PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Western Star truck brand turns 50 this year, which seems improbable, given the truck maker’s humble Canadian roots.
The company was launched by White Motor Company in Kelowna, B.C. in 1967 to serve the needs of the logging industry. White Western Stars soon found a home in the oilpatch, the construction and mining industries, and in other off-road sectors. Its claim to fame was that it was a custom-built truck, made to order.
“If you had something specific you wanted on that truck, you could walk out to the assembly line and tell the guys you wanted the bracket a different shape, or the air tanks mounted here, and they would do it on the line,” said Kelley Platt, president of Western Star, when celebrating the milestone at a press event here today. “They could never repeat it twice in a row because nothing was documented, but you got exactly the truck you wanted.”
After several changes in ownership – and some years in which the survival of the brand was in question – Daimler Trucks North America purchased Western Star in 2000 and moved production to Portland, Ore., but still maintained the custom-design philosophy.
“We took the same concept and made it more formal, so that it’s repeatable these days,” Platt explained.
After 16 years as part of the Daimler family, the Western Star brand is beginning to see some steady growth, thanks largely to the expansion of the product line. The ‘Baby 8’ 4700 was introduced in 2011, giving Western Star an ideal product to pitch to municipalities needing a lighter-duty truck for plow, light dump, and other applications. And in 2014, Western Star brought to market an edgy, aerodynamic highway tractor in the form of the 5700XE. For the first time, the brand had a highway tractor that could compete with the Freightliner Cascadia on fuel economy while also appealing to those buyers who prefer the traditional styling of classic iron.
Peter Arrigoni, vice-president of Western Star sales, said the brand grew its market share to 3.4% in 2016, selling 7,323 units in the US and Canada.
“In 2016, we had a market that dropped significantly (year-over-year) and we were the only OEM that was able to retail more volume than in 2015,” Arrigoni said. “So, that was a big accomplishment for us. We’re expected in 2017 to have a smaller market than in 2016, but as of today we are on track to meet these numbers in terms of build volumes.”
Longer term, Western Star plans to capture more than 8% of the market by 2025 and beyond. Sales in Canada have been fairly flat, but they’re growing in the US.
“The 4700 gave us the tool to go after the lighter-duty markets, a lot of what the US buys, in applications that require a lighter-duty product,” Arrigoni explained. “That has helped us drive some of our US growth. The US continues to pick up steam in terms of our overall percentage of sales and we expect that to continue.”
Sales of the new 5700XE highway tractor are also growing, while demand for the 4900 has been declining, in large part due to the lack of activity in the Canadian oil patch. But Platt said Western Star is seeing some signs of life in the Canadian oilfields, and orders are beginning to trickle in.
Large fleets are choosing the 5700 to offer as a reward truck to their best drivers, while small and medium-sized fleets are buying to to enhance their brand image. Platt noted some fleets have even adjusted their own branding to match the lines and design of the 5700XE.
But Platt said the company is not yet satisfied with its modest growth and has a plan to further grow its presence.
“We want the next 50 years to be just as awesome, and more so, than the last 50 have been,” she said.
For inspiration, the company looked to its sister company Freightliner to see how it has become the market share leader in the on-highway segment of the Class 8 market.
“What is it that made us really, really good and what is unique about the on-highway market?” Platt asked.
She credited Freightliner’s success with a product design that she said resulted in the most cost-effective vehicle in the marketplace to operate, and an unsurpassed dealer network.
But the vocational truck market is different. Platt noted many of these customers keep their trucks for 10 years, they’re usually serviced by the selling dealerships, and customers require more help from their OEM to optimize the spec’. Reliability is also crucial in the vocational truck market, she added.
“We have to build trucks that are going to last,” she said. “The bodies are so much more expensive than the cab chassis portion of the trucks, so they want to be able to use them for a long time – fre quently 10 years or more. They can’t be disposable. It has to be something that is going to last, in order to make it a good value proposition for our customers.”
Western Star is also taking steps to expand its dealer network, and Platt said it’s being cautious about the types of dealers it brings on. They must have an innate understanding of the vocational truck market and its intricacies.
“It’s frequently service that sells the truck, and not necessarily the sales guy,” Platt said.
Her vision, to ensure Western Star lives to celebrate its 100th birthday, is to ensure the brand is “customer-focused” and has a “committed dealer network.”
“We think this is going to be one of the real keys to our being a growing player in the vocational marketplace,” she said.
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