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Rebirth of a star

PORTLAND, Ore. - In 2008, as the US and global economies plunged into recession, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) made the decision to eliminate the Sterling truck brand. We now know that Western Star was also scrutinized by its discerning...


PORTLAND, Ore. – In 2008, as the US and global economies plunged into recession, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) made the decision to eliminate the Sterling truck brand. We now know that Western Star was also scrutinized by its discerning parent company at that time, yet it was decided the brand would not only be spared the guillotine, but would be given some autonomy and a cash infusion so it could carve its own path.

“DTNA, about three years ago was at a crossroads as we were going into the most recent downturn,” Western Star general manager Mike Jackson revealed during a recent visit to the company’s Portland truck plant. “They looked at Western Star very carefully and it was quite obvious to senior management all the way to the (Daimler) board in Germany that Western Star was totally unlike anything else in the market, as opposed to Sterling which would sometimes compete with Freightliner and Western Star.”

The higher-ups at Daimler decided not only to maintain the Western Star brand, but to revitalize it with a healthy cash injection which would allow the company to develop its own team of engineers, marketers and the like, who would be free of Freightliner-related obligations and could eat, sleep and breathe Western Star.

“Up until 2009, Western Star, Freightliner and Sterling were managed by the same group of people,” Jackson noted. “It was really difficult to get all the priorities you have when you get down to the one that is the least volume. We decided to have a dedicated organization that is only going to think about Western Star all day long. By splitting ourselves off, we’ve tried to create our own smaller culture within the bigger Daimler organization and I think we’ve been very successful.”

Another benefit to Western Star was the eventual inheritance of its own plant, as Freightliner production was moved elsewhere.

“As we went through a ramp-up in 2011 and fleets and large leasing companies started buying trucks, sharing line space with big brother would have been a little bit of a disadvantage,” Jackson said. “Having our own plant allowed us to control our own world and keep up with the demand we’ve got.”

The new corporate structure is beginning to yield some results, most recently in the form of a new auto-hauler, a more aerodynamic Western Star 4900FE, a new cab interior and a slew of new options for off-road truckers and body-builders (see pg. 61 for more details). The company has also pulled its 109-inch BBC vehicles from within the 4900 series, giving them their own 4800 designation.

But by far the biggest development is the addition of the new 4700, which was set to enter pre-production at the company’s Portland truck plant on the week of our visit in mid-September. The truck is geared towards six core vocational segments, including: dump; mixer; crane; roll-off; snow plow; and sewer vac applications.

Randy DeBortoli, director of engineering with Western Star, said the 4700 marks the company’s first new model in about a decade.

“It was a big statement for us,” he said. “Western Star is here to stay and we’re committed to the brand and our dealer organization.”

Western Star officials feel the launch of the 4700 will help pave the way towards some significant market share gains.

Market share has never been Western Star’s forte. While it has maintained a respectable presence on Canadian roads, its market share has been dragged down in the US where the brand doesn’t enjoy the same prestige as it does north of the border with its strong Canadian history and a reputation for manhandling even the most rugged of applications.

Currently, Western Star’s US/Canada Class 8 market share languishes at about 2%, however there is reason for optimism. Jackson pointed out Western Star saw its Class 8 retail sales surge 45% from 2009 to 2010, outpacing the industry-wide growth of 16%. Its production is up 300% from the fourth quarter of 2009 and as the 4700 comes online, Jackson said he feels Western Star can double its market share to 4-5% by 2014. In the meantime, a healthy export business – particularly to Australia – helps bolster Western Star’s production levels.

A walk through the Western Star truck plant reveals this is still very much a handcrafted truck, as it was when it was being built in Kelowna, B.C. Compared to other truck plants, the assembly line was a beehive of human activity with very few robots in sight. Jackson said human contact is necessary, given the high level of customization required of every Western Star truck. A collection of finished trucks awaiting delivery showed just how unique each Western Star is; no two were alike. Many were fitted with ‘roo-bars’ (kangaroo-sized moose bumpers) for delivery to Australia. Others looked like they would find a home in the Canadian oil patch.

Western Star is in the process of adding a second shift at the plant and it is sold out for the remainder of 2011 and even into 2012.

Despite the addition of the more slippery-styled 4900FE, Jackson emphasized the Western Star truck will retain its distinctive traditional styling. While its sister company Freightliner is geared to the suit-and-tie crowd, Jackson said Western Star relishes its “blue jeans and boots” identity. Sixty-four per cent of its sales go to owner/operators and small fleets consisting of less than three trucks.

Part of Western Star’s rebirth includes assessing its dealer network and cutting loose those that are not committed to the brand. The company has added 14 new dealers over the past couple years, but it has eliminated 38. It now has a network of about 240 dealers in the US and Canada. Up here, about 22% of them sell nothing but Western Star trucks.

For more information on Western Star’s latest offerings, you can visit the company’s brand new Web site at www.westernstartrucks.com.


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