It’s been six months since Laurence Drake moved from UK Sales Director into his role as DAF Trucks Managing Director. It’s been an unusually demanding period, not least with all the political upheaval and the ongoing challenges surrounding Brexit, so has it had any detrimental impact on the business? Export & Freight has been finding out in an exclusive interview with the man now responsible for driving DAF Trucks forward into the future.
He tells us that while in his role as UK Sales Director, the Brexit upheaval last year created a continuous challenge as it meant uncertainty for customers, and some pessimistic views on the economic outlook and future trading. Capital expenditure on trucks is always a serious business consideration, he says, and when you added the possibility, at the time, of tariffs and what they could mean, it was definitely challenging.
“Of course, the saving grace from DAF’s perspective, is we build trucks in Leyland and so the one positive we could take was that whatever was to happen with tariffs, the effect on DAF customers would be less than for others. Hardly a usual sell that our bad is better than everyone else’s bad, but at least it gave some reassurance!”
So, how was that situation ultimately managed?
I think the situation was managed well, despite the uncertainty; key to this was continually communicating with our dealers and our customers to manage every situation and be as flexible as best we could.
I believe this gave customers the confidence that we would be able to manage the situation better than most, and that is reflected by their continual support for DAF in achieving our highest ever market share over 6t in 2019, so all I can do is thank our employees at DAF, the best dealer network and obviously our customers who are the reason we do what we do.
Although Brexit gave us uncertainty that could have been detrimental to the business, overall we have come out stronger and see even more opportunities moving forward.
Has your long service with DAF made life any easier at the top?
Clearly, being in DAF for nearly 20 years and being around the business means I have a good understanding of what makes the business tick. This is an advantage in many ways, as I know all the people, know all the dealers and know many customers; and these relationships are key to success as in uncertain times having people who are reliable and trustworthy is important.
Long before my time, there has always been a phrase that shows us as a collective – the DAF Family. As you know, our dealers are all independent businesses and yet DAF and the Dealers work together to provide great products and services to our customers. I think being in DAF for so long means this culture and outlook is just inherent in the things I do, meaning the alignment between DAF and dealers is exceptional. This is clearly key to providing great customer focus and service. Also, I should say that knowing the customers equally helps in the role as they will call me with what is going well and what isn’t, and that type of honesty is key to ensuring we continually strive to be better – everyone in DAF at every level is accessible to all customers and I think that is important.
To what do you contribute DAF’s continuing successes? The dealer network, perhaps? Are you happy with how our local dealer here TBF Thompson DAF has been performing?
DAF does have a great product but undoubtedly the excellent dealer network has enabled the success. In fact, it is probably something we don’t promote enough. Our dealers can provide an all-around amazing back-up for every DAF. Not only do we have the most locations, so we are literally closer to our customers, we also have the best parts availability, the most accredited dealer technicians, the best roadside assistance in DAFaid, the best MOT pass rate and I could go on…Everything we do here is to maximise uptime and efficiencies for our customers so they can maximise their income.
As for TBF they are a super dealer and represent the DAF brand exactly how we like it to be with a focus on customer service, they have an excellent MOT pass rate of 98.5% for 2019 and, of course, a personal touch in terms of great customer relationships based on great staff retention enabling a constantly high customer experience. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this summer TBF Thompson will mark 25 years as a DAF dealer, as we mark the same period as UK market leader.
There’s been a recent change in your UK senior management structure, with Nigel Hunt retiring, and other figures being promoted, so can we expect to see any major changes in the direction of the business?
There have been a number of changes but, just like myself, most of the people taking on new roles have been at DAF for a number of years. I don’t believe there is a need for any major change in business direction, although there will perhaps be a greater focus on our service capabilities and moving these to even higher levels.
With the complexity of vehicles and their ever growing connectivity, I do think we need to continually review customer expectations in terms not only of the truck and services, but also around their expectations on information and how it can be used to maximise uptime and compliance.
Turning to your product portfolio – electrification seems to be the way forward; you have introduced the CF Electric – how has that been performing on trials with some of your customers?
After the initial field trial phase of the CF Electric, we are now moving into limited production. The first vehicles were CF 4×2 tractors and we now have a CF 3 axle 6×2 rear steer rigid variant. The first vehicles to enter into operation with customers have now clocked up over 150,000 km and I understand they have been as reliable as their diesel equivalents. To ensure we can fully support these new vehicles the CF Electric is currently available for operation in the Netherlands, northern Germany and Belgium.
The LF series was recently voted Truck of the Year at the annual Commercial Fleet awards; you must be pleased with that?
Yes. We are extremely pleased as the LF is a great truck for DAF and our customers and it’s always nice to receive recognition. In fact, 2019 was the fifth year in succession that the LF won its category at the annual Commercial Fleet awards. The versatility and reliability of the LF make it a great light and medium weight truck and a flexible platform for a diverse range of applications – from road sweepers to concrete mixers and from boxvans to refuse collection vehicles.
There have been other landmarks for DAF over the past year, not least focused on the CF and XF range, with some production milestones being reached. Tell us about those.
The latest range, which we introduced in 2017 at the CV Show in Birmingham is proving to be a real hit with operators and drivers here in the UK and across Europe. Great fuel economy and performance, great looks and comfort. This meant we hit the production milestone of 100,000 new CF’s & XF’s in August last year. We are now introducing these models in other parts of the world and I expect operators in those countries will be just as keen to get their hands on them.
The DAF UK Driver Challenge is currently underway – how important do you feel this now annual event is, perhaps against a background of driver shortages?
It almost goes without saying that drivers play a crucial role in our industry, and that is an industry we all depend on. I’ve the utmost respect for the drivers and in everything we do at DAF we ensure the view of the driver is taken into account, whether that be in getting their input on truck design, to providing information on how to get the best out of their truck.
The Driver Challenge is a way to celebrate the best in the business and showcase the wide variety of skills and knowledge that a driver needs. This is our third UK event, which goes from strength to strength and this year’s winner will go forward to the DAF International Driver Challenge in 2021. Events like the DAF Driver Challenge help to raise the profile of drivers and can reach an audience outside the industry, and that can only be good as the sector struggles to attract and retain drivers.
Finally, what can we expect from DAF in the year ahead?
More of the same in reality as there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Clearly, with changing legislation and focus on the environment it is important for us to share what DAF and PACCAR are doing in terms of alternative technologies. Building on the electric truck vehicles sold in the Netherlands, I would expect electric vehicles to come to the UK and for the right types of operation the opportunity for operators to buy them. But clearly this depends on return on investment for that customer. PACCAR will always ensure the right solution is brought to market at the right time. Our facility in Silicon Valley ensures that future technologies are continually being assessed and reviewed. So, I’m confident we have what is needed for the future but for 2020 we clearly need to sell the great product and services we already deliver.