thief where our engineers inspected it upon arrival and noticed that a Boondocker and exhaust can had been installed on it. Well, adding up to another 100 hp to a 170-hp machine is going to result in some potential belt problems. We don’t test our sleds with modification kit on them!
So yes, there were absolutely problems that were because of customers’ choices, and some of those people made a lot of noise about it.
AI: When you presented the 2016 models to the snowmobile media back in January, you seemed to strongly suggest that Arctic Cat has more engines in development, but that they would not be released until they were fully proven. Did I interpret that correctly and, if so, is this an example of a “different” Arctic Cat than one of a few years ago?
Darling: I would hope that if we have a five-year plan that we have new engines coming! Yes, as we just discussed about some problems, we will only bring out new engines when they are completely ready as we did when we launch the all-new Arctic Cat DSI 6000 engine. That’s true whether it’s an engine, a chassis or anything else.
Darling (holding ribbon on left) along with Arctic Cat and Yamaha officials at a gathering to commemmorate production of the 2014 SRViper.
AI: Let’s talk about the relationship with Yamaha, starting with its impact on Arctic Cat.
Darling: Let me start by describing how the relationship progressed. It started with us buying engines for our ZR 120 model beginning in 2009. Then we worked out an engine supply agreement with the three-cylinder 1049cc 4-stroke engine. Then we built blue 120s for them beginning in model year 2013. This allowed both companies to establish a system of collaboration to get ready for what’s coming next.
Those steps allowed us to get ready for 2014, when we brought the 7000 Series motor into our chassis that we sold as ZR and XF configurations, and that they sold as SRViper models.
I call it a win-win-win for our customers, Yamaha and Arctic Cat. Together, we now have the best 4-stroke engine coupled to the best chassis and suspensions in the industry. Contrary to what a few people predicted, sales increased for both companies by the end of the season.
Did I have worries about how this might play out back in 2013? Absolutely. They were our competitors, so naturally both companies needed some time to establish full trust in one another. And to understand each other. That took time and experience. It felt like a honeymoon when this relationship first started, and we wondered if or when the honeymoon would end. This relationship keeps getting stronger.
The customer truly wins with this. These are two smart companies that are building better products. And not just in terms of quality, but also handling, performance and ride. By us working together we just doubled our engineering team!
AI: Can you describe how the relationship works, in terms of who has input into the various aspects of the machines Arctic Cat builds?
Darling: We meet with them four times per year on a senior level, and more frequently on an engineering level. We openly communicate and ask them questions about their products, and vice versa. We approach decisions and challenges with two groups of smart, experience people who work together to create solutions.
They’ve helped us with quality/fit finish. We’ve helped them come to market with new technology quicker.
AI: Can you clarify how the companies decide what, exactly, an Arctic Cat and Cat-built Yamaha will be equipped with?
Darling: With the 120, and as I said before we’d been using Yamaha’s engine since 2009. So with the 2013 SRX 120 we simply added the blue paint and Yamaha decals.
Yamaha customers have a little different DNA than Arctic Cat customers, and there is some nuance to the machines that addresses those differences. In 2014 with the 7000 and SRViper, Yamaha wanted to keep using their button clutch instead of our roller clutch. And of course there were some other differences in looks, wind protection and plastic. As a result, the SRViper looks and feels like a Yamaha, while the ZR, XF and M models look and feel like Arctic Cats.
Going forward, you will see more products that were developed jointly, where engineers from both companies have more input on each other’s components and designs.
AI: How about improvements on the 2016 ZR models like the revised suspension calibrations and the development of FOX QS3 shocks? Were those joint developments?
Darling: No, not everything is jointly developed. They don’t have input on our 2-stroke lineup, or models they don’t use. However, some stuff that we jointly developed for 4-stroke models has been incorporated into our 2-strokes.
It’s interesting: Not only have we worked to bring great new products to market, we also work together on bringing together a new testing protocol!
AI: There’s been some confusion about how many more years Arctic Cat will source Suzuki engines, in part because of some statements the company made when the information about the de-coupling first hit. Can you offer some clarity about the future and end-date of this relationship?
