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The Realignment Of Stars

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The simple, overarching message Western Star officials delivered at the company's recent dealer meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., could be summed up as a paraphrase of Mark Twain's famous ...


LAS VEGAS, Nev. –The simple, overarching message Western Star officials delivered at the company’s recent dealer meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., could be summed up as a paraphrase of Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

The company is very much not dead, executives told reporters during a press event, nor are there any plans to kill it.

In fact, Western Star has apparently been given the opportunity to chart its own strategic course, without clearing every budgeting and marketing decision with its corporate parent, Daimler Trucks North America. The change would put it on par with the status of Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. and Thomas Built Buses.

At first glance, this reorganization seems to be a mere shift in accounting practices.

Managers stressed, however, that their newly found freedom would affect everything from dealer relationships to market-segment expansion to research and development. Heading up this charge is a fresh, independent management team composed of: Michael Jackson, general manager; Ann Demitruk, director of marketing; James Looysen, sales manager; and Richard Shearing, director of product planning.

Many of the company’s detailed plans for the future -some based on suggestions gleaned at the dealer meeting -are still a bit fluid. Nevertheless, the four top executives laid out their near-and long-term goals for Western Star during an hour-long chat with members of the trucking industry media. Here are the highlights from that conversation:

On overall plans:

Jackson: “We are renewing our interest in Western Star. We want to get people pumped up about the brand again…and to put the emphasis on the segments where we really play well.”

Demitruk: “From a marketing strategy, we intend to partner with our dealers to host (ride and drive) events that bring in customers and put them behind the wheel.” These events will be held at dealerships, truck stops and customer facilities.

Looysen: “We’ve previously focused on our historic markets. We now plan to expand (into other segments), putting more emphasis on body builders as well. We think our product line fits well there. It’s very body-builder friendly, but it’s often been overlooked in the past.”

Shearing: “Like everyone else, we’re very much focused on EPA2010 in the near term, making sure we have a complete product line-up to carry through from EPA07 to ’10. And even though we are really close to the changeover date, there is still a lot of work to do. Beyond that, we’re monitoring the activities of the California Air Resource Board, the EPA’s SmartWay program and Canada’s enviroTruck program. We’re taking a hard look at our products to determine what we might need to do, in terms of aerodynamics and fuel economy.”

On the benefits of greater corporate independence:

Looysen: “To be a true premium brand, you need to be flexible and quick, and the new organizational structure will allow that. The processes you have in a big corporation are good for a company like Freightliner. But for Western Star to retain its premium identity, we needed to break away to offer customers a quicker, more nimble approach.”

On challenges in preparing for 2010 and beyond:

Shearing: From an engineering standpoint, “mining trucks have probably been one of the toughest (design challenges), for both the 4900 and 6900.We have our Tier III off-highway engine to supplement that business, but there are plenty of applications requiring EPA2010 on-highway certification.” Some of these operations are quite remote so the hardware must be particularly robust, and the dealer organization needs to be capable of providing support wherever customers are located.

Jackson: “As we mentioned, we’re also adapting our products for SmartWay certification. We need to better understand that process and, maybe, change a little bit of the aerodynamic packaging of the Western Star product to make it a little bit more competitive in the on-highway business as (future) regulations start kicking in.”

“In terms of pure aerodynamics, I think Freightliner’s Cascadia is probably the leader. Western Star isn’t going to introduce a truck that will compete with the Cascadia. Our roll is within the traditional market. At the same time, we need to be sensitive to some of the changes coming along, then create aerodynamic improvements based on a traditionally-designed truck.”

On product line expansion

Looysen: “We’re looking at everything. There might be a place for a lighter Western Star, but I don’t know that ‘medium-duty’ would be the best definition of that. We are, however, trying to determine if we can be a little more competitive in a somewhat lower GVW. If we did build something lighter, it would have to be in line with segments where we’re already strong or plan to be strong. Western Star will never be an overall market share leader. We’re targeting only those applications for which our trucks are best engineered.”

Shearing: “It’s safe to say that we’re not going after the ‘commodity’ markets of the medium business.”

On Sterling’s departure from the market:

Jackson: “Some dealers were greatly affected by Sterling’s closure. Our goal is to ensure that Western Star offers those (Sterling) customers a complete product line-up that fulfills their needs, allowing (dealers and buyers) to be profitable. Right now, we’re looking at the former Sterling dealers and trying to determine what voids Western Star can fulfill. At this point, we don’t yet have all of those solutions.”

On builds with 2010 engines

Shearing: “We’ll be building trucks with 2010 Detroit Diesel engines when the new year starts.” Cummins engines will be available a little bit later, and some of the specialty vehicle engines are expected to arrive about mid-year.

Looysen: “We can continue to build trucks using 2007-compliant engines through the first quarter of next year, as long as the engines are already assembled (by Jan. 1), and we have firm orders for the trucks.”

On the owner/operator market

Jackson: “From a numbers standpoint, we haven’t seen anything suggesting that the owner/operator market will go away. That will continue to be one of our focus markets.”

On buyer behaviour

Demitruk: Enthusiasm for square hoods “has tapered off a little bit since 2007, but the numbers aren’t significant. That might be telling. A lot of our buyers are in vocational markets where fuel mileage isn’t (as critical) as it is in long-haul trucking.”

There is some overlap with Western Star and Freightliner products in certain market segments, “but we know that a typical Western Star buyer would rarely consider a Freightliner, and the opposite is also true.”


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