The only constant in life is change
If there is one expression that applies to UD Trucks, it is this: the only constant in life is change
The jury is out as to whether the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, actually said that “the only constant in life is change”, or “change is the only constant in life”. No matter; both have the same meaning anyway. However, there is one statement with which everyone agrees: UD Trucks and change have become synonymous.
Indeed, Nihon Diesel Industries – which became Nissan Diesel and then UD Trucks – has spent some of its recent years in a state of flux. The most tumultuous time recently was probably 2007, when the company was purchased by the Volvo Group. This came with massive changes – both around the world and here in South Africa.
Three months ago, the commercial vehicle manufacturer was rocked by yet another bombshell: Isuzu had acquired UD. Two months later, we heard that Gert Swanepoel, managing director of UD Trucks Southern Africa, would retire after 32 years with the company.
Swanepoel’s replacement, we were told, would be Filip Van den Heede, a man with considerable experience in the commercial vehicle world. In fact, Van den Heede has been involved in the trucking industry and the Volvo Group for the past 22 years and was previously vice president of vehicle sales and marketing for UD Trucks International Sales.
“This included responsibility for the southern African market. I have been working with Gert for the last four years. I was based in Singapore and I handled everything related to product launches, product strategy, pricing, marketing activities, brand positioning… I have been dealing with the whole South African team for some time now. I have also been working with the dealer council for the last three years,” Van den Heede tells me during an exclusive interview (his first in South Africa).
Before his move to South Africa, he worked very closely with Swanepoel for “a couple of months”. “We wanted to make it as smooth a transition as possible,” explains Van den Heede.
He has also been working with some major customers. “We have been running some pilots with various South African customers and I have also been involved in those trials. So, I know this market fairly well,” Van den Heede points out.
I ask him what motivated him to make the move to South Africa. “There were a couple of things. First, UD is a good brand with a long heritage, especially here in South Africa. Second, I believe it is a whole eco-system. We have a strong dealer network serving the customers, with 36 dealers and service agents in South Africa and 30 in other southern African countries such as Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“We also have a plant and a strong sales organisation with good fleet sales. It is a good mix. What appeals to me about this market is the fact that it is very competitive. I also like the fact that, with our product range, we can compete in all sectors of the market,” Van den Heede responds.
Of course, this market is not without its challenges. “Sure, there is a lot of uncertainty in the country and this influences the behaviour of customers. You can see that in the latest Naamsa figures, which are exhibiting the buying-down behaviour of customers. There are economic challenges, but we still believe that there is growth potential. This is a country that needs transport for development.
“I find it interesting to note that this is a country that exhibits a lot of different standards. On the one hand, you can view it as a developed country with a lot of extremely professional fleet operators – much like Australia. For customers like these, we have the new Quon; the premium product with impressive safety features. On the other hand, we have the Quester, which is more of a workhorse,” Van den Heede explains.
Marketing director of UD Trucks Southern Africa, Rory Schulz, concurs. “The region is somewhat of a dichotomy as you can drive by hi-tech logistical warehouses that support large international corporations, while at the same time trying to avoid potholes on the road. As a manufacturer, we must take these two worlds into consideration when introducing new products and technologies,” he says.
This will continue to be a point of emphasis in 2020. The new managing director came to South Africa as a period of consolidation started for the company (versus the dramatic developments last year when the company launched no fewer than three new trucks, which is virtually unheard of within one year).
This will entail focusing on adding value to customers via service offerings such as telematics. “We have launched our telematics offering on the new Quon, Quester and Croner,” Van den Heede reveals.
According to Schulz, UD’s telematics systems offer the ultimate in connectivity. “We have real-time tracking. Customers can trace a vehicle’s history. We can provide proactive support (vehicle health monitoring, preventative maintenance planning, remote customer assistance and fuel advice services, for instance). We can monitor driver behaviour and give reports pertaining to fuel utilisation. And the great thing is that this is here with us right now. It’s not something that we will only get in the future,” he stresses.
This year will also be a year of transition – with UD snuggling up to its new owner, Isuzu. I ask Van den Heede if he found this concept rather intimidating. “No, I’m not sure that it has created more challenges than before. I see a lot of opportunities with the Isuzu strategic alliance. If you put Isuzu and UD Trucks together, it will create opportunities – not only for the current technologies, but also for the future.
“In South Africa, for sure we are competitors, but if you look at it globally, there are complementary synergies. UD is rather strong in heavy-duty sector. If you look at Isuzu, it is very strong in light-duty sector. So, there are, indeed, complementary aspects between the two businesses,” he points out.
He also stresses that 2020 will not be a year of waiting around to see what happens. “Yes, we’re in a year of transition, but we are assured that the two brands will continue to exist and that they will continue to operate as separate entities. All the plans that we have – be they for South Africa or globally – will continue to go ahead. We are not in a ‘wait and see’ mode. For us, it’s a case of business as usual. Waiting is not an option; we won’t waste this year. We are going to continue to serve our customers,” he stresses.
So, it will be business as usual for customers. And, even though there won’t be product launches galore, another busy year for the UD team…