Seth Perlman, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Harley-Davidson's first-quarter profit jumped 44 percent, as improving economic conditions and early spring weather boosted U.S. sales of its famous motorcycles.
The results beat Wall Street expectations and the company on Wednesday boosted its shipments forecast for the year.
Shares jumped more than 7 percent in afternoon trading, reaching levels that have not been seen since August 2007, just before the global economic crisis ravaged Harley's business.
President and CEO Keith Wandell cited improving U.S. economic environment, as well as a drastic restructuring that froze pay, cut hundreds of jobs and brought in part-time workers.
"In the U.S., while we are proud of our market share gains in recent years, we believe there is a lot of room yet to run on the industry's road to recovery," Wandell said in a conference call with analysts.
The CEO also acknowledged that some of the sales increase might have stemmed from unusually warm weather in many parts of the country, possibly pulling forward some bike sales that would have otherwise occurred later in the season.
"I don't think it's anything huge, but there is a weather effect that we saw in the first quarter and so we would expect retail sales to moderate a little bit as we move into the spring selling season," Wandell told analysts.
Harley motorcycles can run from $8,000 for a basic model to more than $30,000 for a large highly customized model and when the economy crashed, the Milwaukee company saw sales plunge by double digits within a year.
In the years since, the company has reversed its fortunes, despite economic woes both at home and abroad. Harley's sales of motorcycle and related products grew 13 percent in 2011 and the recent quarter marked its fourth-straight increase in U.S. sales.
Still, Wandell points out that bike sales for the entire industry totaled only about half of their prerecession peak.
At the same time, Harley is expanding overseas and Wandell said the company has barely tapped into its potential abroad.
Harley's share price has posted hefty gains as well, rising to more than six times what it was in March 2009. And since the beginning of this year, the shares have risen about 30 percent.
For the three months ended April 1, Harley reported net income of $172 million, or 74 cents per share, up from $119.3 million, or 51 cents per share, a year ago.
Analysts polled by FactSet expected a profit of 72 cents per share.
Sales of motorcycles and related products jumped 20 percent to $1.27 billion from $1.06 billion in the same quarter last year, ahead of average analyst predictions of $1.22 billion.
Worldwide motorcycle sales rose 20 percent to 59,677 bikes and included a 26 percent jump in U.S. sales. International sales rose 11 percent.
Sales of parts and accessories rose 21 percent to $199.1 million, while general merchandise sales, such as clothing, rose 19 percent to $74.6 million.
Based on the first-quarter results, Harley boosted its full year shipment guidance to a range of 245,000 to 250,000 bikes, up from 240,000 to 245,000 bikes. For the second quarter, which represents the height of the Harley's selling season, the company said it expects to ship between 79,000 and 84,000 bikes.
Harley said its restructuring costs for the quarter totaled $11.5 million and that it still expects its overall restructuring program, which began in 2009, to result in total one-time costs of between $500 million and $520 million, including between $500 million and $520 million this year.
In late afternoon trading, Harley shares rose $2.96, or 5.9 percent, to $53.32 after rising as high as $53.98 earlier in the session.