In March 2014, Daimler Truck & Bus Australia/ Pacific caused a stir in the trucking community when local Australian Daniel Whitehead, ex-Executive Vice President of Aftersales China, was appointed as new Managing Director of the prestigious organisation.
The decision to go with locally bred talent was widely welcomed in the industry, and Daniel has since continued to restructure the business from within in order to set it up for a successful future. Prime Mover met the internationally versed executive to find out just how well the change process has worked out and learn more about Daniel himself, a man seemingly born to work in the heavy equipment industry.
Daniel grew up in the west of Victoria near Warrnambool, where his family still farm cattle. Like most country kids, Daniel was driving trucks at an early age and has fond memories of steering a pug-nosed Bedford picking up hay. “I had to drive because I was too small to help on the back,” he recalls – emphasising that a career in farming was his first priority at the time.
His father, however, insisted that he could only make that decision after gaining a university degree. “In my own mind, I genuinely wanted to be a farmer like my dad, so I went and did an accounting and finance degree part time at Deakin University while still working on the farm,” Daniel explains.
The time at Deakin must have changed Daniel’s future plans somewhat: Upon finishing his degree, he forsook a full time career on the family farm and successfully applied for a position in the annual intake for what was then called the ‘Junior Executive Trainee’ program at Kenworth.
“[Looking back,] I think there are some parallels between agriculture and transportation in terms of the type of people that are working within these industries. Without being rude to anybody, I think they attract more down-to-earth and less pretentious people,” Daniel explains the move.
Unsurprisingly, he didn’t struggle to fit in the trucking community. “I loved it,” he says. “I arrived at work on the first day and they gave me a pair of overalls and said ‘we’ll see you in three months’. So I was out in the factory learning how a truck was built. When I later moved into the sales department to deal directly with customers, I could actually explain the build process, from welding the chassis rails through to cab riveting.”
Daniel subsequently spent four years at Kenworth, including a year and a half in the parts division, before he made the next step in his career. “When my boss left and moved to Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner, he gave me a call a couple of weeks later and asked me if I wanted to come join him. The rest is history, as they say.”
Daniel has been with Daimler ever since that phone call, spending seven years in Australia and then a decade in Asia, working across parts, service and sales in the passenger car division. But he says that his current involvement with trucks is his preference: “I like the customers more, to be honest. Nobody needs a car, but buying a truck is a commercial decision that makes sense, so it’s a real business case. I’m much more comfortable if there’s a logic to it and if you can argue your case as to why you have the best product from a commercial perspective – and not just because it has a different status or symbolic value.”
In his new role, Daniel is now reporting to Portland-based organisation Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) instead of Daimler HQ in Germany. But as he puts it, there is no “sinister” meaning behind the change of direction. “It’s a question of customer dedication for us,” he explains. “Instead of having a system where all business units – trucks, cars, vans and military – report to one CEO, we now have them report directly to a dedicated management unit.
“In most European countries, that means the truck divisions report directly to Mercedes-Benz Trucks in Germany, just because they only represent the one brand. But in regions like Australia or South Africa, where we represent more than one brand [Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner and Fuso, ed.], we make the decision based on the brand with the highest sales volume.
“In our case, our volume heavy-duty model is an American truck, so we report to the US. In South Africa, where the volume model is European – they sell 4,000 Mercedes-Benz trucks and 1,400 Freightliners annually – they report to Germany.”
Technically, Fuso is the company’s biggest brand in Australia, says Daniel, but the decision to report to North America was made to “balance out some of the numbers” internally. “Effectively, my boss in America is Richard Howard, who is the Head of Sales and Marketing for DTNA; but I spend just as much time talking with Tokyo as I do with Portland or Stuttgart. On an everyday basis, Justin Whitford, our local General Manager for Mercedes-Benz, deals with Germany, and Richard Eyre, our local head of Fuso, deals with Japan.”
The most recent personnel change within the Daimler organisation has been the appointment of Stephen Downes as General Manager of Freightliner in Australia and New Zealand, who now deals with North America under the new management scheme.
According to Daniel, Stephen’s employment is the final piece to the organisational puzzle that is the new and improved Daimler Truck & Bus organisation. In contrast to Mercedes-Benz, which saw a 42.9 per cent increase in sales over 2014, Freightliner suffered a 21.3 per cent drop last year, so Stephen has a challenging 2015 ahead of him. But at only 33 years of age, he certainly has the confidence of his new boss.
“Stephen impressed the hell out of me and I am glad that he accepted our offer. Everyone knows how long it took us to find the right person, and thankfully the right person said ‘yes’ at the end,” Daniel says – adding that Freightliner still has all the potential to live up to earlier successes in the Australian market.
