Western Star works its niche

At a Western Star Trucks ride-and-drive event for the media held outside Calgary, Alberta, this month company executives detailed how the OEM is pursuing its niche as the supplier of premium Class 8 trucks for on-highway owner-operators and specialized vocational users.

"Four years after Freightliner purchased Western Star, we are in the midst of a significant product offensive," said product marketing manager Jim Crowcroft. He noted the OEM's big news earlier this year included rolling out a 123-in. BBC version of its 4900 FA LowMax model; introducing a "weight-optimized" 4900 SA tractor; and adding a shorter 68-in. Stratosphere Star Light sleeper for all 4900 models.

Crowcroft pointed out that Western Star's LowMax line is proving very popular with owner-operators. The option package for 4900 tractors boasts a cab height almost a foot lower than standard as part of its low-profile "road hugging" design aimed at boosting handling and stability while still allowing spec'ing of some of the industry's most powerful engines from Mercedes-Benz, Detroit Diesel and Caterpillar.

According to John Merrifield, senior vice president of sales & marketing, Western Star is thrilled to have secured a labor agreement earlier this month that covers 1100 workers in four plants, giving the OEM the wherewithal to focus on "continuing to build the brand."

Merrifield said the two key customer groups for Western Star remain "the driver looking for a premium truck that is tough, dependable and comes with all the amenities" either for on-highway trucking or in such vocational applications as construction, logging and oil field work.

To help support the brand, Merrifield said Western Star has expanded its U.S. and Canadian dealer network from 130 in 2000 to 320 dealers today. "We did not have good representation in many key markets," he explained, "and have added dealers to spread our coverage out evenly."

While reporting that the OEM's U.S./Canada market share is up 68% year to date, Merrifield admitted that Western Star "will never be a 10% share player." Rather, "year in and year out, our vision is to average about 7500 units" in new annual sales compared to the current volume of 5,000 to 6,000 per year.

Back in 1999, Merrifield related, Western Star was selling about 2/3rds of its trucks to vocational buyers and 1/3rd to highway operators. Today, he said that mix is 60/40 and would like to see it reach 50/50.

As for who is purchasing the trucks, Merrifield said most first-time Western Star buyers are owner-operators "moving up" from other makes. He noted the OEM makes a conscious effort to direct its marketing efforts at the single vehicle owner or very small fleet operator to help protect and benefit from its image as a premium niche player.

"We are providing a niche product," Merrifield said, "and one that fits well within the Freightliner organization and within the industry. We won't be the volume leader," he added, "but we will continue to be the quality leader" in Class 8.

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