David Carson took over as president of Western Star Trucks at the beginning of the year. We sat down with him during a press event in Yountville, California, to talk about his first six-plus months on the job and the vocational truck market. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HDT: You’ve been with Daimler for quite a while, with your most recent position heading up Freightliner Custom Chassis. What was something that surprised you about Western Star?
Carson: I’ve known in my 18 years in Daimler the unique nature and history and heritage of Western Star. What was a new experience was to see how our Western Star dealers, how connected and integrated they are with our customers. They know our customers extremely well. They’re very, very close to them. Sometimes there are multi-generational relationships on both the dealer and the customer side, and a really impressive connection between our dealers and the customer.
HDT: Can you give an example?
Carson: If you think about western Canada especially, the birthplace of Western Star, our dealers have such unique vocational applications they’re engaged with. They are known as the place to go for a specific solution for a vocational truck, and they really are product experts. And I’d say application experts. In western Canada, the knowledge that exists there is amazing. That’s not exclusive to western Canada, of course, but there’s a passion there given the brand started in Kelowna, British Columbia.
HDT: You have an unusual career path for someone heading up a truck maker. What does having a background in human resources bring to your current position?
Carson: I think one of the greatest assets of that background or career path is that I’ve worked with every single leader in the company at one time or another, so I have a very strong network and a very good relationship with that executive leadership team, and it puts me in a great position to be able to make calls that relate to the business and get information and feedback and assistance on different types of issues and challenges.
HDT: Both Western Star and Freightliner play in both the vocational and on-highway markets. What are the key differentiators between the two companies' offerings and customers?
Carson: There are similarities and differences. We have some crossover between our products. I think what’s important is we’re extremely committed to the vocational marketplace using both Freightliner and Western Star products. There are certain regions or relationships with dealers that might lead a customer to one or the other brand, but we want to position all our products in our portfolio as an opportunity for customers to buy whatever their need is. We believe that we have every single part of that marketplace covered between Freightliner and Western Star. On the Western Star product with legacy type of design, we have maybe less technology in the product, while you might see more on the Freightliner side. But we know safety technology in trucks, which normally wasn’t demanded by vocational customers, is increasing. There is an increasing demand for technology like collision avoidance, collision mitigation, lane departure, and we’ll be working on that in the future.
HDT: Vocational is one of those terms where there doesn’t seem to be a really industry standard definition. How does Western Star define vocational?
Carson: I would say Western Star’s focus in the vocational marketplace is oriented toward, it’s not a real term in the industry, but what we call heavy-duty vocational applications. Our biggest opportunity is competing against our competitors in that construction segment, with dump trucks and mixers; in heavy haul, vac trucks, crane trucks. That’s our primary focus. We do that with power ranging from 13 liter with the DD13 up to 16 liter with the DD16. So 13, 15, and 16 liters, we position our products to be able to operate a number of different powertrain displacements, but in those heavy-duty vocational applications. We wouldn’t step away from any opportunity to sell a business a truck, but we are more focused on logging, construction, etc.
HDT: What about the on-highway business?
Carson: That may be say 20% of our total business, but the customers are very specific customers for that 5700 product. They’re looking for a very differentiating look in their vehicle, and they are willing to pay for chrome, a little more bling on the truck. In many cases they’re making more of a consumer decision – yes, it’s for work purposes, but they’re more oriented to the emotional connection to it. Our customers are extremely emotionally connected to our product, which I think is a great part of our business. They love the look, they love the durability.
HDT: In your formal remarks at this event, you talked about how serving the vocational market takes a different approach, and that Western Star is doing things to better orient itself to that. Can you talk about those?
Carson: I won’t go into a lot of detail because we’ve got a number of different things we’re working on, but we are focused on the processes and how we’re structured to be able to design and spec vocational products. Because it’s a smaller volume and a very high degree of customization, we can't just take our on-highway processes and say that’ll work fine for the vocational market. We’re really looking at all our business processes, some of our organizational structure, to better position ourselves to support and respond to the vocational customers.
HDT: Some people wonder whether Western Star will eventually be displaced by the much larger Freightliner brand, as Sterling was. What would you say to them?
Carson: It’s absolutely going to be around, and it has a bright future. Daimler’s very committed to Western Star, to our dealer body and our customers, and we’re excited about bringing new customers to the brand. We’re excited about continuing to expand the brand to customers that have not previously owned it and introduce them to Western Star and what it can do for their businesses.
HDT: What’s hot in the vocational market right now?
Carson: Spending in construction, both residential and non-residential. The rates are quite high; the dollars being invested are quite significant. So that is driving the business very well. And I think we are seeing a lot of replacement activity happening with vocational vehicles. There were deferred purchases over economic cycles, people were holding trucks longer – there are some vocational trucks built 30 plus years ago still being used, so replacement cycles are a little bit different [than for on-highway], but they are worked hard, so there are points where those investments are important for companies that are growing or working to grow.
HDT: What are some benefits of newer models that might lead companies to want to think about replacing older vocational trucks?
Carson: Traditionally, there isn’t a lot of attention paid to fuel economy [in vocational trucks], but it is still a significant expense, so fuel economy on current powertrains can have some advantages. New models are significantly more clean-running in comparison to older trucks. Managing the driver shortage and driver retention, you’d want to look at the difference between a 25-year-old truck and a new truck in some of the driver comfort features. Obviously, all of those come down to some kind of economic decision a customer’s going to make, what’s the payback, what’s that value, and we try to work with customers to help them make those decisions.
Carson: We know that there are some vocational situations where an electric truck might be perfect. The current work at the moment is focused on the Freightliner product. So we announced the e-M2 and the e-Cascadia. We’re not working on a specific electric project in Western Star. However, whatever we’re able to learn in our other products, if we can apply those in future situations, we’ll work to do that.
HDT: What would be an example of a vocational truck where electric drive might make sense?
Carson: A truck that isn’t really going that far on the road but is using a PTO [power takeoff] from the engine, like a pump or a crane or something. It’s possible that electric powertrains could be well suited to situations where range is not extremely long but there is a runtime utilizing the powertrain of the vehicle to operate some other piece of machinery. There’s more work to be done in that area to understand how that could be best applied.
HDT: What about automation?
Carson: From a technology perspective, we will stay focused on the opportunity to increase our capabilities in our trucks and utilize Daimler’s technology and systems. There may be a little slower adoption there with our customer base. Loggers traditionally didn’t want to pay for any type of safety technology, but we are seeing customers that are maybe corporate owned saying, ‘We want to manage risk and we want to manage safety,’ and we’ll be looking forward in the future to [advanced] safety technology on these vehicles [often seen as part of the automation process.]
HDT: What are your goals going forward?
Carson: We want to continue to grow the brand. We get referred to in the industry as a niche brand. We don’t really like that label; we see ourselves as much more than a niche. We have a really loyal customer base that we know we can continue to service and introduce the brand to other people. As well as our organization of our business and company toward the vocational products and marketplace, and how we do that better internally and externally is a very clear focus. And making sure anything we can offer in our portfolio is optimized for our customers, so we are not competing against ourselves in the business. That is definitely a goal I have: not just talking about Western Star, but I can represent DTNA. If a customer needs a walk-in van, we should sell that. If it’s a Freightliner, we should sell that. If it’s a Western Star, we should sell that.
HDT: Anything else you’d like to add?
Carson: Look for a Western Star in your neighborhood soon!