Benz good truck charm
Ken Matthews sees good times ahead for the industry, writesGRAHAMSMITH
THE road freight industry, while facing challenges, has a bright future according to the head of Mercedes-Benz Australia’s truck operation Ken Matthews. The Mercedes-Benz veteran was speaking on the eve of the company’s recent celebrations marking 50 years in Australia.
Matthews has been with MercedesBenz for most of that time and witnessed the huge changes that have taken place within the company and in particular the road transport industry.
Matthews started as a sales cadet in 1965 aged 18, ran a Benz dealership in Albury for a number of years, was later part-owner of another dealership, and joined head office when the car and truck operations were still run jointly under the one management.
Choosing a future in trucks was an easy one for Matthews as they have always held a fascination for him. As a youngster he helped out on his uncle’s farm and developed an affinity for them from an early age.
‘‘I grew up on a farm and my love has always been commercial vehicles. When the decision was made in the early ’90s to separate the commercial vehicle business from the car business I volunteered before anyone else could do anything to take the commercial vehicle business,’’ he says.
In those days the company was assembling Mercedes-Benz trucks such as the SK series, and buses for the Australian market as well as all-terrain Unimogs for the Australian Army.
In the mid-1980s the company added the US Freightliner brand to its range in what was to be a pointer to the future and began assembling the FLC alongside the Mercedes-Benz trucks.
The market was much smaller then, Matthews recalls. A good year was one in which 3000 or so heavy trucks would be sold, a far cry from today when heavy truck sales number as much as four times that many or more.
Sterling was added to the portfolio of brands under Matthews’ control after Mercedes-Benz acquired the Ford Louisville truck operation in 1998 and rebadged them.
The same year Matthews introduced Mercedes-Benz vans to the local market to expand the company’s coverage to light commercials.
Today the Benz truck operation is a multi-branded one comprising European Mercedes-Benz trucks, North American Freightliner and Sterling trucks, and Japanese Fuso trucks.
Through the years Matthews has seen some major changes to the industry. When he was a young gun cutting his teeth in the business it was much more personal than it is today with deals being done directly with the owner of the road transport companies themselves.
The trucks have also undergone major changes, Matthews says. They’re now much safer with a vast array of safety systems lifted from the car side of the industry, and they’re much more comfortable and user-friendly for the driver. But for Matthews the most spectacular change has been to the engines.
‘‘Twenty years ago a big engine was one with 185kW and it was struggling to get 1.5km to the litre pulling a single trailer and 38 tonnes,’’ he says.
‘‘Now we have engines producing 445kW and getting better economy hauling two trailers.’’
‘‘We have seen enormous changes in efficiencies driven partly by the fleets and partly by the truckmakers.’’
He says B-triple trucks will provide some improvement in efficiency in the short term, while alternative fuels and drive systems will deliver further efficiencies in the medium term.
Trucks a fortune: Mercedes-Benz truck operation chief Ken Matthews