In for the long haul

From the January 2018 issue.

Despite rising competition in central Europe, 125-year-old German OEM, Kässbohrer, has no intention of changing course. Strong-minded but smart, the behemoth is turning tradition into a competitive advantage.

Íffet Türken doesn’t hide her reluctance to talk about “the opposition” in the traditional sense of the word. As an Executive Board Member of Kässbohrer, arguably Germany’s most ambitious trailer manufacturing house, she is well aware of the hype engulfing Europe’s commercial vehicle market at the moment. But she has also understood that outside forces and newly emerging sales dynamics will change the rules of the game in the years to come, and with it the very definition of competition.

What was once a neatly organised market with two multi-national entities at the top and two or three runner-ups in ‘friendly competition’ for third place is now a fiercely contested battlefield. Evenly matched and funded contestants from Eastern Europe, the UK and China keep challenging the old establishment, making for a vivacious, at times hostile business environment.

And yet, outside forces don’t seem to faze Kässbohrer’s self-proclaimed Chief Networking Officer much. Not because it’s not important to stay ahead of the game – Türken is known as one of the most well connected people in European trucking – but because her excitement about Kässbohrer’s irresistible rise to fame is occupying all her attention.

“2017 has been a pivotal year for the Kässbohrer organisation,” she says with genuine enthusiasm, brushing aside pressing questions about the struggle for predominance in central Europe and rising competition from the east.

“Coming off the win of the Innovation Award at last year’s IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Hanover, Germany, we have returned to our roots and opened a new manufacturing facility in our historic home town of Ulm on 5 July. That’s a dramatic increase in both manufacturing and design capabilities and should set us up well for future growth. That’s what’s really getting us out of bed every morning.”

Having marketed Kässbohrer as Europe’s “fastest growing trailer brand” for the best part of the decade, Türken adds the company has now also been crowned the “trailer brand with the highest image increase” by a German research institute – meaning it has well and truly arrived in the top echelon of German manufacturing.

To top it off, Kässbohrer parent, Tirsan Solutions, rose from 14th to 12th place in Global Trailer’s 2017 OEM ranking – mostly due to Kässbohrer’s own, strong performance in the year gone. “All that comes on the back of strategic decisions made in 2016 and before, so it would be unfair to link it to the current spike in market activity alone,” she explains. “Yes, there’s a lot going on, but we don’t feel stressed – instead we’re reaping the rewards of our own, hard work.”

Türken adds whatever shape “the competition” will take in the future, Kässbohrer as will be ready. She unapologetically calls the company’s new flagship facility in Ulm “a symbol of Kässbohrer’s unwavering strength” and has little doubt it will help the behemoth cement a top five spot in European trailer making for years to come – and not just because it’s located right where Karl Kässbohrer founded his first Wagenfabrik (German for vehicle plant, ed.) in 1893 (see breakout box).

Strategically located at the intersection between two of Germany’s busiest highways – the east-west spanning A8 and the north-south traveling A7 – the site is meant to act as a gateway to southern Europe, allowing increased access to tailored engineering services for customers from France, Italy and Spain. “With our Goch (northern Germany, ed.) plant serving northern Europe and our main factory in Turkey taking care of Eastern Europe, we are now able to serve all key regions directly,” she explains. “The added firing power will benefit our customers as well as our retailers and service partners, so it’s a crucial milestone for the company.”

Despite boasting what could be the broadest product range in the market – Kässbohrer’s portfolio covers more than 800 different designs and counting – the new site will put even more emphasis on customisation and one-off design work. “Breadth and volume are important to create scale, but we have an incredible depth in the organisation, too, which is something we need to leverage even more,” she says. “We love to get our hands dirty.”

Inspired by the success of a “high security” tanker model Kässbohrer developed in cooperation with Germany’s Hoyer Group in 2016 – the very unit that won it the coveted Innovation Award in Hanover and kicked off the current growth spurt – Türken says the company is “highly motivated” to continue proving its engineering expertise on a micro-level. “The market is changing all the time and standard solutions often don’t suffice anymore. We’re already strong in the tailor-made field, but it’s something we need to enforce and develop.”

The Hoyer project, she says, also brought Karl Kässbohrer’s famous problem-solving ability to the fore again. “Karl Kässbohrer was a pioneer of transport equipment design and we’re continuing that legacy. We know our markets and we make sure we deliver a product to suit each market’s unique needs,” she says.

