Benz good truck charm

Ken Matthews sees good times ahead for the in­dus­try, writesGRAHAMSMITH

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Big Wheels -

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

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