The Man Behind KTM: Gerald Kiska Interview

Why KTMs look the way they do, from the man himself.

Gerald Kiska became the arbiter of how KTM product would look, taking responsibility for the manufacturer’s branding and visual style.Julia LaPalme

Two wheels and an engine. Pared down to its most basic elements, the motorcycle is a thing of raw mechanical simplicity. But when equipped with the requisite hardware—fenders, fuel tank, seat, wheels, etc.—the shapes become recognizable as a BMW, a Ducati, a Harley-Davidson, a Honda, a Yamaha, or a KTM.

After winning a design competition in 1990, beating out contenders from Austria, Italy, and the US, Gerald Kiska became the arbiter of how KTM product would look, taking responsibility for the manufacturer’s branding and visual style. To be tasked with making the visually incognito European brand look more something was no small feat, especially for a 31-year-old with zero motorcycle-industry experience.

How did Kiska start as a one-man band and put the tiny Austrian company on the design map, helping to transform it into one of Europe’s top-selling motorcycle marques? To find out, we caught up with the man himself at KTM North America headquarters in Murrieta, California.

Building A Brand

KTM began producing motorcycles in 1954 and success came quickly. In 1956, Egon Dornauer won gold at the International Six Days Trials. By the early '70s, the brand was selling more than 40 different models. A US subsidiary was formed in the late '80s, but by the time Kiska signed on a decade later, the company's design direction was unremarkable and its fortunes were waning. "When we started to work for KTM," he says, "we couldn't make up our mind about the right strategic direction. We simply had to do something that looked appealing."

Inspired by hard-edged designs from European car manufacturers like Renault, Kiska honed in on a spare, masculine visual signature that would come to define KTM. “The aggressive design expressed the real soul and belief of the brand because KTM is a tough company led by a tough guy [CEO Stefan Pierer],” Kiska says. “There was a certain basic aggressiveness within the whole team, and this is what the design of the bike finally expressed. It was a lifestyle, not just fashion.” KTM’s most readily identifiable quality isn’t an engine configuration, an exhaust note, or even a silhouette. Rather, it’s a color: orange. Kiska came up with KTM’s signature hue but not for reasons you might expect.

“Orange was completely out of fashion in the ’90s when we started using it,” he explains. “Therefore, it really popped.” While many might consider the reasoning backward, Kiska says it was intuitive. “When something has been fashionable but disappears for a long period of time, you can wait for the day when it comes back.” Orange might have been unexpected at that time, but that is the point: It expressed an independent, disruptive attitude that went hand in hand with KTM’s go-anywhere philosophy.

Trial By Fire

Kiska is a self-proclaimed bike nut who started riding in his late teens on a Yamaha RD350. When he won the KTM contract, he was a street rider who had never ventured off road. That may have made him a liability for KTM’s infamously rugged culture, but Kiska’s outsider status might also have given him a unique perspective on the company’s narrowly focused off-road roots.

To fully grasp and exploit the essence of the brand, Pierer exhorted Kiska to immerse himself in the off-road world. “He sent me to [former motocross racer] Heinz Kinigadner’s training grounds in Ibiza, Spain,” Kiska recalls. “I had to survive one week with Heinz, who was known as a very hard nut when it came to introducing the sport to newbies. I looked 10 years older after that week.” The training proved invaluable. “Bikers are all a little mad,” he says, “and if you do not share the same madness, it’s difficult to figure out what really drives them. But once you are one of them, it’s rather easy.” Riding off road not only informed Kiska of the cultural quirks of the dirt-loving crowd, but he learned firsthand insights into dirt bike setup and ergonomics.

Hitting The Road

KTM’s expansion into road bikes began in 1994 with the Duke 620 and took the better part of a decade to successfully realize. The gamble faced myriad challenges, from consumer perception to the adaptability of the dealer network. The uncharted territory presented a double design quandary: How do you differentiate this new visual direction while retaining the brand’s essential character?

“Lightweight philosophy is of such high value to KTM,” Kiska says. “KTM’s roots in off road definitely helped to develop the street motorcycles. In off road, every pound that you save will make your life easier. A motorcycle is a workspace, so ergonomics have to be right, otherwise something that’s not correct will distract you. There’s a lot to learn from off road designing street motorcycles.”