“The K.STS.F 32 unit just brought it home again. It’s the embodiment of  what we at Kässbohrer call ‘enginuity’, the combination of modern engineering and ingenuity – the spirit to keep innovating together with our customers and take care of their business needs. That’s exactly where we see our future – in becoming part of our customers’ organisations and solving real problems for and with them All this is facilitated by our traditionally strong R&D capability, engineering excellence and close co-operation with customers – turning tradition into a competitive advantage, if you will.”

Türken makes no secret of the fact that she is observing the rest of the market with a healthy degree of determination – some say stubbornness – and Kässbohrer-centricity, saying trailer manufacturing is a ‘strategy game’ that must be played for the long run. “We’re happy the market is healthy enough to warrant strong competition and it’s great to see everyone so buoyant about the future. But if Kässbohrer’s 2017 performance has proven anything, it’s that sticking to our own, long-term game plan was and is the right choice.

“Take our plant in Russia. We were the first European OEM to design and produce equipment locally from scratch back in 2012, and hung on to it throughout the domestic trailer crisis from 2014 to 2016. Now that the market is recovering, business is skyrocketing there – we’re expecting growth beyond the 250 per cent mark in 2017 alone. Without a bit of stubbornness that would have been unthinkable.”

Türken adds that a “deeply determined” approach to business must not be mistaken for sluggishness. “Stubborn but smart,” she calls it, pointing to the inherent complexity of trailer design and the ‘regionality ‘of the industry. “Trailer manufacturing is not easy. As opposed to automotive, the industry is highly fragmented, standardisation is low and the market is exclusively B2B. That’s why you need to demonstrate a high degree of dependability as a company; trust is everything in our line of work.

“I’m under no illusion that change is coming thick and fast – think Artificial Intelligence, electric mobility and autonomous driving – so we’ve built a lot of flexibility into our strategy. Part of that is our approach to hiring – we have a very young, very international team and a lot of females throughout the organisation. They bring a different perspective and a different drive to the business and embrace digitisation as a natural evolution – to them there’s nothing disruptive about it.”

By sticking to a long-term game plan that is flexible enough to accommodate tactical changes, Türken says established names like Kässbohrer have every chance of surviving the current influx of competing brands and the shift to digital technology. “It would be naïve to think trailer building is immune to change. Every single industry has had to evolve in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – why would we be any different? We live in the age of entrepreneurship, venture capitalism and quick money, so naturally the pressure is up a little.

“But, there’s a difference between adaptability and impulsiveness, I believe – it’s in how mindful you are of your own journey and the way you look at the big picture. Think of it as steering a ship. You set course for a destination, but you can’t control the wind – so you have to keep adjusting your sails along the way.”

Fast Fact
Generations of transport companies associate the name Kässbohrer with innovation and game-changing technology. Founded in 1893 by Karl Kässbohrer, the company started out designing and manufacturing motorised vehicles in the southern German city of Ulm, thus playing a crucial role in the rise of commercial road transport as we know it today. In the decades to come, the company continued to diversify into buses, coaches, trailers and specialty equipment like snow grooming vehicles, before selling off a range of core business units in the 1990s. In 2002, Turkish trailer giant, Tirsan Treyler, acquired the company’s trailer brand and moved production to Goch, a small town in the northwest of Germany, which now exports to 21 countries. On 5 July 2017, Kässbohrer opened a second manufacturing and assembly plant in its original home town of Ulm.

About Íffet Türken
As the Executive Board Member responsible for Business Development at Kässbohrer, Íffet Türken is considered one of the most influential personalities in European trailer building and one of the most powerful women in the global transport equipment industry.

The now 45-year-old joined Turkey’s Tirsan Group in 1996 after graduating from Bogaziçi University in Istanbul and has since helped establish the company’s Kässbohrer brand among the top five OEMs in Europe. She also just finished her Executive Masters degree at INSEAD in France.

She is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the German Association of the Automotive Industry’s (VDA) Manufacturer Group II and Vice President of TAID, Turkey’s Heavy Commercial Vehicles Association. She has also become Vice President of the Transport Section of ESTA (European Association of Abnormal Transport and Mobile Cranes) as of 2016 – making her part of a new generation of women that bring positive change upon the male-dominated automotive industry and don’t shy at its somewhat “antiquated” image, as she puts it. Her future oriented stance also helped Kässbohrer’s build a young, highly capable team with a strong female component.

(Image: Íffet Türken at the opening of Kässbohrer's new Ulm plant on 5 July 2017.)

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