‘We are customer-focused’

There’s a new man at the helm of DAF. He comes into the company at a time that it is achieving record after record. However – as GIANENRICO GRIFFINI discovers – Harry Wolters, the newly appointed president of DAF Trucks, has no intention of resting on his laurels

Having celebrated its milestone 90th birthday last year, DAF continues to achieve record after record. Following an outstanding 2018, the Eindhoven-based company is determined to capitalise on the success it has achieved so far, and will do so with a new captain at the helm – Harry Wolters, 48. Wolters actually began his career with the company as a trainee some 23 years ago.

When you enter the office occupied by DAF’s newly appointed president, you are immediately struck by the atmosphere. The impressively solid desk once belonged to DAF founder Hub van Doorne and, on the table, is a highly polished bowl that was presented to the company by DAF agents in 1953 to mark the brand’s 25th anniversary. The antique grandfather clock has borne witness to numerous important management decisions.

The whole space has a formal, stately quality – in stark contrast to the approach that Wolters is known to favour: being easy to work with, friendly and approachable. “My door is always open, especially to good ideas that can help us to move forwards,” says Wolters.

The European market leader for tractor units

Wolters took up the role of president of DAF Trucks in September last year and had the honour of reporting one of the company’s strongest sales achievements. With unit sales of almost 320 000 vehicles in 2018, the European market for heavy-duty trucks all but saw a return to the record levels of 2008 – and DAF reaped the benefits.

European market share in the heavy-duty segment increased to a record 16,6 percent, making DAF the second-largest truck manufacturer in Europe. The company was also market leader in the important tractor-unit segment and the number one import brand in Germany. It also enjoyed a sharp increase in popularity in international markets. More than 8 500 DAF trucks were sold in countries outside Europe in 2018 – a figure that is around 65-percent higher than three years earlier.

The extra mile

“The secret to our success? Our excellent trucks,” says Wolters. “Our customers really appreciate what the new CF and XF vehicles have to offer – the reliability, the fuel consumption figures and the comfort. The latter being important given that transport operators are currently experiencing a squeeze on profits driven by a shortage of drivers.

“However, it’s important to remember that the trucks are only one cog in the machine. Any leading truck manufacturer must have all elements of its business in order: perfect parts supply, a wide range of financial services, repair and maintenance contracts and easy access to data via a first-rate fleet management system like DAF Connect.

“We must look at the entire picture, and it goes without saying that this includes an excellent dealer network. At DAF, we have made a conscious decision to work with a network of independent partners. Our dealers are entrepreneurs who are prepared to go the extra mile for the customer,” he stresses.

Growth in rigids

A record market share, record production figures – what more could you ask for?  “The fact that DAF is doing well does not mean that we can rest on our laurels,” says the president. “Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s also true that there are segments that have potential for further growth for us. With a market share of almost 20 percent, we are leading the field in the European tractor-unit segment.

“We need to shout it even louder from the rooftops that we are always able to provide the perfect solution for rigids and for special applications. Two, three or four-axle vehicles, single or double drive, leading axles, trailing axles, steered and non-steered axles – DAF can do it all. So yes, we are keen to grow our rigids business. If you consider that almost 70 percent of all trucks sold in the construction industry are rigids, it’s not hard to see why this is a focus area for us.”

Added value

DAF has not always been known as a technical innovator. For as long as anyone can remember, the Dutch truck manufacturer has believed that new technologies should be introduced only if they have been fully developed and offer added value for the customer. “Our focus is completely on the customer. We have a very pragmatic approach,” says Wolters.

This strategy has certainly not done the company any harm. Perhaps surprisingly, DAF is actually among the front-runners when it comes to electric and hybrid vehicles. Initial testing of these vehicles is already underway with some of the company’s leading customers.

“Reducing CO2 emissions and improving air quality in urban areas are shared challenges,” says Wolters. “As a truck manufacturer, we certainly have a part to play. Let’s not forget, either, that the European Commission has tasked the truck industry with achieving a 15-percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 and a reduction of some 30 percent by 2030. When you factor in this sort of requirement, it’s clear that we will definitely need to make use of all of the available technologies.”

Even greater proximity to the customer

Considerable time and resources are being invested at Eindhoven to ensure that DAF is ready to respond when the market shifts towards alternative drive lines. The company is also continuing its usual investments in the traditional diesel engine, as the advent of new fuels – such as HVO and power-to-liquid e-fuels – heralds a bright future for oil burners.

“We must also remember to factor in the importance of developments in digitalisation and what we call servitisation,” stresses Wolters. “Big data will bring us ever closer to our customers, allowing us to improve our service offering. Providing an online fleet management system in the form of DAF Connect is just one example.

“Using the data generated by this system, we can proactively plan maintenance and ensure that parts are available at the dealership when needed. We can also provide even better advice in relation to future vehicle specifications and customise training for drivers, who could be operating their trucks even more efficiently. The possibilities and opportunities are endless.”

Proud to be part of Paccar

The real question is whether or not DAF has the scale – whether or not it is big enough – to tackle the multitude of challenges facing the truck industry.

“Why wouldn’t we?” says Wolters. “We are proud to be part of Paccar, which is the eighth-largest truck manufacturer in the world in terms of its production figures. If you look at how condensed the figures are between the fifth-placed and eighth-placed manufacturers, you could almost consider that we are the fifth-largest. The Paccar Group has turned a profit 80 years in a row, which is a unique achievement within the industry,” he notes.

The company also continues to invest in all aspects of its operations, regardless of whether the economy is booming or experiencing a downturn. “The synergy between the Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF brands is a particularly important element of Paccar’s success. The brands collaborate on the development of state-of-the-art technologies such as autonomous driving.

“While you are unlikely to find Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks on European roads, or DAF trucks being used in North America, you can be certain that the same technology is there beneath the skin. Half of all Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks use a power source developed in Eindhoven, and, of course, DAF is looking on with interest as Kenworth takes important steps forward in relation to hydrogen drives,” says Wolters.

DAF is among the most successful truck manufacturers in Europe and also has global ambitions, for instance in South America and South-East Asia. The Eindhoven-based truck manufacturer does not currently have China or India in its sights, although Wolters explains that “we are certainly represented as part of the Paccar Group”.

“We do business with a host of suppliers in both of these countries via offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Pune, where we also have technology centres. We sell a lot of engines to manufacturers of buses and coaches in China. As things stand, however, we do not think that now is the time to move into the truck segment.

“We have to be honest with ourselves – there is a very, very limited market for European trucks, not least for pricing reasons. We are keeping a very close eye on developments. As you can see, we are pragmatic in this respect as well,” he concludes.

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