Western Star’s Kelowna roots still evident today

by James Menzies

PHOENIX, Ari. — The fact Western Star still shines bright 50 years after the creation of the brand is a small miracle. Western Star trucks in the late 1990s were still being custom-built, largely by hand, in Kelowna, B.C. while the major truck makers consolidated and pumped millions into modernizing production facilities and processes. That environment was not conducive to the survival of a small independent manufacturer.

Kelley Platt, who today serves as president of Western Star, was involved with the committee that conducted due diligence on the company before Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) stepped in and purchased it in 2000.

“Western Star had a rocky ride in the 80s and 90s,” she recalled, when speaking about the brand’s history at a recent press event Apr. 27.

“It went through multiple sets of ownerships. There was more than one Friday when (employees) went home and were told the auditors had the locks and keys and probably were going to shut the place down over the weekend, so don’t expect to come back to work Monday morning. There was always some white knight on the horizon that bailed them out.”

DTNA saw in Western Star a strong vocational product that would complement the Freightliner brand to help the organization achieve market share growth.

“It was a good fit because it was a heavy-duty vocational company,” Platt recalled. “There were fewer vocational offerings at DTNA at that time and the thought was, if you put a strong vocational player together with a strong on-highway player, it would be possible to have that dominant 40%-plus market share – and it worked.”

Daimler moved production of Western Star trucks from Kelowna to Portland, Ore. More than 100 employees upped their Western Canadian roots and relocated to the US.

“We brought a great set of people down from Kelowna when we moved manufacturing to Portland and they have really helped the rest of us learn the Western Star culture and what it takes to be successful in that kind of marketplace,” Platt said.

One of those employees who made the move was John Tomlinson, who now heads Western Star’s new XD off-road equipment line. He started at Western Star in 1992 as a junior engineer in the powertrain department.

“There was a lot of uncertainty back then,” he recalled in an interview with Truck News. “I remember the supervisor I was working for walked me past the order board and said, ‘If it ever gets below 300, you have to worry’.”

At the time of the DTNA purchase, Tomlinson was working out of a Charleston, S.C. engineering facility, which was shuttered. He was offered the opportunity to move to Portland and continue working for Western Star and there was never any doubt he’d accept.

“Once Star’s in your blood, it’s not really much of a question,” he said. “You love the product.”

About 100-150 families made the move, and they have remained a tight-knit community to this day, Tomlinson said.

“Even the retired guys and the guys who are still working all still get together,” he said.

Tomlinson said he never would’ve dreamt he’d be working in Portland, Ore. and celebrating Western Star’s 50th anniversary.

“I’m very happy with how it has played out,” he said. “Our thoughts and core beliefs were well respected, and the more Daimler as a whole understands us, the better off we are.”

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