Roger Nielsen, Daimler Trucks North American’s (DTNA) operationally-minded, hands-on president and CEO is retiring. Just how hands-on was he? He once helped a truck driver repair an air leak under the dash in a truck stop parking lot.
He left without telling the driver of his high-ranking title. Nielsen began his career in trucking as a mechanical engineer and by the age of 30 was brokering large acquisitions within Daimler. Looking back on his career, Nielsen takes pride in helping turn DTNA around from a truck maker with market share languishing in the low teens, to the industry leader in share today.
“I used to joke we were seventh out of four brands,” Nielsen told a small group of trucking journalists during a Zoom interview Feb. 19. “GM was below us in the Class 8 market, and maybe Ford. We started growing the company – we were working 120 hours a week to bring capacity on board.”
Nielsen said his greatest career achievement was constructing the Saltillo, Mexico truck plant, where the Freightliner Cascadia would be produced.
“To put together a world benchmark factory in the middle of the Mexico desert to supply the Cascadia was, at that time, a huge achievement for the whole team,” he recalled.
Nielsen was appointed CEO of DTNA in the Spring of 2017, replacing Martin Daum who returned to Germany to oversee global operations. Previously he had served as chief operating officer for 16 years and had more than 30 years of service with the company. He says the plan all along was to retire at age 60, four years after taking on the top role.
“It has always been in my life plan,” he said of Freedom 60. “This has been the plan since I took the job four years ago.”
He put to rest any ideas of staying in the business by purchasing a truck dealership, a path taken by several other former execs.
“Absolutely not,” he insisted. “The dealership business is running great; we have some great dealers and a lot of them have some great succession plans. I have no interest at all. My passion is in the technology.”
Which means to stick to his retirement plans would require some discipline, with interest in battery-electric trucks, hydrogen fuel cells, and autonomous technologies hitting a fever pitch. But Nielsen said he’s happy to entrust advances on those fronts to his successor, former CFO John O’Leary. Asked what his successor’s greatest challenges would be, Nielsen rhymed off three:
“The first is to manage short-term 2020 demand,” Nielsen said, noting orders are surging and there are tremendous challenges in the supply chain related to the pandemic. “It is a battle every morning. The demand in the marketplace for new trucks is much higher than this industry is able to supply.”
The second challenge will be to secure DTNA as a market leader in the vocational segment, which the recent launch of the new Western Star 49X will help with, Nielsen said.
Third, O’Leary will have to bring battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to series production. First-gen models are already on the road, with the second generation eCascadia and eM2 in late-stage trials. The third generation will enter series production, which comes with a host of yet-to-be-resolved challenges.
“He has to have a solution which will remove the obstacles of cost, where you can truly look at the purchase options of diesel versus electric and make a choice based on operating model and powertrain desires without having to lean on incentive grants for purchase price support. He has that challenge to make battery electric and diesel equivalent in terms of total cost of ownership,” Nielsen explained. “With those three [challenges] in front of him, he’ll be busy for sure.”
While O’Leary brings a finance background to the role, Nielsen expressed confidence he is the right person for the job. They have worked together since 2001 and O’Leary was the first non-family member to run Daimler subsidiary Thomas Built Buses.
“He truly is a business man in this industry,” Nielsen said.
To say Nielsen’s final year on the job has been chaotic would be an understatement, with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting virtually every aspect of the truck maker’s operations. He expressed pride in how the company and its people have managed those challenges.
“It has changed how we interact,” Nielsen said of the pandemic. “We used to get on a jet and visit 15 customers in five days and come home on a Friday night dead to the world. I think I talked to 15 customers over the past 24 hours on Zoom. It has allowed us to grow our customer relationships tighter than ever before.”
Another lasting imprint Nielsen will leave on the organization is a commitment to speak up on social justice issues. Recently, the company granted all employees a workday as a “national day of service” allowing them to support various organizations.
“Through employee actions we help initiate, I think we can have an impact on society,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen will officially step down from the top job at DTNA on April 1. But he looks forward to traversing the country and visiting truck stops in his RV, where he just may be called on to help fix another repair or two.
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