“The numbers should and could be much better. After all, Freightliner has a market share of 38 per cent in North America. A while ago they sold 32,000 trucks in one month, which is unbelievable. So, there is certainly enough potential.”
But, Daniel also says that it’s not the best time for a right-hand drive country to ask for more product when production in the left-hand drive home market is running at 110 per cent. “That’s just a consequence of doing good business in the US. We had some trouble getting enough trucks in the past, but the boats are now underway and we have a really good order bank,” he says.
“Getting Stephen on board and some other changes we’ve made behind the scenes will make the company much better than it was. We haven’t seen that reflected in the sales figures yet, but the fruits of that will come in the future under Stephen’s leadership. I’m very, very confident of this – we’ve already seen it happen on the Mercedes-Benz side, which is probably a year ahead in its development.”
With the Freightliner Cascadia enjoying a massive slice of North American market share, a right-hand drive version of this volume model could be a promising option for the brand, says Daniel. “Most nights when I fall asleep I have visions of a right-hand drive version. Clearly, we want the Cascadia in Australia. In fact, it takes up most of my discussion time with Freightliner.
According to Daniel, it’s a good time to be having those discussions and asking DTNA to spend R&D money on Australia. “With North America selling 30,000-plus units a month, it’s the best time to have this conversation, but the decision hasn’t been made yet, and I can understand that. It’s a multi-million dollar commitment.”
One model that has already been confirmed for the Australian market is the all-new Mercedes-Benz Actros, which is said to be due in Australia before the end of the FInancial Year. Daniel says it is a key element of Daimler’s Strategic Future Truck Program (SFTP) and will be powered by a Euro VI-compliant six-cylinder engine rather than a V8. “I expect the new Actros to make a real impact here, especially because the current model is still performing so well. Normally when you get to the end of a product cycle every 15 years or so, you’re struggling. But the current Actros is still competing at eye level with the upgraded Scanias and Volvos, so we can expect a lot from the improved version.”
The most pressing question, according to Daniel, is how to position the new Actros within the local Daimler portfolio. While he says the Australian market is well aware of the key characteristics that set the Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz brands apart, there is still room for improvement in the sales process.
“We’re in the unique situation of being able to offer pretty much everything here in Australia – Japanese, European and American technology – and we have to strike a balance of how we manage that. My view – and not just because I worked in a communist country for the past eight years – is that healthy internal competition is the best way for us to sell more trucks,” he says. “We should give our clientele a range of options, explain the technologies behind them, and enable them to make an informed decision based on their actual needs. There’s no point in making a decision for them.”
He adds, “I think most people don’t want a sole supplier anymore. But if we can become their preferred supplier, providing access to wide variety of products and services, we can genuinely make their lives easier. We have one finance company working with all three brands, as well as the same maintenance and repair contracts for all of them, so we can really help simplify all the backroom stuff without having to compromise on a single brand.”
According to Daniel, Fuso will play a key role in that equation. “Fuso is by far our biggest brand in terms of volume. It’s a very mature organisation with a great sales organisation, a really great product and an incredibly loyal customer base.
“[But] we still think we have got a lot of growth potential and we can get ahead with a few product tweaks and some additional product innovation. It’s not just four models – you need 80. It’s a customer’s world and if the customer wants it, the customer gets it,” he says.
“Fuso’s doing a lot to meet customer expectations and I think Richard Eyre is the best truck salesman in Australia. He’s got a good team and the network is strong. What’s more we’re getting a lot of support out of Tokyo and the future products are looking good, so Fuso is certainly a key element of our strategic plan.”
But even with this in mind, a critical Daniel Whitehead acknowledges that there is more work to be done to support the dealer network. “I think we’ve been a little remiss in the past by not providing enough training with retail, not engaging with them enough. But there is a lot more dealer involvement now, and it only makes sense. At the end of the day, it’s the dealers who deal with the client. They are the ones who get yelled at by customers or patted on the back.”
Overall, though, Daniel is satisfied with what he has achieved during his first year at the helm of the prestigious Daimler organisation in Australia and New Zealand.
“2014 was a year of getting our house in order. I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody, but we’ve brought in some really good quality people, pushed up some really clever ‘kids’ and created some pathways for them to grow.
“We’re all here for the long term so we can’t take short-term decisions, and that’s exactly how I want to work. It’s a much healthier and robust organisation now and ready to take on the world. In that sense, I reckon I’ve got the best job in the world – even I can’t bugger this up.”