Darling: The original agreement was that they would cease supplying engines on December 31, 2013. Later, both companies elected to extend the deadline to December 31, 2016. After that point, there are no plans to purchase complete engines from them, however, they will continue to supply us with service parts.
AI: For 2016 Arctic Cat has different engine suppliers for its snowmobile line: Tell us how this diversity helps the company, and whether it hurts in any way.
Darling: The benefit is that our engine group has significant input into the design of all the engines built for us. Our 3000 engine, for instance, was designed by both our snow team and ATV/ROV team. This engine is also used in our Wildcat vehicles. Having multiple vendors allows the flexibility we want for the cost, performance, design and manufacturing. In addition, working directly with the world’s premier engine suppliers has given our own engine groups tremendous additional knowledge and experience.
Darling (R) talking with Troy Halvorson, Arctic Cat Snowmobile Product Manager
AI: When I look at Arctic Cat’s snowmobile division, I see people who had been involved for decades that have retired or who are the cusp of doing so. Conversely, I see bright, passionate, young people filling the ranks. Is the company in any sort of transition? Do you see the institutional knowledge of the previous generation being passed along to the new one?
Darling: There is turnover because of age, but for sure the institutional knowledge is being preserved. That’s key to our success.
But you also have to remember, some of these young faces that you see at Arctic Cat, guys like Brian Dick, Troy Halvorson and Andy Beavis for example, have been at Cat for more than a decade. And they had years of racing and riding experience before that. So they’re young compared to guys like Roger Skime and Larry Coltom, but they’re no spring chickens! (Laughter)
L-to-R: Team Arctic’s Zach Herfindahl, Wes Selby, Mike Kloety, Brian Dick and Brad Darling.
AI: Okay, I’m going to bounce around a bit now. What’s your opinion about the value of racing for Arctic Cat?
Darling: It’s tremendously important. Not just for marketing, but also for the huge benefit of research and development. We learn a lot from racing and will continue to do so. Of course it’s nice to talk about our racing success. That’s the marketing side of it. But it’s R&D that’s most important.
AI: “Snowmobiles are too expensive,” is something I hear pretty frequently. Do you agree with the sentiment?
Darling: I don’t agree with it. In 2006 our Sabercat 500 EFI LXR had a retail price of $6,899, 10 years later you can buy a ZR 4000 LXR for $8,299. That’s a decade of inflation with an increase of only $1,400 and you get so much more sled! Consumers want more, our best selling sleds are in the $14,000 range. Because they have more features than sleds of 10 and 15 years ago, from engines, shocks to paint to electronics.
Think about some of the components from a 1995 ZR compared to a 2015 ZR: The tracks were 15 x 121 with .75-in. lugs. Well, that track is going to be less expensive than a 129-in. track with 1.25-in. lugs. Items like dual-runner carbides, FOX QS3 adjustable shocks, running board supports and foot traction, more comprehensive engine management systems and of course the costs associated with emissions requirements…all these things simply cost more than their predecessors.
AI: Fair enough. What’s the most exciting thing happening in the sport right now?
Darling: Good question. I think it’s the fact we’re attracting more female buyers into sport, which is now making oit more of a family sport!
Another exciting development: The average snowmobiler is getting younger!
On a product level, I’m happy that we literally don’t have to work on sleds now to go riding. In the 70’s – 80’s it was drive for an hour fix it for four! Well don’t know if it really was, but we always joked about it. Not today! I want to share a story with you, a couple years ago I was at our Norwegian Dealer Meeting which took place above the Arctic Circle. They had planned a ride from Norway to Finland, which is about 300 miles. We started with 40 sleds, we lost 2 riders along the way (not me), not because of sled issues but rider issues. It was -30C, and two riders weren’t dressed properly. This is one of the fun parts of my job, I get to ride many areas around the world!
And consider the amazing snowmobile clubs and association that are the crucial backbone of this entire sport. They’ve created and maintain the most remarkable off-road trail system anywhere in the world. That isn’t necessarily new, but it remains one of the most exciting things aspects to this sport.
Take a non-sledder riding… dress them properly… bring them to a nice trail system: They will have an amazing experience. We need to export that effort. Actually, everyone needs to make that effort to bring more people into the sport, because it will strengthen and grow a better sport for everyone.