Although KTM became notorious for its sharp-edged designs, Kiska insists that lines are not the only arrow in a designer’s quiver. “You have proportions, you have materials, you have surfaces, you have colors, you have so many elements you can play with. And they all come together to form and shape the character of a bike.” As with any enduring brand, KTM has been forced to adapt and evolve with a changing global market. But if there is a common thread for the company’s decades of bike building, it is Kiska’s concept of “active” design, a level of dynamism he aims to carry through every product.

The Super Duke 1290 GT is the latest evolution of that theme—a bike he says even bears cruiser traits and calls the “best mix of everything. The best bike I’ve ever had in my garage.” While Kiska also has an electric Freeride at his Salzburg home, he says the dubious legality of riding it on nearby trails prevents him from doing so as much as he would like.

Inner Workings

The process of creating a new model is often anything but linear. Every two months, KTM’s program management committee meets to determine which projects will move forward. Ideas can spring forth from the R&D department or via a board member. Just because an idea is green-lit doesn’t mean it is always carried to fruition.

Neither KISKA nor KTM are scared to stop a project, says KTM Media Relations Manager Tom Moen, hinting at a cultural trait that is not followed by all manufacturers. This freethinking environment allowed for departures like the X-Bow, a carbon-fiber four-wheeler that resembles a go-kart on steroids. The mindset also facilitated the team to tackle KTM’s MotoGP project.

Despite the internal collaboration required to run KTM and its subsidiary, Husqvarna, Kiska’s role as singular watchdog ensures both brands stay on point. “Design and branding are not a democratic process,” he says. “It’s more the opposite. So, at the end of the day, someone has to say, ‘Well, that’s the way we go.’”

Kiska also believes that his firm’s independence from KTM strengthens its credibility. “Your words count more when they come from outside,” he says. “We have this saying in Austria that the preacher isn’t worth much within his own church, but as soon as he talks to other people, he gets heard. Consultants are not more clever than internal people. When criticism comes from the outside, it’s easier to take.”

Austria Effect

When asked if KTM’s Austrian roots are to credit for its outlier status, Kiska suggests it may be due to a nationalistic blend of rationalism and irrationalism. “[Austria] is a crazy mixture between Germany and Italy because it sits exactly in between the two countries,” he says. “It’s not as stubborn as Germany can sometimes be, and it’s not as chaotic as Italy used to be. But it still uses vital elements of both to make something new.

“I think the major difference between KTM and so many other companies I’ve seen is that the management is still very close to the product and close to the market,” Kiska observes. “It’s not just coming from the numbers side, so they still are dealing with emotions.”

That emotional aspect is a critical part of the argument of why KTM builds the machines it builds, and it boils down to Pierer’s ultimate judge of value: Would he be proud to sit on that product? “If the answer is no,” explains Kiska, “then he won’t do it. And this is in spite of all business cases that came along with information that probably would turn every other CEO in a different direction. Money is important, but money isn’t everything.”

Asked how his sensibilities align with the future, Kiska reacted positively. “I consider myself an optimist because we always went for the impossible, and sometimes we were successful. As long as we can do that, we can create products that will once again change the industry.”

Freedom To Shock

KTM has been called a lot of things over the years, but safe usually isn’t one of them. That might explain the brand’s endurance and steady climb in sales, which exceeded 200,000 motorcycles this past year and yielded more than 1 billion euros in gross profit.

As for KTM’s trajectory over the years, Kiska suggests that instinct and passion typically take precedence over hyper-rationality. “We never had a clear, number-one goal in place. We simply wanted to do things better, to do things differently. We had the freedom to shock. Our designs, especially when they were new to people, were not easy to swallow for a lot of customers.”

Perhaps, Kiska suggests, KTM’s edginess attracted its most loyal fans. “The ones that really like it are more proud about it than they are about anything else,” he says. “They believe they have something very special in their garage. And this is what design can do for a brand. It simply takes something away from the crowd and makes it special.”