When Teerlink joined Harley-Davidson, the company was reeling from poor management decisions made throughout the 1970s that led to falling market share and excess inventories. As the company sank deeper, market share dipped, inventory overflowed, and the company debt reached $70 million.
From 1981 to 1987, Teerlink was part of the leadership team that revitalized the company through a focus on quality, reliability, and stakeholder relationships. In 1987, when he was appointed president, he led the company through a massive cultural change effort designed to sustain the success Harley had attained during the turnaround. The driving force behind this change was his belief that a company's only sustainable competitive advantage is its people. By 2004, the Milwaukee–based company controlled nearly half of the heavyweight motorcycle market in the United States, and its models were the best known in the industry.