AI: What is the biggest challenge facing the sport?
Darling: It’s what I was just alluding to: We need more people in it. If we sold more machines, then we could bring more new technology to market, quicker.
A young Brad Darling on his ’71 Kitty Cat.
AI: What’s your all-time favorite Arctic Cat?
Darling: A 1971 Kitty Cat, first sled I ever raced. (Yes, the very first Kitty Cat with the Clinton engine, of which there were just 50 purported to have been built.)
AI: Okay, my last request: Share a personal story you have about Roger Skime.
Darling: I have a lot of personal stories of my hero Roger Skime! You will not find more of an ambassador to the sport than Roger. I had just moved into my new role of VP/GM of the snowmobile division and was at an ISOC race in Canterbury. I went to our Green trailer (Team Arctic) to visit with the race team and there was Roger working on some gearing…not on a Cat, but a Ski-Doo!
I asked Roger, “What are you doing?” He just looked at me and said, “Helping a kid who was having some problems with his sled.”
For those of you that don’t know Roger, this IS Roger! The Green Trailer is open to anyone, and he’ll do anything for the sport. It doesn’t matter what color you’re wearing!
Isn’t that cool?!
AI: It sure is. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Brad.
Darling: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
Another fantastic interview you can’t get from anywhere else about any other brand. Thanks!
I may have missed it but where is the questions regarding Arctic’s relationship with its dealers? We have lost so many dealers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho in the last couple years it’s making it hard to stay loyal to Arctic Cat. That is all I have ever known and will ride, but now we don’t have a dealer on the eastern side of the Cascades. Spokane is the nearest. Who wants to drive 3 hrs one way to get a sled worked on or pick up a new one. One of the longest standing dealers Valley Marine in Yakima gave it up after 30/40 years of loyalty and great service to their customers. Arctic needs to focus on bring back dealers or they won’t have any customers to sell big bad arzz sleds too.
John, another excellent article.
“Going forward, you will see more products that were jointly developed, where engineers from both companies have more input in each other’s components and designs.
What I liked about Cat was it was able to keep up technologically with the big boys like BRP and Yamaha.
If I wanted a Yamaha product I’d buy one. This decision is going to come back to haunt Cat. It will certainly influence my decision on buying a Cat in the future.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like Arctic Cat long term is going to be assimilated into Yamaha (and then disappear like all brands that have been assimilated into another mfr).
I thought John asked excellent questions – ones that represent how a lot of AC consumers are feeling and asking. I appreciated actually hearing Brad apologize for the issues with the 12’s as well as his perspectives on the biggest challenges in the sport today.
Sleds are too expensive today – most buyers use them less than 3 months a year. Prices have outpaced inflation and wages over the last 10 years. A lot of people have already left the sport.
I hope 16 turns out to be a good year for AC. The financials aren’t looking good so hopefully things turn around. I hope too that AC will find new and more effective ways to listen to their customers and bring back the innovation to the snow they were once known for.
Hey Gary: guess you have it all figured out. That explains the massive expansion plans by cat and all the new workers planned. 10 workers at St. Cloud is exactly the number it takes to make the two stroke 600. Can you say new big bore?
Awesome article John found two mistakes! in the photo cutting the ribbon that is not Brad but the useless ClaudeJordan also kitty cat came out as a 1972 model I know my dad was a dealer we got a dozen of those little buggers!
Any chance of a 800 closer to the ground like the old chassis?
Great article John!
The only problem I have is the response to the belt issue. All he talked about was people who moded their sleds out who had issues. I have no mods on mine and have grenaded two belts in 1300 miles of riding. I have also had to replace the belly pan due to the exploded belts. I have a 2013 800 RR.
Further, my reed petals were shot after 1000 miles and I had to have those replaced.
Cat needs to man up and stand behind these problems. I have just dealt with it because the chassis is so awesome.
I also don’t like the fact that so many Cat dealers continue to go away. This needs to change. I don’t want to ride anything but a Cat, but can’t constitute driving a ton of distance to buy one. The closest dealer to me right now is only an hour away, but has been having issues with Cat forcing sleds on them.
The Roger story was great!
