There has been a relative flurry of activity from Western Star this past year. It's not your imagination and it's not a coincidence. Daimler Trucks North America is pushing hard to revitalize Western Star's stagnant market position, and the numbers show the efforts are paying off. Sales increased 45% between 2009 and 2010, going from 1,616 units sold in the U.S. and Canada to 2,345.
Western Star's new 4900FE (fuel efficiency) package combines fuel efficient components and packaging with the traditional look and feel of a Western Star truck.
As of July 2011, 1,885 units have rolled off the company's Portland, Ore. production line.
That may seem like small potatoes compared to Freightliner's sales, but DTNA is not interested in comparisons. General Manager of Western Star Truck Sales Michael Jackson says the company sees Western Star as a brand with a great deal of potential -- not just in the U.S. and Canada, but in many countries around the world.
"It was clear that with some increased investment, specifically in new products, in dealer tools and training and in communication, that the brand could grow," Jackson says. "Our vision is not to ever be what I would call a mainstream player, and we will never see significant market share in the overall market. Instead, we will continue to focus on building the highest quality trucks in North America, with the highest level of craftsmanship and customization and subsequently increase share in those segments where we focus."
Western Star unveiled its new 4700 model in February at NTEA in Indianapolis. It's specifically targeted to dump, mixer, crane, vacuum, snowplow and roll-off customers. It also launched a significantly improved new interior with new colors, cabinetry, technology and quality at the Mid-America Trucking Show in March.
Jackson says he'd like to see Western Star's market share for Canada and the U.S. hit between 4% and 5% next year, and Australian market share to top 15%. Currently, Australia is at 11%.
"With projected sales of the 4700 model next year, we're confident that we'll make our targets," says Jackson.
Both of these product line additions are in preliminary production phases now, and there's more to come, Western Star says.
Western Star has always been strong in specialty sectors such as mining, petroleum, forestry, and specialty/heavy haul. The vehicle transporter market has been a good fit for the LowMax model, with its low roof height. Earlier this month, the company introduced a new auto hauler package featuring a specialized front and rear suspension combined with a lower cab mounting system. Combined, those features provide 101.4-inch cab-to-ground height without third-party modifications to the cab roof.
There has been very strong demand in the oil field segments in recent years, Jackson says. That demand, along with new product and legacy market sales, have already sold out production until February 2012.
"Those are all segments where Western Star wants to be number one and two within the markets in their respective countries," Jackson says.
Looking at the Daimler Trucks presence in North America, it's hard to ignore Freightliner, the proverbial elephant in the room. Its market share dwarfs Western Star, but Jackson maintains the Freightliner and Western Star brands cross in very few places.
"We're not competing for the same customers excepts in very small ways, he says. "There are some key differences. First, a Western Star customer tends to be a much smaller operator -- the vast majority purchase one to three trucks a year, with many of those only operating one or just a few vehicles. The typical Freightliner customer tends to purchase many more vehicles, even up into the hundreds of vehicles, year over year. So, size of the customers operation is one key difference."
Another difference is what motivates the customers to select one of the brands over the other.
"Western Star customers tend to make their decision based on the reputation and heritage of the brand, resale value and their desire to purchase a high end truck. They want to be recognized as being unique and don't want to own a truck that everyone else is driving," notes Jackson. "Freightliner customers tend to look for a high level of parts availability, fuel efficiency, overall dealer support and their initial purchase price is important."
The Western Star brand has survived more than 40 years under several corporate banners, and it looks like DTNA is now giving the name the recognition it needs to flourish. The Portland assembly plant now produces 100% Western Star product for domestic and export markets. These are tough times for truck makers, so DTNA's decision to maintain and grow the brand can only be seen as good news for fans of the last truly custom-made trucks in North America.