For Sommer, the future is in the East

MOST of the large trailer manufacturers headquartered in Germany have multiple plants and operations in other countries. There are many logistical and political reasons for this dispersement into export markets. Two principal reasons are the high labor costs in Germany and the high skill level — the need to bring the expertise of the West to the abundant labor markets of the East.

The fourth-largest trailer manufacturer in Germany, Sommer Fahrzeugbau, has four plants in Germany and three in other countries: France, Poland, and Russia. Of its 1,100 employees, 60% are in Germany and 40% in other European countries. It manufactures a variety of Europe's most popular types of trailers, including: curtainsiders and tarp-sided trailers, furniture and textile transports, refrigerated trailers, tank trailers, swap bodies, container chassis — and now package delivery truck bodies.

Brothers president

Compared with some European truck body and trailer manufacturers, the 68-year-old Sommer Fahrzeugbau is a relatively new company. It was in 1935 that Otto Sommer started a bodybuilding shop in Bielefeld. In 1968 sons Herbert and Gerhard bought the business from their father and began sharing the office of president.

Sommer's roots now go back more than 100 years with the acquisition of C H Bunge KG Nutzfahrzeuge, a truck body and trailer manufacturer of Bremen that had been founded in 1896. Bunge has specialized in tank trucks and tank trailers for the past 40 years.

The modern Bunge plant in Bremen and the Sommer headquarters plant in Bielefeld are only 100 miles apart. Together these two operations account for more than half the volume and almost half of the employees in the Sommer group.

Looking east

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German unification 11 years ago, manufacturers in western Germany have been under pressure to help increase employment, job opportunities, and worker productivity in the East. Sommer was among the first to open a sister company in eastern Germany, investing 6 million DM ($3 million) in a plant in Potsdam, near Berlin, in 1990. It followed this in 1998 with another plant in Laucha, near Leipzig.

Sommer has been involved in export sales outside Germany since the 1970s. The company now sends its transport equipment to some 30 nations.

The first manufacturing venture outside the German border was in 1992, when Sommer set up a new plant in Zapole, Poland. There the 140 workers help supply Poland with standard truck bodies, trailers, and truck equipment as used in western Germany. It also manufactures components for completion in Sommer plants in that region.

In 1993, Sommer opened another plant in Marmoutier, France. Here 100 workers complete van bodies and tarped truck bodies, as well as swap body systems and refrigerated vehicles.

The biggest operation outside German borders is the Sommer plant in Novgorod, Russia, also set up in 1993. There some 210 workers build a full line of truck trailers including the typical fitted tarp trailers, swap body systems, container chassis, central axle trailers, steel van bodies, insulated van trailers with floor heating for beverage transport, and insulated and refrigerated vans for food distribution.

Sommer was a pioneer in western investment in Russia 10 years ago, which puts it in a leading position today. “We're number one in Russia and in Poland,” says Herbert Sommer. “The future is great for transport equipment in Russia, a land of 200 million people spread out over 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from east to west.”

Gerhard Sommer, whose responsibility as co-president is more on the technical side, says the success of the Novtruck plant is based on German engineering and Russian accuracy to details. The 200 employees have been trained to maintain Sommer's quality standards. They have been trained especially to listen to the customer.

More than 65 percent of Sommer's production throughout its seven plants goes to small, individual transport companies. To satisfy these small buyers means the company has to listen to their customers' wishes and build to their needs. Customization is important.

At the same time, the Sommer Group counts among its customer base some of the world's largest transport companies. One well-known example is United Parcel Service. Sommer has built swap bodies and trailers for UPS through the years. Now they are completing an order for 400 package delivery bodies built on the Mercedes-Benz Vario chassis and Iveco chassis. This order also requires considerable customization. The Sommer aluminum body has a fiberglass-reinforced plastic cab section using an Iveco windshield.

The Sommer philosophy of listening to the customer has resulted in many innovations through the years. For example, the company designed a special curtainside trailer to haul heavy paper rolls in 1996. The design for the securing system evolved into Sommer's present Sommer outer-rail load securement system (SALS) for tying down loads throughout the trailer (see photo). The aluminum side rail has a slot that allows the side curtain stiffeners to slide the length of the body so no straps and buckles are necessary to secure the curtain. The same side rail extrusion also has holes and slots for the load securing system. The side rail is raised above floor level so it provides a pallet stop.

In order to maintain the life of the vehicle, Sommer believes strongly in hot-dip galvanizing of the entire vehicle frame and underfloor structure. Immersion in melted zinc at 550° C (1,022° F) not only provides better coverage in hidden pockets, but it also results in a thicker coating that is self-healing and more resistant to stone chipping. Sommer provides a 10-year warranty against rusting-through of its hot-dip galvanized frames.

Designing transport equipment for operation in Russia requires special attention to both the strength needed to withstand poor road conditions and the subzero temperatures. The Sommer Novtruck plant in Novgorod specifies Arctic steels that remain elastic down to -70° C (-94° F) in critical areas and the framing.

Extending beyond Europe

Attention to detail and the needs and wishes of the customer have helped the Sommer Group extend its sales territory throughout most of Europe. But its geographic expansion is not over. The latest corporate move is to another rapidly growing economy in the East.

In September 2002, Sommer signed a joint venture agreement with the vehicle-building branch of China Aerospace. The China Aerospace Brilliance Automotive Co Ltd and the Sommer Group are setting up a new venture, China Aerospace Brilliance SOMMER Vehicle Technology Corp Ltd.

The goal is to build semitrailers and specialized vehicles in China. The first prototypes are now being designed and built in Bielefeld and Bremen by Chinese and Sommer personnel.

For Sommer, the future is the East — and the Orient.

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