Really good article John. I have been impressed with what Cat has been doing to improve QDR. However, Eric is correct. You have to stand behind the product at all costs. These things are too expensive to have to worry about design flaws costing you money. They have to be 100% right when they hit your garage. This is something Yamaha has always been pretty good at delivering, and when there is a problem, they are very good at resolving it to the customer’s satisfaction. I have been on a Ski Doo since 2007, but I am seriously considering an AC product for the first time. I like the chassis and all of the motor options. I love the package options from RR to LXR. I am really interested in the Crosstrek for an ideal “all rounder”, but
I absolutely want and need reliability. I take very good care of my stuff, and I can’t stand unnecessary issues that take away from the ownership experience and sometimes riding time. None of us can. That said, I want to support American companies and American workers now more than ever. I believe Cat is committed to quality as evidence by the drivetrain and other changes they have made. I am willing to spend the money on one. This site is another reason why I’m willing to try one. I love the communication you are able to open up with Cat because of your relationships there. It is great for consumers to be able to share the passion through this site. Anyway, keep up the good work! Also, if you were looking at say, a Crosstrek, based on your experience, which motor would you spec? And would you choose a Crosstrek over a ZR 137? Decisions. Decisions. Thanks for the input. I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas.
Interesting interview John!
The key to getting the next generation into sleds really depends on getting a more practical machine to market in my opinion. The jump between a 120 and next smallest displacement, 499, is a pretty big jump. And to be honest, an introductory machine doesn’t need the most current, heavy, and expensive chassis. Build something similar to the higher end machines(rider-position and handling wise) that don’t have extra heft the larger engines need to hold up. Design it in tune with where the future lineup is going so it won’t need updating, and reliable as an anvil mechanically. That’s what the new riders need, look how long the Yamaha Bravo was in production.
But i believe they are missing a major market with there 500. Yes the price hasn’t gone up to bad but the old motor was making way more power and it still comes with the heavy mechanical reverse. Cat needs to just build a basic 600 or 100 hp 500 with more than $800 difference from the competitions 600’s. I believe a non-power valve 600 would fit nicely. Allot of Cat and Skidoo riders in my area have switched to indy’s do to price and performance. I will agree, they did a great job with the new 600. Love mine, 5000 miles and only problem was exhoust nuts comeing loose, little locktite and fixed. Only 1 belt so far also! with hard orchard riding.
OK I’m going to Soap Box a bit:
Due to lack of snow or short winters and an aging dealer network in the Twin Tiers of NY/PA, I just don’t have a lot of hope here. We’ve lost the small town dealers at an amazing pace, for all brands here. I keep hearing words like he retired, aged out, got tired of having to order 50 sleds when he could only sell 25 a year, etc. The entire sport has moved upmarket to suit the 150,000 bucks a year income crowd. Meanwhile the factory Joes who make 50,000 or under a year are, like me, riding/wrenching the old/vintage stuff if they ride at all. Go to a club meeting, I see fewer and fewer younger folks under 30. Show attendance is down, new or vintage. I hope this is not the case where the snow still falls deep, but if they want to get more into this sport again, all the brands SERIOUSLY need to figure our how to make a good 4 or 5 grand sled again. Until then I’m riding used.
Good read John but I also wish you would have asked Brad about the loss of dealerships. I live just outside Madison, WI and can think of 4 dealers in this area I used to purchase AC Sleds from that are no longer selling Arctic Cat or closed all together. I think the 2012 issues had a lot to do with it and also AC making them purchase sleds they cant sell. Some clarification on this and what AC is doing to get them back would be an interesting write up I would love to see you do a story about.
New dealership just opened up in West Fargo ND. All Cat. Things are starting to look good for my favorite brand (Only brand I would ever buy recreation product wise).
That’s great Jim but kind of a far drive for me! 2 of the dealers that no longer carry cat around here have carried all 4 brands for years and years. Now they carry the other 3 and no AC. Why would they both drop AC? You would think AC would out sell Yamaha in terms of sleds. I hope Cat has a good plan in place to reverse this trend because consumers cant buy their products if there isn’t anybody around the area selling them.
Arctic Cat riders ride more and the 2016 sleds are the best snowmobiles every to roll out of the Thief River Falls factory.
John is it “every” or “ever”?