Meet DTNA’s new CEO, John O’Leary

If being president and CEO of North America’s market share-leading truck manufacturer sounds like an easy gig, think again.

John O’Leary, who took over for Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) in that capacity April 1, did so when demand for new trucks was soaring, but the ability of manufacturers to satisfy that demand was challenged. Global supply chain issues and component shortages have plagued manufacturers of all sorts, and DTNA is not immune.

John O’Leary (Photo: DTNA)

“It’s a rollercoaster,” O’Leary admitted in a virtual meet-and-greet with industry press. “There are mornings when I wake up to an email from our head of manufacturing in North Carolina saying ‘There’s a major crisis, we’re not going to get microchips and we may have to shut down for a month.’ Then later that day, he writes ‘Just kidding, we found them’ and my heartrate can go down to a normal pace. I would love to see it go away but it seems to be the world we’re in for the foreseeable future.”

Fortunately, O’Leary added, as a global organization Daimler has been able to tap into its operations in other jurisdictions to ease the pain. DTNA will share suppliers with its affiliates in Europe, for instance, and vice-versa, to keep assembly lines rolling. There are also people in purchasing and supplier management departments whose “sole focus in life” is sourcing needed parts.

“It’s a very combined, teamwork-based approach to source those things globally,” he said. “We do the best we can and we have had only a limited amount of downtime as a result in our plants.”

O’Leary brings a varied background to DTNA’s top job, having grown up in the Seattle area and spending more than a decade with a rival truck maker before joining Freightliner in 2000. He has headed the aftermarket division, orchestrated a corporate turnaround, spent time working with Mercedes-Benz in Germany, and been a chief financial officer.

Now he takes charge in one of Daimler’s most successful truck markets.

“What has happened over the last 10 or 15 years here is, we really seem to get it in terms of the need to be customer-focused,” he said of the North American market. “We came up with some great products. The Cascadia was a home run, the DD15 engine was a home run, and our dealer network stepped up in terms of their investments.”

“The war for talent is brutal right now.”

John O’Leary, DTNA

But he noted the company isn’t resting easy. It wants to grow its presence with smaller fleets and in the vocational segment. It continues to benchmark against not only rival truck manufacturers, but also businesses from other industries. After all, as trucks become more complex, DTNA finds itself competing with non-traditional sources for talent.

“The war for talent is brutal right now,” he said. “We are trying to hire a lot of people with profiles we haven’t had to in the past. For software engineers we are competing against the likes of Apple and Google and others, and we have to be a very attractive employer, much more so than ever in the past.”

At the same time the company is striving to become more diverse. O’Leary said the Mexican division is now led by Latino woman and other minorities are in leadership positions.

“We are really trying to be more progressive in terms of the people we hire,” he said. “They have to be tremendous in terms of intelligence and capability but we also want to look like the rest of society.”

Asked about Daimler’s pursuit of zero-emissions vehicles using battery-electric and fuel-cell-electric engine technologies, O’Leary noted diesel isn’t going to disappear overnight.

“We really understand right now what side of the bread is buttered for us,” he said. “We fully understand the trucks we are selling today, and selling a lot of very successfully, are internal combustion engine trucks. There is no desire to diverge from that, to throw that out and say ‘Forget about all that success, let’s roll the dice on diesel.’”

However, he acknowledged big customers are becoming increasingly interested in electric trucks, and political and societal pressures are building to go electric.

“People are highly interested in that now, so we have to have a product,” he said. “We want to be one of the leaders there, so we’re going to have a great product.”

While he wouldn’t divulge order numbers for the recently released eM2 and eCascadia electric trucks, he did say “demand has been good.”

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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